People on the UK’s coronavirus furlough scheme should be put to work to help the country out of the crisis



At the moment, 7.5 million jobs in the UK are covered by the government’s furlough scheme, that’s an awful lot of people out of work. They say there are always lessons we can learn from history. In that case, it’s worth examining an 18th century proto-Keynesian state intervention in north India that proved successful.

It was launched by the Nawab of Awadh, Asaf-ud Daula in 1784, when famine hit the region. Awadh was a wealthy kingdom in the north of the Indian sub-continent. It lay on the fertile Doab plain between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers.

With no rain for a whole year, desperate refugees from the countryside flooded into Awadh’s capital, Lucknow. The price of wheat soared. According to an account in historian Meenakshi Khanna’s Cultural History Of Medieval India, people were “reduced to eating animal dung”.

Appetite for labour

The Nawab wanted to help his people but in a way that maintained their spirit of self-reliance and appetite for labour. There would be wages for work, he decided, embarking on construction projects on an “almost pharaonic scale” as a way to absorb the “influx of labourers thrown off the land and avoid urban food riots”.

By some accounts, construction of the sprawling mosque complex — Bara Imambara — ran for the best part of a decade, purely as an employment scheme. “Bara” means “big” and the Nawab spent big bucks on the project. Legend has it, peasants worked to raise the Imambara higher by day, while the noblemen sought to destroy those gains by night.

The project served to provide work for thousands, allowing them to feed their families for years. Today, Bara Imambara is a popular tourist attraction. Visitors are told stories about the wonders of its construction — no iron was used and the mosque’s roof is constructed from rice husk.

But the peculiarities of the materials used in its construction are hardly as riveting as Bara Imambara’s role as a relief project.

Pay-for-work scheme

In some ways the project could be called a pay-for-work scheme. Drought-hit Awadh’s farmers and agricultural workers were, in a sense, furloughed by Nawab Asaf-ud Daula. But they were made to work for the wages informally guaranteed by the ruler’s sense of responsibility and kindness.

The end result was Awadh got an imposing mosque complex, which continues to draw wondering tourists, while the desperate were given jobs.

This 18th century example of state intervention could be instructive during the coronavirus crisis. The UK government’s furlough scheme, originally meant to end on 30 June but extended until October, could make use of staff whose wages are guaranteed.

Put to work

Those already being paid by the government could be put to work. They could be used to carry out shoe-leather epidemiology, which is to say human contact tracing.

They could be recruited to serve as receptionists or call centre staff, complete data entries, work on IT, write and edit — any number of tasks governments and councils need to carry out.

Those who can should be asked to help pick crops, particularly with the UK’s peak harvesting season starting this month. The coronavirus crisis has prevented the arrival of many of the 70,000 to 80,000 overseas seasonal workers who would normally pick lettuce and berries.

The furloughed might be particularly important in the roll-out of a viable contact-tracing scheme to contain the pandemic. The government’s app-based plan was said to be ready to launch by the end of the month and “more than 17,000” contact tracers had supposedly been hired to help.

The British state pays people 80 per cent of their wages. It should seek recompense in kind. That will work best all round.