National Security, in India, is generally viewed from the traditional lens of conventional-military threats faced by the nation. The Non-Traditional Security (NTS) threats and challenges faced by the country which also threaten the survival and well-being of a state and its people is not given due attention, at least not from a security point of view. While the focus on traditional military threats to the physical security of the country and its people is important, the interconnected and interdependent nature of the world today demands equal attention towards NTS threats.
The NTS threats can be described as those arising out of non-military sources such as global pandemics, transnational crime, drug and arms smuggling, human trafficking, climate change, natural disasters, irregular migration, and economic instability among others. These threats are often transnational in nature and require unified efforts of more than one state.
As the world grapples today with a plethora of challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, India is not immune to the impacts of the deadly virus. India, a densely populated country with a population density of 464 per sq. km, was put under a national lockdown with effect from 25th March 2020 for 21 days to contain the spread of the virus via community transmission. While lockdown became the initial measure to contain the virus globally, this was a bold step for a developing country like India with a sizeable population living under extreme poverty. Apart from the health repercussions this crisis has on the masses, two of the most important non-traditional security challenges facing the country include the economic and food security. These two challenges are closely intertwined and disproportionately threaten the well-being of the poor and those working in the informal sector of the economy.
The immediate impact of the lockdown which exempts essential services was on the informal sector which employs around 81 percent (81%) of the country’s workforce. The large internal migrant labour, both seasonal and non-seasonal, found itself unemployed as most of the industries came to a halt. Soon after the lockdown was announced, urban streets especially in the national capital and other major cities across India, were full of migrant workforce walking back to their native villages and towns. This was due to a combination of wage loss and lack of substantial savings to get them through this lockdown period, as it is a general practice to send money back home to support their families and farms. With the railways and inter-state bus transport non-functional, this created a humanitarian crisis as people started walking back tens and hundreds of kilometers to get back to home with very little resources at their disposal.
This reverse migration was a particularly important highlight of the vulnerability of such a large part of the population. The situation of the debt-riddled farmers is equally precarious as they find themselves without the necessary means – farm labour, inputs for farming like equipment, seeds, fertilizers etc or access to market due to lack of transportation and interruptions to the supply chain – to support their livelihood. This is despite the farm activities being exempted under the lockdown guidelines laid down by the government. Added to that the unseasonal rains which will affect the production at a time when government has already started giving out free rations to be distributed to the poorest of people for the next three months which will depress the grain prices, mainly wheat and pulses and thus will further affect farmers in the short to medium term.
The informal sector workers and the rural poor will suffer the most as they are most likely to lose their daily wage and will make it difficult for them to secure even the basic food items. The two weeks extension announced beyond 14th April can possibly bring financial ruin to the poor of the country as without any income and savings they might be forced to seek informal loans at high rates. The extended lockdown will pose high risk to the food and economic security of the economically marginalised people as well as the whole country at large. Signs of distress are already visible in form of labour protests in some parts of the country, most notably in Surat, Gujarat and Mumbai, Maharashtra.
The national lockdown might prove devastating for the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs). The MSME sector is crucial for the Indian economy as it accounted for 31.8 percent of GDP during Financial Year (FY) 2016-17 and 48.1 percent of the total exports during FY 2018-19, while employing around 11.1 crore workers in non-agricultural MSME units alone. With halted domestic demand and overall slowdown in the global economy, these MSMEs will find it difficult to pay salaries and wages to their workers and service their debt liabilities which would in turn affect the unemployment rate in the country and short term food security for the workers. According to the labour statistics provided by Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the unemployment rate during the last week of March 2020 stood at 23.8 percent. The unemployment rate is expected to rise as the lockdown prolongs.
However, the government announced a relief package of US$ 22.5 billion to mitigate the situation and shield the most vulnerable and marginalized groups from the impact of the national lockdown. The package includes providing 80 crore people 5kg of wheat and 1kg of preferred pulses per month for the next three months. In addition, 20 crore women Jan Dhan account holders will also get a sum of INR 500 monthly for the next three months, increasing MNREGA wage to INR 202 from INR 182 which will benefit around 13.62 crore families, an ex-gratia amount of INR 1000 to be paid to senior citizen, poor widows and differently individuals. Government also announced to front-load INR 2000 to approximately 8.7 crore farmers under the existing PM Kisan Yojana.
Even though some steps were also taken to help the MSME sector to wither out the national lockdown as they struggle to find orders for their goods and services. The Reserve Bank of India, for instance, has permitted lenders to grant the borrowers and three months moratorium on payment of installments as well as flexibility to increase the drawing power for working capital requirements, again for a period of three months from 31 March, 2020 to 31 May, 2020. In addition, many public sector banks have started providing emergency credit lines for MSME sectors to meet their working capital requirement and stay afloat. It is important to note that 99 percent of the total 63.388 crore units of MSMEs are classified as micro, putting the majority of the 11 crore workers employed in this sector under the informal category. Thus, the lack of financial support for these workers in the relief package requires immediate rectification.
While a relief package is a welcome step, the overall size of this package is not nearly enough to see the masses through 5 weeks of lockdown. The INR 500 monthly amount is too small to provide any substantial relief. Those working in the non-agricultural informal sector have not received any support as far as the wage loss due to lockdown is concerned. For financial support to the construction workers, the government asked the states to use the Building and Construction Workers Welfare Fund of about INR 31,000 crore available with them.
The wage increase for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) workers is not going to yield any results till the time lockdown is in place. Other important issue regarding farmers is the breakdown of the farm supply chain including the availability of farm labour, transportation, and access to markets. Government must ensure that these hurdles are removed as most of the farmers depend on income from selling fresh produce as well as that from the upcoming Rabi harvest.
The biggest issue is the doorstep delivery of the free food ration to the poor during the lockdown period. While the Public Distribution System (PDS) will be of immense help in delivering this relief measure, PDS coverage in rural areas is only 75 percent (75%) and 50 percent (50%) in urban areas in most of the country except perhaps the better equipped states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. This will most certainly create implementation challenges for the government. Food security comprises of availability, access and absorption (nutrition). While, the 5kg wheat allotment maybe enough for most households, the 1 kg allotment for pulses is insufficient to ensure a healthy intake of protein per day for people of varying age and sex.
India finds itself in a difficult position, perhaps more so than many others since its economy had already been slowing before the lockdown and COVID-19 pandemic. While many social safety programmes provides it with the experience and the infrastructure to manage the situation, these are far from perfect and would require extra caution in these delicate times. The fiscal health of the country, since India had already overshot its fiscal deficit targets in the FY 2019-20, is not as comfortable as it might have wanted in these trying times. The lockdown is further going to put severe pressure on government revenues and its ability to spur economic growth once the lockdown is lifted without showing significant leniency in its fiscal deficit targets. While the service sector is likely to be the most affected, for an agrarian economy like India in terms of number of workers employed, agriculture and allied sectors will be the worst hit. Therefore, the government must remember that even though the economy can be revived with decisive actions in the present and future, India must ensure to come out of this crisis by opting for a humane approach that minimises loss of human lives.
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