What Narendra Modi and Nirmala Sitharaman can learn from the Mughals, the Marathas—and the Maharaja of Mysore—on direct cash transfer to India’s needy

With millions suddenly thrown out of jobs due to closures and shutdowns following the COVID outbreak, or deprived of a source of livelihood, governments across the world have rushed to cushion the blow.

The quantum of support has varied but in most developed economies, citizens—workers, self-employed, freelancers—-have been front and centre, as they should be.

Japan gave $930 (Rs 70,000) to every one of its 12 crore citizens.

Germany paid $5,000 (Rs 300,000) in assistance to freelancers; American workers received a $1,200 (Rs 90,000) stimulus check.

France offered self-employed workers $1,600 (Rs 120,000) and Italy $650 (Rs 50,000); Ireland $220 (Rs 16,000) made weekly payments to self-employed people.

The Netherlands said it would pay 90% of workers’ salaries; UK 80% and Denmark 75-90%, Hong Kong said it would pay 50% for six months.

Australia gave $750 to around 60 lakh low-income earners. Malaysia subsidised wages for those earned $915 per month (Rs 70,000) for 3 months.

If only the same could be said of India.

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The three “stimulus packages” announced by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman in mid-May were revealed to be just a fraction of the rest of the world (see graphic, above), and labelled as a “confidence trick” played on the people of India.

Worse, the Rs 20 lakh crore package that was grandly projected as being equivalent to 10% of the GDP was first shown up to be half of that, and then not even that. Twelve bankers and ratings agencies agreed it was no more than 1% of the GDP.

The former Union minister Jairam Ramesh came up with a new sobriquet for Narendra Modi: “Jagadguru of Jhoot”.

Little wonder, Indian print media which rarely agrees on anything, agreed that the stimulus package was “not sufficient, falls short, underwhelming, grossly insufficient”.

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With “jumla” now a part of every Indian’s lexicon thanks to Amit Shah, the jugglery of numbers will not surprise anybody, but what should surprise everybody is how little money has reached the millions who truly need it.

Despite the Made-for-WhatsApp announcements of the “stimulus packages”, nearly no one has received an SMS alert.

And despite calls by former finance minister P. Chidambaram to set aside Rs 500,000 crore and pay Rs 3,000 a month, for six months, directly to the 12 crore, bottom-half of all Indian households, there has been very little empathy—or action—from a nation striding towards a $5 trillion dollar economy.

Result: the 30 million people who trudged across the nation on foot, bicycle or any means available, and the 116 million who have lost their jobs, have been left to fend for themselves and self-practice atmanirbharatha.

But was it always this way during crises in the past?

Were the rulers always this blasé—and transactional?

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In an article in The Hindu magazine, Mario de Penha, an historian doing his PhD at Rutgers, wrote of how Shah Jahan and Shivaji dealt with hunger, famine and the migrant crises of their time.

In 1630, the monsoon had failed for two years and the Deccan Famine erupted. It lasted two years. Shah Jahan, writes De Penha, organised food and cash transfers to urban residents of Gujarat and the Deccan, and to rural migrants.

Shah Jahan set up langars (food camps) to feed the poor and disbursed cash to them on Mondays so that they could buy grains. Why Mondays? Because that apparently was the day he had ascended the throne four years earlier.

In all, over 20 weeks, Shah Jahan spent Rs 150,000 in the currency of that time, says De Penha. He also did let go of revenues from the two areas, which worked out to a sizeable 9% of the income.

Over a century later, Shivaji decreed similar revenue remission, when confronted by war and famine.

The Peshwa ruler ordered austerity measures for his military so that food did not run out for the peasants. He also exhorted his officials to not neglect the warehouses holding grain stocks.

To woo migrant workers back, Shivaji and his successors granted them “revenue privileges” to give them a sense of participation in state building, and issued abhaypatras explicitly promising security to the returning migrants.

To induce their return, Peshwa Balaji Bajirao’s abhaypatra promised to forego revenue collections the following year, increasing it to the full rate by the fourth year.

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A similar example emerges from Mysore in 1897, when the plague broke out.

In an interview with the Kannada daily Andolana (above), Pramodadevi Wodeyar, the wife of the last scion, Srikantadatta Wodeyar, recounts the manner in which the kingdom dealt with the disease.

“A special legislation was enacted by the maharajas. Every single person entering the city by road or by rail was sent to medical camps set up in Veeranagere and Alanahalli. Like in quarantines, vegetarians and non-vegetarians were segregated.

“Both prevention and cure were incentivised. Anybody who caught and killed a rat was paid one anna (about 6 paise). Adults who underwent vaccination were paid four annas (25 paise) and children were paid one anna. Out-of-towners were paid to build bamboo huts to self-quarantine themselves.

“Workers were paid a year’s salary in advance and encouraged to build their own houses,” Pramodadevi Wodeyar is quoted as saying.

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In the year of the lord, 2020, when nearly nobody—not your driver, not your house help, not your barber, not your vegetable vendor, nobody—claims to have received anything like what the WhatsApp propaganda claims, the Mughals, the Marathas and Mysore, offer a lesson in the role of the “State”.

To those who are willing to learn from political history (entire course) without having to slyly increase petrol and diesel prices every night while you were sleeping.

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Screenshots: courtesy Hindustan Times, The Telegraph, The Hindu, Andolana

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Listen to this podcast with P. Sainath on what happened in Mysore in 1911, during the grand darbar.

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