Sunday View: The Best Weekend Opinion Reads, Curated Just For You

A Woman, Her Unborn Child, And The Lockdown

“It is as though I have entered a different timeline. The last leg of the pregnancy marathon brings a plot twist that no one anticipated. After all, it is hard to prepare for a global pandemic at any given time, even in our hyper-connected world, where some of us have the privilege of still staying in touch with our friends, doctors, and family, of being able to work despite a 21-day lockdown.”

Shruti Dhapola writes in first person, for The Indian Express, on the travails of a pregnant mother and her unborn child. The anxiety of a lockdown, and the psychological pressure of isolation are a heady mix even under ordinary circumstances. The third trimester of pregnancy is no ordinary circumstance. Despite a moving narrative on what she is going through, Shruti says she continues to be aware of her privilege.

“Even as these thoughts fill my head, I’m aware of my extreme privilege in these turbulent times. Food is not a concern, I am assured that some level of healthcare will be available, I still have access to my medication which is needed, and I know that at some point I will still be able to afford and buy the essentials for my unborn child. But for many other pregnant women in India, who are not as privileged as I am, the pandemic, if it worsens in the country, could leave them even more vulnerable and battered.”

A Necessary Lockdown That Could Put the Economy On Ventilator

Chetan Bhagat, in his column for The Times of India, calls on the government to print money to provide financial aid to daily wage labourers, and to open up the economy; drastic measures that are bound to cause massive ripples in the economy. Chetan Bhagat is of the opinion that it is this distress and pressure that will eventually put the country's economy back on track.

“What can we do about it? Well, as an urgent first step, the weakest and those suffering the most should be given direct financial help. Daily wage labourers, street vendors, cab drivers with EMIs — people who had their livelihoods snatched from them have to be compensated first and fast. The second step would be to come up with a plan to help industry — so we have as few bankruptcies as possible. Companies have to be able to tide over three months without money running out or mass layoffs. It’s not easy but can be done. The cost of this will be massive inflation, as the government prints money, but someone has to pay for it. We last did genuine big reforms in 1991, when we had a huge economic crisis and had our backs to the wall. The 2020 coronavirus is another huge crisis, which may lead us to the reforms we need. And that might be the one silver lining of this crisis.”

Time to Rethink State-Private Sector Ties

Mark Tully is his usual erudite self in his column for the Hindustan Times. He makes a strong case for an almost Zen-like balance between private sector and the government, in which the binary or the 'one-uppery' is cast away, and the eventual result is of great benefit to the poor. He brings in Dostoyevski, Sunita Narain (of the Centre for Science and Environment stresses) and British author Simon Kuper to strengthen his argument. What shines through though, is his empathy for the thousands of migrant labourers stuck in dangerous transit.

“Avoiding commuting in trains and buses so crowded that there isn’t room for the proverbial sesame seed will reduce the strain on commuters. But what about those who have travelled great distances to their places of work — India’s 120 million or so migrant workers? They continue to live in slums, dotted all over India or on the sites where they work, like the Haryana brick-kiln workers I wrote about in this column earlier, held as bonded labour in miserable conditions. The migrant slumdwellers are unable to take the recommended precautions against COVID-19. Those of us who can afford private sector medical care by bypassing government health services, and can hire guards to provide us security, often crib about the government. But we should think about what would happen if the government was not there to fall back on now. We have relied on government hospitals to treat cases which have tested positive for COVID-19.”

Timid Half Measures, Yet Welcome

P Chidambaram, in his typical 'listicle-based' style, writes for The Indian Express, on the unpreparedness of the government in dealing with the pandemic, the underwhelming planning that has resulted in a genuine crisis for the migrant labourers, and the misplaced belief that India will not be affected as badly as the rest of the world.

“Several suggestions were on the table but the government dithered until 26 March. The Financial Action Plan (FAP) announced by the Finance Minister consisted of timid half-measures and was certainly not comprehensive. The FAP will provide adequate food to many sections of the poor, but the plan will not put enough cash in their pockets. Worse, some sections of the poor and vulnerable were totally overlooked: tenant farmers, MGNREGA workers who will be without MGNREGA work, street people, destitutes, male Jan Dhan account holders, laid-off workers, etc were neglected. Besides, legitimate demands like extension of tax payment deadlines, deferment of EMI due dates, cut in GST rates, etc were not addressed. The FAP was underwhelming. I extended a cautious welcome to the plan.”

On Searching For A City's Soul

Shobha De, in her evocative column for The Times of India, writes about the empty streets of Mumbai, her city, and wonders if the 'soul' of the city lies in the incessant din of traffic on the busy roads. That there is nature, all around, is a realisation that comes quickly, and the resultant surprise is bitter sweet. We city-walas have a love-hate relationship with nature, after all.

