Covid-19 and the poor peopleNeed for thrust on District Development Planning

Mohendro Nandeibam
The Covid pandemic is a painful regressive tax on the poor people in Manipur who have been already deprived of the taste of wellbeing. It aggravates the perpetual deprivation of happiness, peace, freedom of action and choice. It is not merely the question of lack of sufficient income and asset; but also the rising phenomenon of loss of self- confidence. They live, because they don’t die.
After 70 years of so called economic planning in the State, Manipur remains a classic example of mini-world of family farms, micro enterprises and household businesses, when the whole world has witnessed the glory of third industrial and agricultural revolution. More than 5 lakh of marginal workers derive their livelihood from uncertain engagements operated largely by small and marginal owners which accounts for 89% of farming activities. With engagement of 185 days a year, their meagre earnings have led them into the clutch of mounting pauperization with huge burden of indebtedness. 62% of rural household in Manipur are indebted (NABARD).
Look at the dismal picture of assetlessness suffered by the poor people. Lack of human asset marks the beginning of the end. They do not have capacity even for basic manual works. They are weak. Their health is not good. Because good food is a luxury to them. Basic health care is far and few between. They are looking forward very eagerly to a day when safe drinking water is available inside their premises. Their outdated skill acquired long back has very limited demand in this age of technological advancement.
Secondly they lack natural asset; Land (agri land). Most of them are landless. They work for the prosperity of the rich. They remain parasite and hapless victim of free fight among unequals. Look at the early hour of bazars in Manipur where one finds a sorry figure of a poor woman vendor selling a few vegetables on the road side under the scorching heat of the Sun to meet her daily needs. No sale means no food for the day.
These people have very limited access to modern physical infrastructures. The roads to the remote villages are either undeveloped or underdeveloped. The spill over effects are either restricted to or stopped at the gate. One finds development of few roadside development in the mini-skeleton markets. The display of a few vegetables on the roadside in a hut speaks volume. “Reforms can go awry when supportive institutions are absent” (WDR 2000/2001).
The fourth deprivation is the absence of financial assets; of savings. Normally the propensity of consumption of the poor is much higher and vice-versa.There is a strong relationship between consumption and savings, and between surplus and savings. Only when there is substantial surplus, people start thinking of savings. The people are at crossroads between short-term pain and long term gain. The banks in Manipur are too busy with big accounts. This is one important reason why the rotating credit associations (MARUPS) have become fairly popular. The program of so-called financial inclusion remains a mere misnomer with just opening of the account; not followed by regular transactions.
The last but not least is lack of social asset; i.e. lack of social networks and political influence. As a matter of practical experience poverty is not merely the inadequate income and human development but lack of voice, power and representation also. The poor are looked down upon materially insignificant in the eyes of coteries of political heavy weights. On the other hand, the immediate gain gets priority in the calculation of the poor.
And they gladly accept “money” as price for their vote. In fact a bird in hand is worth two in the bush. This lack of social asset has produced cascading effects telling upon the healthy trend of inclusive development. What the Government of Manipur should take note of is that relief, subsidy and grants are not solution to poverty. We have to create enabling environment to put the poor at the center of ever enlarging economic opportunities duly accompanied by massive empowerment, followed by a built–in security against risks.The poor people in Manipur who are over burdened with multiple deprivations of lags and leaks are now exposed to a terrible blow inflicted by Covid-19. Now they have to be brought into the center in designing, implementing and monitoring strategies for recovery and rehabilitation. “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich” (John F. Kennedy, 20 January 1961).
While faster and sustainable behaviour of growth is the best way to meet all emerging challenges and when Manipur needs huge resources to fight Covid-19, the economic performance of the State in the last few years is visibly discouraging. The Per Capita Income (PCI) of Manipur was only Rs. 62640 (2017-18) as against Rs. 375550 of Goa, Rs. 297765 of Sikkim and All India Average of Rs. 114958.
In the same fashion the growth rate of Per Capita Income (PCI) was only 4.4% in 2017-18 as against 12% of Goa, 10% of Sikkim and All India Average of 10.4%. When the economy stagnates all sectors suffer the same setback.
Right now most of MSMEs in the State are running far below their normal capacity. Shree Th. Joykumar, CMD, Thangjam Agro Industries (LIKLA) says, “the situation is becoming bad. Both demand and supply are severely affected. Only one-fourth of the capacity is operating. This time it may not be possible to pay wages in full.” The Likla Enterprise has about 650 work force.
It is against this alarming background that the Government of Manipur should act with a rare conviction of courage and knowledge on a sound strategy of Opportunity, Empowerment and Security, free from policy paralysis. Relief, subsidy and grant can never be substitute for long term policy.
A time has definitely come for the Government of Manipur to ensure that the District Development Planning is made an active platform for sustainable development. Too much concentration can hardly meet the emerging challenges including Covid-19. Now Manipur needs a new committed culture of planning and development with modern touch. The writer was Professor of Economics, Manipur University