Praveen Chakravarty, political economist and head of the Data and Technology cell of the Congress party, says India should evolve a strategy of functioning with the idea of coronavirus around for a long time. Excerpts from an email interview:
It’s certain now that the lockdown would be extended by another two weeks but the Centre may allow some economic activity. Reports suggest that the government may partially open up the least affected areas. How do you see this move?
We have to wait and see what the government is going to do exactly. As of now, there are reports indicating that the current form of extreme lockdown will be extended until April 30 . If the government is also simultaneously thinking about a gradual “unlock” process, it is welcome. As the Chief Scientist of the WHO, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, has said in an interview to The Hindu today, the disease is going to be with us for a long time and we need to start planning for life with the virus and cannot be in a lockdown and wait for the virus to be eliminated completely, which will take a long time.
You’ve have talked about a ‘targeted lockdown’ instead of a complete nation-wide lockdown. But Congress-ruled Punjab was the second State to extend the lockdown on Friday. Is there a divide within the Congress?
A lockdown in itself cannot be a strategy. It has to be accompanied by measures such as what the State of Rajasthan undertook in Bhilwara. The Bhilwara model is the model for the nation to emulate. Even after 21 days, the Prime Minister and the Union government have not laid out a strategy for the nation to emerge out of this extreme lockdown. So, in the absence of that, it is only natural and wise that State governments will prefer to extend the lockdown and deal with the crisis locally which they seem to be doing very well now.
Are you totally opposed to the current form of lockdown?
The current form of extreme lockdown was an immediate response to an unknown crisis and hence understandable. But it is clear now that the cure is worse than the disease. We run the risk of losing as many if not more lives due to the lockdown. It is not a “rupees vs lives” but a “lives vs lives” issue. The under-privileged are bearing the brunt of this — ostracisation, lack of hospital care, loss of wages, homelessness, hunger etc. This extreme lockdown seems to be a case of the privileged transferring their epidemic risk to the under-privileged
The Centre says if there was no nation-wide lockdown, by now India would have seen more than 8 lakh cases . So, a complete lockdown acted as a circuit breaker.
This is plain rubbish. Anyone who understands basic data and statistics will tell you that it makes no sense to do a linear extrapolation of an early trend to predict a counterfactual. This is like, claiming in cricket, that after a team gets 10 runs in the first over, the team will score 500 runs in 50 overs.
As we test more, we will report more cases. Based on trends from global and Indian data on COVID-19, it now seems clear that the virus is very contagious but not as fatal as some of the initial wild estimates of epidemiologists predicted.
Former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi too talked of a ‘nuanced approach’ that takes an India-specific approach. What exactly is it?
It is clear that Mr. Gandhi has been studying and researching on COVID-19 a lot. He was among the first to warn the nation about it. He wrote a letter to the PM arguing for a nuanced approach to a lockdown keeping India’s unique realities in mind. Given India’s vast informal, daily wage labour force, a high density of people living in one room houses, large urban rural divide and a much younger population than the developed countries, he is arguing for a more balanced & humane approach than the current extreme and absolute lockdown.
Both former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and you have argued for a economic package of ₹5-6 lakh crore. With the Economy under a total shutdown now, is it even possible for the Centre to generate this kind of additional resources?
Of course, it is entirely possible. In my piece in The Hindu , I had even detailed where to find the money. The money can be found from a combination of rationalised expenditure, higher borrowing and printing of more money. It is absolutely imperative that the package consists of a “rescue” for the affected workforce. But it is important to remember this is NOT a demand crisis but a supply crisis. So, sustaining MSMEs and other commercial activity is critical. Other economists such as Arvind Subramanian have argued for a ₹10 lakh crore package.