Coronavirus crisis shatters India’s big and bright dreams

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Par Jeffrey Gettleman
SURAT, India – The shot India’s dreams have taken from the coronavirus pandemic can be found in the smothered streets of the industrial area of ​​Surat.You can see it in textile factories that took generations to build but are now pulverizing, consuming about a tenth of the fabric they used to make.

You can see it on the skinny faces of the families who sewed the finishing touches on saris but, with so little work, are now cutting back on veggies and milk.

You can see it in empty barber shops and cell phone stores, which shoppers have given up as their meager savings are wiped out.

Ashish Gujarati, head of a textile association in this shopping center on the west coast of India, stood outside a deserted factory with a shocked look on his face and pointed to the road.

“Do you see that fireplace?” He asked. “Before, there was smoke coming out of it.”
Not so long ago, India’s future was totally different. It boasted of a booming economy that lifted millions of people out of poverty, built modern mega-cities, and amassed serious geopolitical firepower. It aimed to give its people a middle-class lifestyle, update its woefully vintage army, and become a regional political and economic superpower that could one day rival China, Asia’s greatest achievement.

But the economic devastation in Surat and across the country is jeopardizing many of India’s aspirations. India’s economy has shrunk faster than any other great nation. Up to 200 million people could fall back into poverty, according to some estimates. Many of its normally busy streets are empty, with people too scared of the outbreak to venture far.

Much of this damage was caused by the coronavirus lockdown imposed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which experts said was both too tight and too porous, both damaging the economy and spreading the virus. India is now experiencing the fastest growing coronavirus crisis, with more than 80,000 new infections reported every day.

A feeling of unease pervades the nation. Its economic growth was slowing even before the pandemic. Social divisions are growing. Anti-Muslim sentiments are on the rise, in part due to a malicious social media campaign that falsely accused Muslims of spreading the virus. China is more and more muscular on Indian territory.

Scholars use many of the same words when considering India today: lost. Indifferent. Wounded. Without rudder. Unfair.

“The engine has been broken,” said Arundhati Roy, one of India’s most prominent writers. “The ability to survive has been broken. And the pieces are all in the air. You don’t know where they will fall or how they will fall.

In a recent episode of his weekly radio show, Modi acknowledged that India was “fighting on many fronts.” He urged Indians to maintain their social distance, wear masks and remain “warm and warm.”

India still has strengths. It has a huge, young workforce and a host of tech geniuses. It represents a possible alternative to China at a time when the United States and much of the rest of the world are realigning themselves away from Beijing.

But his stature in the world is slipping. In the last quarter, India’s economy shrank by 24%, while China’s economy is growing again. Economists say India is in danger of losing its place as the world’s fifth largest economy, behind the United States, China, Japan and Germany.

“This is probably the worst situation India has found itself in since independence,” said Jayati Ghosh, development economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “People don’t have money. Investors will not invest if there is no market. And the costs have gone up for most of the production. ”

Many neighborhoods in the capital of New Delhi, home to low-wage workers, are deserted, shell-shaped, a hot wind blowing through empty shacks with tin walls. A few years ago, when the economy grew at a rate of 9%, it was difficult to find accommodation to rent.

Quarter by quarter, India’s economic growth rate has plummeted from 8% in 2016 to 4% just before the pandemic. Four percent would be respectable for a developed country like the United States. But in India, this level does not correspond to the millions of young people who enter the labor market each year, starving for their first job.

Many of the investor complaints about India – heavy land policies, restrictive labor laws, bureaucracy – predate Modi. But his confidence and absolutism, the same qualities that won over many voters, may have added to the problems.

Four years ago, he suddenly wiped out nearly 90% of India’s paper money to reduce corruption and encourage digital payments. While economists applauded both goals, they say the way Modi launched this initiative in India has caused lasting damage to the economy.

This impulsiveness reappeared when the coronavirus struck. At 8 p.m. on March 24, after ordering all Indians to stay indoors, Modi shut down the economy – offices, factories, roads, trains, interstate borders, pretty much everything – on notice of four hours.

Tens of millions of Indians lost their jobs instantly. Many worked in factories or on construction sites or in urban homes, but they were migrants from rural India.

Fearing starvation in city slums, millions of people spilled out of urban centers and walked, biked or hitchhiked back to their villages, an epic reverse migration from city to countryside that India had never seen. This has brought the coronavirus to every corner of this country of 1.3 billion people.

Now, come to think of it, many economists trace the root of India’s nested crises – spiraling infections and a devastated economy – up to this point.

“India’s embarrassing slowdown in the second quarter of 2020 is almost entirely due to the nature of the lockdown,” said Kaushik Basu, former chief economist at the World Bank and now a professor at Cornell. “It might be worth it if it stopped the pandemic. He does not have. ”

He called the ‘lockdown and scatter’ approach and said Modi’s policies had been a ‘failure’.

Some workers have returned to the cities. But the construction and manufacturing industries have contracted sharply because many migrant workers remain so traumatized that they never want to return.

“We have been hungry for days,” said Mohammad Chand, who once worked in a garment factory near Delhi but fled to his ancestral village, hundreds of kilometers away. “I had to move from place to place after being evicted by the owner. Even the parents started showing us the door.

“I don’t want to be in this situation anymore,” he says.

In Surat’s textile market, Jagdish Goyal sat scowling in his deserted shop with stacks of working-poor teal and orange women’s suits, now stacked to the ceiling.

“Nobody buys,” he says. ” Why? Because there are no social functions. No weddings to dress. No place to go. No big birthday parties. People are afraid to go out.

Fear of catching the virus appears to be a deciding factor in India’s economic crisis, going beyond lockdown. Shopping is risking illness at a time when patients are sometimes refused hospitalization.

According to a recent Google mobility report, which tracks cellphone data, travel in retail and entertainment areas is down 39% from before the pandemic. In Brazil and the United States, the only countries with the highest number of coronavirus infections, the declines were half as severe.

Modi’s government provided emergency relief, around $ 260 billion, but economists said too few resources were going to the poor. Tax revenues have plummeted, some states are unable to pay healthcare workers, and public debt is approaching its highest level in 40 years.

However, Modi’s popularity continues to increase. A recent poll published in India Today, a leading news magazine, showed its approval rating at 78%, the highest in five years.

Part of the reason is the collapse of competition. The biggest opposition party, the Indian National Congress, has been hit by defections, stabbing and an endless existential crisis over who should lead it. And Modi’s adherence to Hindu nationalism plays out well within the Hindu majority, around four-fifths of the population. “His protection of Hindu values ​​is a big reason why I support him,” said Goyal, the salesperson of women’s costumes. “If our self-esteem isn’t alive, what good is the economy?”

A few sectors of the economy are doing well. Agriculture was boosted by heavy monsoon rains. In some cities, like New Delhi, many businesses are reopening, although they may have new signs on the doors that say, “No more than 3 people inside” or “Flat 40 percent off!” ”

But the virus and the economy are intertwined, and India’s virus chart is a steady staircase going up. India is also No.3 for deaths from the virus, although its per capita death rate is much lower.

Anxiety hangs in the humid air of the Surat Textile Zone.

“No one comes to shave anymore,” laments Akshay Sen, a young barber with a few coins in his pocket.

His words echoed in closed stores. Behind him a band of men stood around a tea stand but did not buy tea.

Behind it all, like a warning sign on the horizon, stood another large, smoke-free brick fireplace.

(Reporting was provided by Shalini Venugopal Bhagat, Sameer Yasir, Kai Schultz, Suhasini Raj and Hari Kumar)



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