The Cure Worse Than The Disease

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A street leading to Lal Chowk, Srinagar’s commercial nerve centre- KO Photo by Abid

Lockdown has not arrested the spread of Coronavirus but it has crushed Kashmir valley’s economy, already reeling from months long lockdown

Ifthikar Bashir

WE have flattened the wrong curve i.e. GDP – these words were uttered by one of the most important business voices in India the other day. Covid -19 one of the greatest pandemics of our times, which has caught world leaders off-guard, has demonstrated that some of the powerful governments and their economies are ill-prepared to deal with an aggressive outbreak. While the world fights to mitigate the impact of the corona crisis which has unsettled lives, livelihoods and businesses worldwide, the outbreak also accentuates the need for leaders and people in power to be resilient. While the top of the line leaders are already hand in gloves in charting the right course to successfully lead their areas of operation amid the crisis, leading through a crisis of this magnitude requires more than just a rule book and best practices.

Amidst a high-octane debate, India finally announced the re-opening for business and revival. Too early or too late – while we deliberate on the timings, some might even  ignore the important debate- how will businesses restart and consumers behave in a changed ecosystem. Predicting trends is fraught with risk. Noise can be ignored, signals read but forecasting the time and the intensity of the trend is strenuous. Foretelling the curve is arduous. Most trends die down as drifts. Some live as a ‘niche’ for a year or two. Very few accelerate into mass adoption. Those which do, are often non-linear, sticky and lasting. Businesses need an approach that is innovative and yet robust. As expected, India’s fourth quarter Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has slowed down to 3.1 percent, lowest in last 11 years as per latest figures. This number fully reflects the slowdown, which the economy has been going through in the last two years. This number is more important than the quarterly number, as it would be the base against which the impact of the lockdown and consequent demand destruction, loss of productivity and employment would be mapped. Unemployment data, as per initial figures in India is estimated at 15 cr approximately. While we can deliberate on the figures, the problem can’t be simply brushed under the carpet.

Lockdown cannot be a permanent feature and it cannot continue, as rest of world is reopening now, even though the timing still remains a debatable topic. Specific to our part of the world, Kashmir has been under lockdown for over 10 months now. Businesses- big and small have suffered immensely and some of the most promising start-ups have got nipped in the bud. Almost all Kashmir based businesses have suffered losses because of Aug’19 lockdown, communications blockade etc and to add to our woes, lockdown because of Covid 19 is proving to be the last nail in the coffin for the economy of Kashmir. Local businesses are bearing the brunt of this pandemic, even job losses are running into lacs and as per latest estimates 1.5 lakh jobs have been lost in the transport sector alone. An estimated 50 thousand employees working in various MNCs in the state are under a lot of stress and are faced with the horror of losing their jobs. We have witnessed the impact of previous lockdowns on the people involved with online shopping platforms, which was simply disastrous. We have read many a stories of people having faced bankruptcy because of restrictions and curbs on the Internet etc.

The continuing lockdowns have had such an dreaded impact on the economy of Kashmir that the estimated losses are believed to exceed Rs 35 thousand crores. This data is based on the study focused on the impacted districts of Kashmir valley comprising  60 per cent of the total population of J&K.

Simply put, the real problem at hand in the entire world and specifically in Kashmir is not pandemic but unemployment  which is threatening to turn catastrophic unless and until, we let our businesses open up and function smoothly. The continuing lockdowns have had such an dreaded impact on the economy of Kashmir that the estimated losses are believed to exceed Rs 35 thousand crores. This data is based on the study focused on the impacted districts of Kashmir valley comprising  60 per cent of the total population of J&K. This assessment is calculated on the actual number of unit holders and persons engaged in each sector, job and financial losses suffered by them. The government has to look to address, a number of challenges, faced by a host of sectors now.

Once the lockdown ends completely, the exact extent of monetary and business pain would be known. While some sections of the population are yet to receive relief, we must understand that no one knows for sure when the pandemic will end and economic operations will fully return. However the timing to address these issues has to be apt and it cannot be too little too late. There is a clear case of loss of business and hence a big setback for incomes, salaries and wages.

Transformational outlook and new habits will have lasting implications. With the latest advisory on the opening up of all government offices, it’s appalling to note that nobody in the administration is giving two hoots to the problems faced by the business fraternity, self employed and daily wage labourers. While the government employees who are faced with their own set of problems and issues, are at least guaranteed their remuneration, nobody seems to be bothered about the survival of the other class of the society. Peoples lives matter and we can’t hold the majority to hostage and not let them earn their livelihood. The administration needs to understand that you can’t have different yardsticks for different sectors of the society.

While we see businesses outside of Kashmir opening up, traders and businesses in Kashmir are being forbidden to open up and are left at the mercy of officials and people in charge of law and order. We can‘t let the situation arise wherein by trying to saves the lives from Covid 19, people end up dying because of hunger. While it’s fully understood that the Covid 19 curve is peaking and we ought to have a set of standard operating procedures in place so as to minimise the impact. Opening up of businesses, reaching out to people and creating mass awareness is the only way forward. The world is reopening now and we too need to prepare the people to live with new reality (COVID19). The reopening (unlocking) phase belongs to the public as they have to take precautions at large scale. People need to maintain physical and social distance, wear masks, maintain hygiene and accept the new norms as responsible citizens.

Administration on the other hand, needs to soften up its stand a bit, be more compassionate, as the unlocking system needs a confidence of positive responses. Involving all stakeholders like trade bodies, businessmen, restaurant owners and manufactures etc and seeking their support in adhering to the guidelines while operating their business is the need of the hour. Exploring the possibility of involving religious heads to educate people about the precautions against the pandemic has to be a must. As part of the re-opening process, special training sessions to be held across Srinagar and other major towns to smoothen the process. COVID 19 testing of persons involved in trade and service sectors can be conducted to ensure no infected person is involved in the operation of public dealing businesses. We need to prepare the people to live with this virus as we don’t know by when the vaccine or treatment is discovered. Till then, let’s learn to behave responsibly and take it in our stride.

We are aware of the recent surge in numbers across the valley and the dangers associated, however, our response to open up a lockdown can’t and should not be another lockdown.

Ifthikar Bashir is a freelance Financial Advisor

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Ifthikar Bashir

Ifthikar Bashir is a freelance Financial Advisor

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