After coronavirus; building a stronger, fairer India

May 28, 2020


The coronavirus COVID-19 reminds us, in the starkest way possible, of the inequality and vulnerability in health, social protection and public services. It has exposed non-inclusive and unsustainable growth in all countries.

The 2019 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index showed remarkable development progress in India. Since 1990 life expectancy has increased by 11.6 years, and schooling by 3.5 years. Between 2006 and 2016, 271 million people were lifted out of poverty.

COVID-19 could reverse this hard earned progress. The lockdown and other restrictions have brought economic activity almost to a standstill, particularly in the informal sector, where 450 million people, more than 80 percent of the labour force, works. There is every possibility that many of these workers and their families will fall into poverty.

And economic growth has not reduced inequality. It is estimated that 85 percent of wealth is owned by the top 10 percent. That gap is likely to widen now.

Healthcare was insufficient even before COVID-19. It is estimated that only 18 percent of the urban population have health insurance coverage, and the rate drops to 14 percent in rural areas. About 1.3 billion people have only limited public health facilities, let alone the sophisticated treatment needed for COVID-19. Out of pocket expenses are a huge burden on poor and even middle-class families.

There is an opportunity to change those attributes of the development trajectory. Along with the reform of the health sector to correct health inequality. Providing effective social protection to all informal sector workers, as well as other vulnerable groups, could be the most important development policy.  

Turning the crisis into a turning point

Policymakers and the business community can come together to make this crisis a turning point. In mid-May, the government announced a US$265 billion stimulus package. One of the most critical issues it could address is the protection of the 450 million informal workers who have either lost their jobs or are out of work. The government could build on the experience with the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, the country’s largest social protection programme, which aids an estimated 320 million people. Given that eight out of 10 workers are in the informal sector, it is imperative that they get the protection that formal workers enjoy.

Universal Basic Income could strengthen government’s social protection system. It could improve health, alleviate poverty, reduce crime and violence, raise education and make for a better quality of life.

A green economy

There is an urgent need for India to shift from the brown to a green economy. The stimulus must deliver new jobs and businesses through a clean and green transition. Public funds should be used to invest in the future and flow to sustainable sectors and projects that help the environment and the climate. This will not only help in achieving our goals for sustainable growth but will go a long way to solve the air and water pollution crisis that India is grappling with.  

Our priority is to help those who are at the frontlines. UNDP and our partners have provided safety kits containing masks, gloves, hand sanitizers and soaps to over 18,000 waste pickers and distributed around 100,000 food packets and 500,000 kilogrammes of  grain during the lockdown. UNDP is supporting the development of a smartphone app to monitor real time bio-medical waste disposal at health facilities.

An evolving crisis

As the pandemic evolves we are shifting our focus on mobilizing community networks to reach out to informal workers and the most vulnerable, to help them receive their entitlements. With community organization, we will create new jobs and livelihood opportunities, such as family farming, shops, and other micro business. Our target is to reach up to 1.25 million people.  

We have designed an add-on function in the successful Electronic Vaccine Intelligence Network to trace the supply chain of personal protective equipment in more 28,000 health facilities.

Our SDG Impact initiative will engage business leaders in rethinking the development process--trying to bridge the gap between technology development and business. UNDP will also work with the government and the private sector to make public and private data readily accessible and useable, to inform the pandemic recovery strategy.

A temporary respite for nature 

The COVID-19 lockdown is providing a temporary respite from the assault we have been launching on nature. Even working from home I’ve noticed that air pollution has dropped dramatically. Scientists have claimed that the Ganges water is drinkable in upstream places such as Haridwar and even Varanasi. Wild animals are freely roaming vehicle-free roads.

The aggressive pursuit of economic growth has left out the majority of Indians who do not even know where their next meal will come from. And these are the very same people who worked hard to keep our factories running, enabling business to reap profits, and raising economic growth, the benefits of which they do not share.

Social protection schemes can be set up in a way that they reach everyone. It is both a lean and inclusive social safety net, and a very effective fiscal stimulus. COVID-19 is an opportunity for all of us to reimagine our present and future, and create a more inclusive and decent society.