Catastrophes such as pandemics and wars are devastating but, many a time, give a nation an opportunity to reboot itself. They provide the chance for metamorphosis and catharsis. The Covid-19 outbreak has shown that India has not evolved as a just and caring society.
These are the eight failings of India.
The coronavirus crisis has been unprecedented and requires innovative policy solutions at the governance level. At a time when many countries’ parliaments and parliamentary institutions are deliberating how to fight the coronavirus and discussing policies, albeit mostly virtually, the Indian Parliament decided to shut itself prematurely on 24 March.
Countries around the world evolved different ways to keep their legislatures functioning. Some nations have opted for virtual sessions, whereas others have decided to truncate the number of parliamentarians. But taking a cue from Parliament, India’s state assemblies also stopped functioning. And so, one of the three pillars of democracy became non-functional at a time when it was required the most. Parliamentarians such as Shashi Tharoor and Tiruchi Siva have demanded that Parliament be convened. But the Narendra Modi government and the presiding officers have not responded yet. We must ensure that supremacy of Parliament is not sacrificed at the altar of any emergency.
The executive has become too powerful and dependent on bureaucracy to deliver. And it has failed miserably. The elected part of the executive — the prime minister and the cabinet — is taking all the policy decisions on behalf of Parliament. The executive has no mechanism to accommodate any opposition. A group of ministers was formed and it advised the prime minister on all policy matters. This created a linear, unitary system that functions in a seamless manner because there is no one to object or raise a red flag. No one told the executive that the sudden announcement of a lockdown will result in the exodus of millions of labourers. It fell upon the ‘selected’ part of the executive — the bureaucracy — to implement all such decisions. But the bureaucracy is not trained to be innovative and creative, which is the need of the hour. One-size-fits-all policies don’t work in a pandemic. So far, there have been more than 4,860 orders and clarifications related to Covid-19 from the Centre and states.
The system of PM, CM and DM, as Shekhar Gupta describes it, has proved chaotic and lacklustre in the past two months of lockdown. The bureaucracy and, for that matter, the executive function properly only when a strong Parliament guides and supervises their functioning.
India’s courts have provided no solutions. It’s true that the judiciary has a limited role in such a situation, but even that limited role was ignored by it. The Supreme Court has taken the position that Covid-19-related decisions are the prerogative of the executive branch of the government and it will not meddle in it. This is a case of extreme separation of power and leads to a situation in which the executive does not face any criticism from any quarter for its decisions. Even the national media platforms are not fulfilling their role as a watchdog. Many TV channels even tried to communalise the pandemic during the initial phase of the lockdown and saw nothing but the Tablighi Jamaat incident.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday, belatedly, took note of the plight of jobless labourers and the “inadequacies and certain lapses” of the Centre and states. It also asked governments to provide food, shelter and transport for free to the labourers. It was too little, too late.
It is clear more than ever that India has not invested enough on public healthcare. If India has an opportunity to reboot its policies after the Covid crisis, the first and foremost thing it must do is increase public spending on health. This money should primarily be spent to augment the public healthcare system at the district and block level.
Most private hospitals and private practitioners recused themselves from treating Covid-19 patients. Almost the entire patient load of Covid-related cases is being handled by government hospitals. The much-maligned sarkari doctors and health professionals are the ones risking their lives to save others. States such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu performed well in terms of patient care because their government healthcare centres are functional. Whereas in north India, what we have in the name of government hospitals is a sham. Let’s have a public healthcare system that most of the capitalist European countries have. This will be India’s first step to becoming a welfare state in the true sense.
The Constitution of India has a section on right to equality, but that is only our official position. In reality, we are perhaps one of the most unequal societies in the world, in terms of distribution of wealth and privileges. During the Covid-19 crisis, every section of society was not equally impacted. At a time when the urban elite and middle-class are tweeting about Covid self-care routines and Covid food, millions of labourers are facing the worst form of hardships. The Covid crisis has shown us what kind of a society we are and how heartless we can become.
In his famous essay, What is a Nation, French philosopher Ernst Renan had said that if you cannot cry together, you are not a nation. The Covid crisis has shown that Indians do not have a sense of shared sorrow. This is one problem of our nation for which I cannot provide a way out. But I know for sure that without empathy for other citizens, India will remain as a nation in the making. I am borrowing this term from Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s speech in the Constituent Assembly.
The truism of the idea of ‘internal colonisation’ was evident during the lockdown, as swaths of jobless labourers moved from states such as Maharashtra, Delhi, Gujarat to their villages in the eastern, northern and central Indian states. It implies, and has been corroborated by the Census and many surveys also, that in the post-liberalised era, the investors — foreign and Indian both — have chosen only some areas as their favourite destinations. In this process, some other states became laggard and poorer.
We may argue that in a free market economy, it is for the private capital to decide where to set up a plant or where to have its offices, but the Covid crisis has shown that this unequal distribution is not good even for business. Many areas are now facing scarcity of labour after the great migration of 2020. The industry and the state have to recalibrate their policies to realign the development process. A modern nation should not follow the policy of internal colonisation.
We do not care for ourselves and our surroundings as a society. Environment isn’t a concern for most Indians. As the nation is locked down, the flora and fauna, the rivers and the jungles have got a new lease of life. The chocked cities have started breathing again. But the cities need more time to heal. Soon, we will make our habitat a dense, dark, polluted place again. Are we ready to learn some lessons from one of the biggest crises of the history of humankind?
The other thing that Covid has exposed is that India’s middle class has organised itself into independent republics in urban and semi-urban cities. It has done this through gated communities and RWAs. And these gated republics are quintessentially elitist, anti-poor, anti-labourers and self-serving. These are the newly prosperous middle classes that have come into money since the economic reforms of 1991. But the new prosperity has also robbed them of a sense of fraternity and socialist justice. This class mostly performs symbolic rituals of patriotism and virtue signalling but its engagement with the poor has been panning out.
This is akin to what American economist and political commentator Robert Reich calls the ‘secession of the successful” to describe how the wealthy have retreated from civil society into private gated-communities. A new book by Shankkar Aiyar called The Gated Republic says, “Indians are desperately seceding, as soon as their income allows… and investing in pay and plug economy”. So, the less they depend on the government, the less their investment in trying to improve state service delivery for the poor.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.