Migrants board a bus as they travel home during the ongoing Covid-19 nationwide lockdown in Jaipur, Rajasthan, on May 17, 2020. Photo: AFP/NurPhoto

Non-resident Indians (NRIs) play a key role in India’s development. International remittances have been an important source of foreign exchange for the Indian economy for four decades, with estimates of inflows ranging between 2% and 4% of gross domestic product.

Typically ranked as the world’s largest recipient of international remittances, India annually receives a staggering US$70 billion from overseas Indians. This also says volumes on NRIs’ view that the country’s development matters the most.

Rajendar Dichpally, a leading information-technology professional and accomplished NRI based in New York, is worried about the situation back home. Apart from his professional career in IT, Dichpally is actively engaged in building the India-US relationship in different social, political and cultural fields, serving on a number of influential committees and councils.

He served as chairman of the US-India Friendship Committee (2012-2013), coordinator of the Indian American Security Leadership Council (2004-2008), chapter president and executive committee member of the Indian American Forum for Political Education (1997-2013), coordinator of a coalition of Indian organizations setting up Indian classical dance festivals for second-generation Indian-American kids (1997-1999), and youth president of the American Telugu Association (1998-2000).

Dichpally spoke to Asia Times on what he thinks about the Covid-19 situation in India, the migrant crisis and India’s economy. An excerpt of the interview appears below.

Sachi Satapathy: As a non-resident Indian who is actively engaged in US-India friendship, what is your view on India’s handling of Covid-19? Do you think the government of India could have done better to contain the spread of the virus in the country?

Rajendar Dichpally: To my understanding, the government of India could have managed Covid-19 and the country’s lockdown in a much better way….

When the government should have been working on a plan to deal with the pandemic, it was busy making arrangements for US President Donald Trump’s visit to India and usurping power in Madhya Pradesh. The government did not provide much option, space for citizens to prepare themselves to handle [the] crisis and abruptly shut down the country.

This led to bringing India’s economy into the doldrums, [with the] social fabric strained and health system over-stressed. Moreover, this situation created an unprecedented migrants crisis, which is fueling the virus’ spread across the country.

SS: How do you see the present unprecedented migrant laborers crisis in India?

RD: We continue to wake up to see heart-wrenching visuals of migrants without footwear and food walking to their homes. Visuals of pregnant women, little children, people atop a goods truck, those crushed to death while walking home on railway tracks have been deeply worrying.

There were millions of migrant workers who were left stranded all across the country, but no measures were taken to rescue or protect them. India’s total population, as recorded in Census 2011, stands at 1.21 billion. Internal migrants in India number 454 million, or 37% of the population. Yet even from the point of view of public health, the first lockdown was very poorly planned.

In mid-March, few workers who wished to return to their villages were infected. If these citizens had been given time to travel home, they would have re-entered their villages in a safe manner. Six weeks later, when the government wants to belatedly make amends by arranging trains for migrants, tens of thousands of returnees are carriers of the deadly virus.

SS: What would be your suggestion to India to handle the present Covid-19 crisis?

RD: The [central government] is now trying to pass the buck on to the states, but it is, of course, the central government who bears ultimate responsibility for what is unquestionably the [biggest] tragedy in the country since Partition.  

My suggestion for India is to adopt decentralization of power. The center must learn to respect the states far more than it currently does, as the states are in the forefront of the battle to contain the pandemic. We need a far greater decentralization of governance, from the center to the states, and from state capitals to panchayats and municipalities to address the problem.

SS: The government of India has announced a big financial package to recover the economy. What is your view on this package?

RD: The current package announced by government has left several sections like the poor, migrants, farmers, laborers, workers, small shopkeepers and the middle-class high and dry. The government of India must come up with immediate measures to help the distressed people who are devastated due to the virus-led country shutdown.

Very little of the package is about actual immediate expenditure by the government. Much of it is about loans, [which] banks will disburse where the government will stand as guarantor.

What [is] needed now is a direct cash transfer to all affected families for at least a period of three months or the duration of lockdown, but the package does not have any such provision. The government of India must reconsider its package and come up with immediate relief and a long-term sustainable poverty-alleviation scheme to help people come out of the present situation.

Sachi Satapathy

Sachi Satapathy is an international development practitioner who has worked on large-scale projects. His interests are in public policy, poverty alleviation and public-private partnerships for development in middle-income and developing countries.