“Let’s take Mumbai, a metropolis I share with 26 million Mumbaikars. There are critics who hate the stunning photographs of an emptied-out Gateway of India, or of Marine Drive without cars and strollers. They feel Mumbai’s ‘soul’ is missing in the pictures, making me wonder how one defines a city’s soul. Where exactly does Mumbai’s soul reside? In the British-era buildings of South Mumbai that feature in this lovely series? In the ‘other’ Mumbai which has been as extensively documented — the teeming gullies of Dharavi, proudly touted as ‘Asia’s biggest slum’? How about Girgaum which is at the very heart of the seven islands that make up Mumbai? Or wait — maybe today’s Mumbai exists where our glamourous Bollywood stars live — Bandra and Juhu? Is the ‘asli’, more authentic Mumbai hiding somewhere else? Where could that be?”

India's Callousness Towards War Prisoners

Karan Thapar exudes unusual empathy, as he writes for the Hindustan Times, on the fate of prisoners of war who have been trapped in jail for decades. He quotes from Chandra Suta Dogra's book Missing in Action: The Prisoners Who Never Came Back. The book is a compilation of heartrending instances of over 80 soldiers trapped in Pakistani prisons, since the 1965 and 1971 wars.

“...the story of Major Ashok Suri. Initially, it was said he died in action on 5 December, 1971, only for his father to receive four telegrams saying something else while Radio Pakistan claimed he was alive. After personal enquiries seemed to affirm that, his family received two letters which handwriting experts confirmed were written by him. Satinder Lambah, then a junior diplomat in Pakistan but later high commissioner, is certain Suri was alive in the mid-70s. Unofficially, Amnesty International concurred. Yet it took the government over three years to change his classification from killed to missing-in-action. If it had done so earlier, Dogra says, we might possibly have got him back. But as long as India maintained he was dead, Pakistan felt no compulsion to return him.”

Relief Package is Peanuts, India Needs to Triple It

“Outrageously small. Crumbs from a miser’s table. Spineless obeisance to fiscal orthodoxy. Cowardly fears of foreigners reacting badly to a massive fiscal stimulus.”

S A Iyer, in his column for The Times of India – Swaminomics, makes the case for tripling relief packages currently offered by India, to combat the COVID-19 crisis. He quotes liberally from the way the United States has dealt with this, financially. What is intriguing is his note to self, about the fact that the current crisis is not an economic crisis, but a medical one that has driven the world to the very brink of a meltdown.

“The 2008 and 2009 relief packages in the US aimed to save tottering banks and businesses, along with modest increases in food stamps and unemployment relief. But not even in 2008 did the US government send cheques to the needy. This time, it will send $1,200 to all individuals earning under $75,000. Married couples earning up to $150,000 will get $2,400, plus $500 per child. The relief is reduced for those earning up to $99,000 and eliminated for higher-income persons. The lesson for India is clear. At least triple the relief package and put more money into the bank accounts of the needy. If the problem continues for six to nine months, increase the relief package fivefold. Even a fivefold increase implies an additional stimulus of barely 5% of GDP, tiny compared to the US stimulus.”

Nine Steps After 21 Days

Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee write for The Indian Express on the dos and dont's of surviving the lockdown. In an easy to consume 'FAQ' format, the authors touch upon all things COVID. From the plight of migrant labourers, and their inability to abide by the lockdown, to stark truths – like the fact that the pandemic is all set to rise more steeply.

“First even if the lockdown works and the ‘curve gets flattened’, and the overall spread of the disease remains contained, the disease will continue to widen its ambit, as unknowing carriers reach new populations. Given that the disease tends to be dormant for two weeks or so, and only those directly connected to a case (ie not the neighbour on a bus ride) are tested, these invisible agents are not easily identified and as a result, the number of such apparently innocent contacts can be large; the son who comes home from Delhi could infect the entire extended family before it gets discovered.”

In a Lockdown, The Fate of Prisoners

Vartika Nanda, in her column for the Hindustan Times, draws a word picture of the life and rights of the inmates of Indian prisons. She counters the government's decision to deny visits to the inmates. In the absence of an alternative channel of communication, the resultant anxiety is hard to deal with; it is also quite unnecessary.

“When any such facility is removed from inmates’ daily routine, it comes as a shock to them. Those who have interacted with inmates will testify that inmates eagerly wait for their visitations. While placing restrictions on visits is understandable, an alternative and uniformed channel for communication must be created for them to reduce anxiety. Also, inmates are helping the nation by making masks. But this too has gone unnoticed. While taking away the concession of visits for some time, the system must also remember the contribution of inmates and the jail staff in this time of crisis.”

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