Coronavirus Shatters India’s Economy – The New York Times

Coronavirus Shatters India's Economy - The New York Times

SURAT, India — The hit that India’s dreams have taken from the coronavirus pandemic can be found in the hushed streets of Surat’s industrial zone.

You can see it in textile mills that took generations to build but are now sputtering, eking out about a tenth of the fabric they used to make.

You can see it in the lean faces of the families who used to sew the finishing touches on saris but, with so little business, are now cutting back on vegetables and milk.

You can see it in the empty barbershops and mobile phone stores, which shoppers have deserted as their meager savings dwindle to nothing.

Ashish Gujarati, the head of a textile association in this commercial hub on India’s west coast, stood in front of a deserted factory with a shellshocked look on his face and pointed up the road.

“You see that smokestack?” he asked. “There used to be smoke coming out of it.”

But its stature in the world is slipping. Last quarter the Indian economy shrank by 24 percent, while China’s is growing again. Economists say India risks losing its place as the world’s fifth largest economy, behind the United States, China, Japan and Germany.

“This is probably the worst situation India has been in since independence,” said Jayati Ghosh, a development economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “People have no money. Investors aren’t going to invest if there is no market. And the costs have gone up for most production.”

Many neighborhoods in the capital of New Delhi where low-paid workers used to live are deserted, shell-like, a hot wind blowing through empty, tin-walled shacks. A few years ago, when the economy was expanding at a 9 percent clip, it was difficult to find a place here to rent.

When Mr. Modi was swept to power in 2014 on a tide of Hindu nationalism, many Indians felt their nation had finally found the forceful leader to match their aspirations.

But Mr. Modi has concentrated his energies on divisive ideological projects, like a new citizenship law that blatantly discriminates against Muslims or tightening the government’s grip over the mostly Muslim region of Kashmir.

Quarter by quarter, India’s economic growth rate has been dropping, from 8 percent in 2016 to 4 percent right before the pandemic. Four percent would be respectable for a developed country like the United States. But in India, that level is no match for the millions of young people streaming into the work force each year, hungry for their first job.

“India’s embarrassing slowdown in the second quarter of 2020 is almost entirely because of the nature of the lockdown,” said Kaushik Basu, a former chief economist at the World Bank and now a professor at Cornell. “This may have been worth it if it arrested the pandemic. It did not.”

He called the approach “lockdown-and-scatter” and said Mr. Modi’s policies had been a “failure.”

Some workers have trickled back to the cities. But the construction and manufacturing industries have contracted sharply because many migrant laborers remain so traumatized, they don’t want to ever go back.

“We went hungry for days,” said Mohammad Chand, who once worked in a garment factory near Delhi but fled to his ancestral village, hundreds of miles away. “I had to shunt from place to place after being thrown out by the landlord. Even relatives started showing us the door.”

“I don’t want to be in that situation again,” he said.

In Surat’s textile market, Jagdish Goyal sat scowling in his deserted shop with piles of women’s suits in teals and oranges, priced for the working poor, now stacked to the ceiling.

“Nobody’s buying,” he said. “Why? Because there are no social functions. No weddings to dress up for. No places to go. No big birthday parties. People are scared to go out.”

According to a recent Google Mobility Report, which tracks cellphone data, trips to retail and recreation areas have dropped by 39 percent compared with before the pandemic. In Brazil and the United States, the only countries with more coronavirus infections, the drops were less than half as severe.

Mr. Modi’s government has provided some emergency relief, around $260 billion, but economists said too little flowed to the poor. Tax revenues have plummeted, some states are unable to pay health care workers and government debt is approaching its highest level in 40 years.

Still, Mr. Modi’s popularity keeps rising. A recent poll published in India Today, a leading newsmagazine, showed his approval rating at 78 percent, the highest in five years.

Part of this can be explained by the competition’s collapse. The biggest opposition party, the Indian National Congress, has been hit by defections, back-stabbing and a never-ending existential crisis on who should lead it. And Mr. Modi’s embrace of Hindu nationalism plays well within the Hindu majority, about four-fifths of the population.

“His protection of Hindu values is a big reason why I support him,” said Mr. Goyal, the seller of ladies’ suits. “If our self-respect isn’t alive, what good is the economy?”

A few parts of the economy are doing OK. Agriculture has been lifted by strong monsoon rains. In some cities, like New Delhi, many businesses are open again, though they might have new signs on the doors that say: “No more than 3 People Inside” or “Flat 40 Percent Off!”

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