How the pandemic is an opportunity to create a ‘more equal’ world

A new “more equal” world has to replace the old unequal world with a paradigm propagating equality from spatial and temporal dimensions.

 |  5-minute read |   10-05-2020
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In a recent article, Amartya Sen placed a working hypothesis in the public domain that becomes evident from the title of his essay: “A better society can emerge from the lockdowns” (Financial Times, April 15). Sen’s essay moves around the contention that equity and distribution should be the central most policy concern under these stressful conditions of the lockdowns during the pandemic.

He reiterates the need for equity and the distribution aspects of development by quoting the example of how life expectancy at birth in England and Wales increased during the war decades. “… The positive lessons from pursuing equity and paying greater attention to the disadvantaged helped in the emergence of what came to be known as the welfare state”.

Changing equations

The concern and need for equity and distributional aspects in the development paradigm become prominent especially during times of crisis. The concerns of migrant workers, unorganised sectors, daily wagers, the non-pensioned senior citizens, and marginal farmers who are not connected to the markets get featured by the media almost every day. In an economic system left to work by itself, there are often forces emanated by the markets that can take care of the problems of the economically marginalised through small businesses, informal employment, and the like. However, a lock-down completely blocks the working of the market forces as well. Therefore, a capitalist or a semi-capitalist system that is more geared towards markets to take care of the concerns of the underprivileged through an organic process has to conduct its course correction: it now becomes the onus of the government to take care of the various distributional needs of the society.

main_migrant-laboure_051020104207.jpgThe pains and anguishes of the migrant workers in the locked-down nation brought to the fore the crucial roles that the market forces played so far, and where the governments failed summarily. (Photo: Reuters)

It is a known fact that social security in India has been in shambles ever since independence and no government has so far revealed any real intention to correct this folly. There have only been blarney talks and tall claims, without implementation. While often there is a tendency for many to defend governmental initiatives by putting forward arguments in favour of MNREGA and employment generation schemes, they are hardly adequate.

The pains and anguishes of the migrant workers in the locked-down nation brought to the fore the crucial roles that the market forces played so far, and where the governments failed summarily. Governmental failure is also evident when it comes to non-pensioned senior citizens. In the name of promoting private investment and helping businesses, while it is good that interest rates are being brought down, the governments over the years seem to have been completely oblivious of the fact that the senior citizens retire with a fixed pool of fund with almost no further accrual of incomes. They rely on the interests earned from the fixed savings.

The big picture

Over time with inflationary pressures whereas there should have been inflation-adjustments of their incomes, it is working the other way round: the interest rates are being made to decline thereby denting the purchasing power of the old and the aged. This cannot be a tenet of “caring society”, as has been announced in the last Union Budget.

There is no doubt that widespread apprehensions of poverty, hunger, and unemployment have brought about a feeling that the government has to play its role, as market forces cannot do so under lock-down! Pandemics have generally been associated with economic slumps as one may find historically. This was long recognised by Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff who popularised the K-waves, which was later acknowledged as “business cycles” in the writings of Paul Samuelson and many others. It is here that the government’s roles become prominent: both as a driver of investment and growth, and also as an enabler of distribution.

India needs to grow. But the “growth-fetishism” of the Indian economy has made it forget the criticality of distribution and equity. The pandemic is now a reminder of that. The “welfare state” cannot emerge only through the promotion of the concerns of equity. The development paradigm has to bring in concerns of the ecosystem and environment into it as the third pillar of development.

Needed, new actions

It is now well understood with the experiences of pandemics and diseases that large-scale land-use change often impedes on an important regulating service of the ecosystem that occurs in the form of disease or infection control. This is true especially for pathogens when the loss of species diversity can cause higher transmission if the loss causes an increase in density of competent hosts. It is also a concern of temporal equity or sustainability! This calls for a separate development paradigm than what has so far been practised in India and large parts of the developing world. From that perspective, the pandemic creates an opportunity for democratically elected governments to create the best distribution practices and institutions, and continue with them in the post-pandemic world. Hence, Sen is right when he contends “…Sure, social distancing restricts the virus’ spread … But it has to be combined with compensatory arrangements — for income, food, access and medical attention — for people devastated by the lockdown… But no lesson in that direction will probably emerge from the pandemic response, given its huge inequities. Sadly, it is possible that when we meet again we will be no better placed to face the unequal world in which we live”.

I add and rephrase: a new “more equal” world has to replace the old unequal world, but that needs a paradigm propagating equality not only from a spatial dimension but also from a temporal dimension making it sustainable.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: Migrant workers aren't breaking lockdown rules. They want to go home. To stay at home

Writer

Nilanjan Ghosh Nilanjan Ghosh

The author is the Director of Observer Research Foundation and is based in Kolkata.

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