In New Delhi, the Independence Day parade will be a comparatively low-key event, with just about 20 per cent of VVIPs and other participants in attendance, following social distancing measures. Unlike in previous years, the event will be conspicuous by the absence of school children, who have been restrained from participation. In Tamil Nadu, the Chief Minister has also urged people not to visit the Secretariat as part of pre-emptive measures to halt the spread of the virus.
As one of the major national holidays, curtailed to an extent due to COVID-19, the developments surrounding I-Day celebrations are a bellwether of how this year’s festive season is set to roll out in India. Usually, the months following August are marked by a flurry of activity, on social and economic fronts. A line-up of holidays, starting from Independence Day, followed by Vijaya Dashami to Deepavali and Christmas/New Year, is marked in calendars across the country. The changes the holiday calendar will witness during the pandemic is staggering. For instance, typical holiday routines, which garner the most anticipation among office-goers - i.e. the long weekend preceding any such major festival, has gone for a toss. So has the economic ecosystem that thrived around them. Everything from hospitality to vacationing and leisure activities to modern retail has ground to a halt in this season, which was the one where most sectors actually earned their incomes.
A recent survey revealed 53% of leading hotel operators in India shut down over 80% of their inventory during the lockdown. And as much as 60% of operators believed it will take between a year or two for their portfolio to bounce back to 2019 levels. It’s a tumbledown impact that businesses across the board are set to face. The nation, which celebrates festivals with pomp and gaiety, is seeing artisans and craftsmen reeling under the impact of lockdowns and the ensuing loss of business due to COVID-19. In the backdrop of the upcoming Ganesh Chaturthi, processions are being strictly discouraged. This also means a death-knell for craftsmen involved in setting up Ganesha pandals and larger than life idols during this season.
An entire ancillary economy that was dependent on India’s festive fervour is set to go underground as a fallout of the pandemic - from goldsmiths to flagmakers, to fireworks industries, to vendors of sweetmeats and staffers in textile hubs where sari makers are staring at a bleak season. The country’s retail sector employs over 40-50 mn people and contributes to roughly 10 per cent of its GDP. A lacklustre festive time means India will shear off a huge quantum of its GDP too.
Keeping this in mind, the government will need to step in and offer some relief to the working classes. Relief on GST, taxes, and loans are part of the wishlist in most business sectors. Relaxation on utility bills such as electricity as well as gas connections is also being sought by many industries. And in order to limit layoffs, many business owners are seeking waivers on rental as well as employee support schemes from the government. Token declarations of national pride will not suffice during this Independence Day. It will need to be backed by coherent measures on the ground to ensure everyone gets to experience the fruits of freedom, as they were meant to be.