Day 73: Catching up

05/06/2020

Day 73: Catching up 

In writing these daily entries, I skipped a day of writing when I traveled. That lag has now amplified into being two days behind the current date in writing these entries. Losing ground starts with a minor thing, and when not fixed in time it grows into a larger problem requiring greater effort and time to fix. 

The same precariousness in terms of work and stability is seen among small farmers here in the village. They let it slip one week and the farms are hard to get control of in terms of cropping process, cleaning, weeding and harvesting. Two weeks of a crucial growth phase are overlooked and that season’s crop will surely not yield much for the farmer. The weeds consume space and nutrients that were meant to go for the crop. Then they grow into a dense mass through which one can’t manually navigate or clean. A mechanised weeding process can be expensive and sometimes not possible if the growth is dense. That’s how you lose it. Yield can drop by as much as fifty percent. With that low output season a cycle of debt is triggered. Small farmers tend to never emerge from servicing the loans triggered during such times until they either sell the land off and repay the loan with a part of the sale proceeds or until the government writes off the loan. When either of them do not happen, under extreme distress farmers end their lives. 

Catching up, after having missed out on time and pace, can be a very tedious thing. It may not happen. Or, at times, the cost can be high. If one was running a marathon, the same applies. Personal best time targets are hit only when the expected paces are matched. Slip on a few for whatever reason and the chance at personal best is nearly out of reach.

I am thinking of the state of public infrastructure and services in India. In sectors that were ignored in a government’s term at office, they have become serious pain points for decades to come. Healthcare and school education are examples of it. In the Covid-19 pandemic, we are living the consequences of the neglect. After the pandemic is past will we be able to catch up in healthcare? Even though one would like to be an optimist, this seems a tough thing to catch up on. India is at the bottom of the pile in the world, in terms of spending on healthcare as a percentage of GDP. It is a simple indicator. For a country of this size and a nominal GDP of $3.202 trillion, spending 1.15% of it on healthcare leaves nothing to show for. With this underfunded and poorly resourced healthcare, India has gone out to save lives from Covid-19. 

Policy responsiveness could help the situation to some extent. If public policy design could be such that it enables a catchup and lower the cost of that catch up, then we can help these relatively smaller fractures that can bring the house down later. For instance, the farmer who lost a few weeks of working on his farm – public policy responsiveness could mean that there is an early window for him to access credit structured only to help these periods during a cropping cycle. It could also mean an in-kind benefit where the farmer has access to manpower sanctioned through public works schemes like MNREGS to help with a few days of farm de-weeding and harvest. This can eliminate the extra cost that he feared incurring in an already depleted yield. 

I see a scope for public policy to fill several of these minor looking slippages in key sectors that can blow up later on. In the way we design our large public schemes, these possibilities need to be built in.

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