The year 2020 brought India its most serious economic and security issues in many years. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the country into a recession. And a military conflict with China along Himalayan borders worsened relations with its powerful neighbor.
India ordered one of the world’s most severe lockdowns in March, when it had just a few hundred coronavirus cases. But when the country started opening up, the virus began to spread quickly. By the end of the year, India was the second-worst hit nation, with nearly 10 million COVID-19 cases.
Millions of people lost jobs and hundreds of small businesses closed. But experts warned that the economic problems went deeper than the health crisis.
The first evidence of this came in April when India witnessed a never-before-seen exodus of migrant laborers. Having lost jobs in cities, millions walked hundreds of kilometers to their villages when all transport was halted.
India has been the worst hit among large economies because nearly 90 percent of its workers survive on its informal sector. The economy is expected to fall by nine percent this year, its worst recession in 40 years.
The Center for Monitoring Indian Economy estimated that about 120 million jobs were lost from April to June. Many jobs came back as the government began easing lockdowns to help. But millions of people are still struggling to find work.
Among the jobless are tens of thousands of street sellers whose businesses were destroyed by the pandemic.
Ranga Shalivan restarted his two small roadside food stands in July in the city of Hyderabad. For months, few people bought his food. But he has seen some improvement in recent weeks.
It’s a little better now, “but I am still making only about half the money that I used to. It has been very hard,” he said.
The government has announced two stimulus bills. But Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told industry leaders it would not be enough to deal with the crisis caused by the pandemic.
Now at the end of the year, there is hope that the worst may be over as India gets control of the health crisis. Numbers of new COVID-19 infections are lessening. And a new vaccine is expected to come within weeks.
Economist Arun Kumar, however, has warned that real progress will be a long-term process for the world’s second most populous country.
As the government battled the pandemic, India was dealing with a crisis on its borders with China in the northern state of Ladakh. India said in May that Chinese troops had crossed over into its side of the unmarked border.
In June, a bloody clash with China killed 20 Indian soldiers and led to a continuing tense situation. The dispute shows no signs of resolution even after several attempts at negotiations.
Thousands of troops from both countries now remain on the icy Himalayan mountains in below-zero temperatures. It is the biggest military deployment in years for the two nations.
“There is a belated recognition in India that China, not Pakistan, is our only and biggest threat,” said Bharat Karnad. He is a policy expert from New Delhi’s Center for Policy Research. He warned that the situation could worsen, especially in the spring when the snow melts.
During the past year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also faced some of his biggest challenges since taking power six years ago. There was widespread protest over a new citizenship law that critics say discriminates against Muslims. In the Indian capital in February, communal riots killed more than 50 people. Then in December, tens of thousands of farmers camped on the edges of New Delhi, angered by new farming laws. They worry the laws will open them to corporate abuse.
Experts say while the pandemic tested nations worldwide, India’s challenges could make the road to recovery longer and harder.
(Anjana Pasricha reported this story for VOA News)