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Fines, not fear, will work for Indian ‘daredevils’ using coronavirus off-time to socialise

PM Narendra Modi asked for a daylong ‘janata curfew’. But for Indians to do this for a longer period, there has to be rewards or fines.

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The Janata Curfew that Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked Indians to self-impose Sunday proved two things — one, most Indians don’t really care about a task without reward or punishment or an Instagram post and two, we aren’t ready for coronavirus.

So, coronavirus parties with politicians and family get-togethers on self-isolation Sundays are going to be the new normal. And plus, social distancing is hard for a country of a billion people.

If there is no incentive or punishment, Indians are going to move out of quarantine centres to spend Holi with parents and not self-isolate while using their upper-caste, upper-class privilege to skip tests. In fact, the urban dictionary calls them ‘covidiot,’ a term for those who ignore social distancing protocol, thus helping to further spread COVID-19.

If we are to stop novel coronavirus, India needs to impose fines. But there is a catch.

Need for fines

Doctors from across the globe have appealed for the practice of social distancing, but that is a difficult concept for Indians to digest. To tackle the situation that we are now faced with, following protocols is a must. However, we are not a people who are known for abiding by rules, Delhi’s streets are a prime example of that.

On 19 March 2020, six people with a travel history from abroad reportedly fled from Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital as they were not satisfied with the services being provided there. They were sent to LNJP Hospital from Ram Manohar Lal Hospital, as that is where COVID-19 tests were taking place.

Such irresponsible behaviour is trademark Indian.

The first positive COVID-19 case in West Bengal, who had recently returned from the UK, evaded tests for two days. Although he was asymptomatic, he was advised to visit the Beleghata ID Hospital at the airport itself. Son of a senior official serving in the West Bengal home department, the mother-son duo earned chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s wrath who said, “I will not tolerate any VVIP, VIP or LIP (less important person) culture here. This is about public health.”

Singer Kanika Kapoor — who recently returned from London and refrained from informing authorities about her travel history— and her partying has put the lives of many bureaucrats, politicians and socialites at risk after she tested positive for COVID-19. And perhaps, even the President.

Also Read: Shahid Kapoor, your muscles can wait. Let coronavirus pass before you hit the gym

The Madhya Pradesh government crisis has been making headlines for over a week now. Chief minister Kamal Nath resigned on 20 March before the floor test. Images of hundreds of BJP supporters welcoming Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who will most likely take over from Nath, have been doing the rounds. The call for social distancing clearly fell on deaf ears as politics takes precedence over a deadly pandemic.

While these are some of the few incidents that are public knowledge, given Indians’ disregard for rules, I have no doubt the reality is much worse. The only way to ensure implementation of curfews, quarantining of infected people and reporting of cases is to impose a strict list of varying degrees of penalties.

Perhaps that’s why the Epidemics Act was invoked by the Modi government on 12 March. It was created 123 years ago as a ‘medical surveillance’ tool by the British to stop runaways during the bubonic plague. It was the same act that was used to lodge an FIR against the coronavirus positive woman who travelled from Hyderabad, travelled to Delhi and then to Agra. Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) has also been imposed starting from 9 pm on 22 March till midnight of 31 March in Delhi. Anybody who is found contravening the order will be punishable under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, says the order issued by the commissioner of Delhi Police. This means that violators will face imprisonment up to one month.

Also Read: ‘Janata curfew’ is a public drill, won’t really stop spread of coronavirus: Experts

Certainty not severity of punishment 

In my 23 years in Delhi, the metro is the only place that I have seen where rules are (sort of) followed strictly. The service has been in function for 18 years now, and the quality has more or less been maintained. This is because the DMRC has a system that allows penalisation of those who break rules.

You don’t see any paan spit marks or litter in the coaches, and while this must be attributed to the staff who is responsible for the cleanliness, a reputation for reprimanding rule breakers makes a greater difference than the rules themselves.

Last year, the Modi government introduced the New Motor Vehicles Act that increased road awareness among citizens. Drunken driving, driving without a license, over-speeding, jumping red light, not wearing the seat belt are some of the many offences that now attract a much higher penalty than they used to.

The motive behind this was “to imbibe a sense of responsibility among citizens”. While there is hardly any data available to verify this claim, as a regular Uber-rider, I can say with confidence that drivers have become much more careful and prefer to drive (way) under the speed limit.

Manu Joseph, a senior journalist, once wrote: “For a threat of fines to be effective, you should first win the respect of those you threaten.”

I can’t say with much certainty whether Indians respect the Modi government or not, but they do fear it. And fear is a strong enough reason for people to start falling in line. And fall in line we must.

Views are personal.  

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  1. Hum padhe likhe log hain. We should give a better account of ourselves, especially at such times. When LKY was a student in London, he observed Englishmen pick up newspapers outside the railway station, for their ride home in the evening, and drop a coin into an untended box placed above them. This was a nation that had come through a long, debilitating war. When he returned to Singapore, he resolved, This is the sort of people we should become. 2. Although my views are different from those of the RSS, this is also the spirit it should inculcate in all the fine young Indians who attend its morning sessions.

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