Where is the FM?

Last year same time, when Covid was in its nascent stage and the nation under lockdown, the Government pompously announced a slew of economic measures of which only a few were of any worth to the people.

Thousands of crores were supposedly at the disposal of suffering masses, bundled in slick packages. Book entries were passed off as real benefits.

This time around, when Covid is threatening to wipe out large masses or render ineffective huge tracts of our economic landscape, there is not a sign or semblance of a financial assistance package, required in great urgency, and in the hands of the people and industry, particularly the MSMEs.

A specious argument could be that the Centre’s hands were tied owing to the EC guidelines vis-à-vis elections in five States. But then the rulers, from leader to cadre, had violated EC norms even more flagrantly during these elections that the aforesaid logic has no steam.

Also, a package could have been readied in the last few days and announced on the night or next day of the final phase. Alas, the delay betrays a criminal insensitivity on the part of the Government to people’s woes, a characteristic that has been on display from the days of demonetisation to the deadly disease dogging us daily.

Last year itself, the small and micro firms, self-employed, owner-driven or mini family businesses were the worst hit. Their importance has always been underestimated and ignored. Their number is infinity and forms the invisible backbone of India’s economy and its much flaunted numbers.

They are the biggest employers, going about their businesses with meagre means and under perennial bureaucratic harassment. Their order books crashed, cash registers stopped ringing, trained laborers migrated and their own survival came under dark clouds. Most of them have not recovered and now comes the second wave, burying hope deeper. This is a human tragedy too as livelihoods sustains life. Starvation, shame and suicide are cousins of Covid.

During the first wave in 2020, the Government announced a typically grandiose package for MSMEs in May. Much of it was bunkum and the associations promptly protested.

For a regime sold out on familiar oligarchies, the weak voices and noises of the MSME lobbies fell on deaf ears and nothing happened. But the proposals had some silver linings: a six-month moratorium on interest and EMIs for borrowers from institutions under the control of RBI; also, a loan/limit of up to 20% of the existing facility was allowed as additional borrowing. Those who took loans from private lenders truly had it. Their EMIs landed with the precision of a trained boxer’s punch. Very few could fend; most could not defend.

But wait! For many the silver linings turned out to be celestial mirages. Most loan applications were made May-end or early June, given the hunger of the borrowers. But barring a lucky few, the sanctions arrived in mid-July to almost August end.

The FM proudly proclaimed that she was receiving daily reports of the loan disbursement status, which itself was an impossibility given the banking system’s reporting protocols. But then such slick statements also covered up many lies on the sly. Most banks used the additional ‘largesse’ to reduce the original facility itself, quoting ‘poor or reduced’ performance! And to add salt to injury, they adjusted the entire six-month moratorium interest, along with interest on interest, leaving borrowers worse off with additional debt! And those instalment payments begin this August. OMG.

Thousands and thousands of small and medium closed shops, mid-size businesses with shutters down, the ones who have an image of a bustling entity that they are struggling to live up to, the half-way houses whose insolvent status none will believe, noisy lathes and mini factories lavishing in graveyard silence, vegetable vendors and flower sellers and doll-dealers outside parks, temples et al confined to shacks and shanties if they have any; These are the ones, and more, the several cross sections of MSME, that is already badly infected by the Covid and suffocating in the funds-starved economic ICU.

This time, we could afford none of the usual financial rope tricks. We want real schemes, not the spin of a scheming regime. All the economic equivalents of medical terms like Oxygen, Vaccines etc are needed in god speed. A six-month moratorium on bank interest and EMI sans interest on interest is the first step. Lockdown has become a politically incorrect term, but it prevails and pervades in all its real intent and content, barring the booming bourses and the come-what-may IPL. At the risk of repetition, the MSME sector is the worst hit by the lockdowns-that-is not!
We don’t want to see the Prime Minister, we see him too often and we are tired, though he is not. The Home Minister, well, forget him. We don’t even want to see the Health Minister; we will leave him free to fight with Kejriwal.
We want to see the Finance Minister. We want to know what she has on offer. It’s already late, very late.

Jawahar T R