(The writer is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau)
Optimistic readings of experts including the Director of AIIMS, Delhi about the effectiveness of the 21-day lockdown in mitigating the danger of ‘community spread’ of the coronavirus in India, were in the backdrop when Prime Minister Narendra Modi interacted with the Chief Ministers through tele-conferencing on April 2 for reviewing the pandemic scene. He emphasized that there would be no ‘business as usual’ but urged them to deliberate on a staggered ‘exit strategy’ to be shared with the Centre to help the decision-making on whether the lockdown was to be extended or not.
The Prime Minister reaffirmed the need for observing ‘social distancing’ norms in the times to come and mandated that the action plan for the post-lockdown period would have to revolve round this basic requirement. The Centre has received a mixed feedback from the states. The Chief Minister of Delhi has added to the clarity of thought by indicating that any relaxation of the lockdown in the capital would be preceded by ‘rapid testing’ at the ‘clusters’ that had become the ‘hotspots’ — largely because of the undetected movements of the preachers of the Nizamuddin-based Tablighi Markaz. Cordoning of all such hotspots across the country for testing to determine the load of subsequent ‘quarantining’ or hospitalization, would in fact be a basic segment of India’s strategic planning to deal with the crisis.
Talking of a possible relaxation of curbs on the movement it may be noted that in normal times people moved for the purposes of work, shopping, entertainment, medical care and education and therefore the freedom of movement would need to be prioritized and self-regulated in a manner that made sense. Fixing the system of transport, establishing the supply chain for essential commodities, including medicines and micro-managing the public services at the ground level, will have to be given particular attention. While the pro-active handling of this global crisis by our Prime Minister and his team is reassuring, what is on test for the moment is the ability of the state administration to handle coordinated implementation of the post-lockdown protocols.
The willingness of local neighbourhoods and RWAs to practice precautionary do's and don’ts that are so well known to everybody now, will be of crucial importance. There will be no difficulty about the administration providing the segregated people with all essential supplies, medical attention and financial support wherever necessary. In the rural sector ‘social distancing’ is built into the agricultural work — awareness of the need to avoid festive get-togethers for the present can be easily raised there. Efficiency of governance would lie in making arrangements for the collection, storage and sale of the produce and prompt remittance of money to the grower. This responsibility should be delegated to the district administration — we should be thankful that India inherited the framework of a fairly autonomous administrative unit on the ground led by the Collector-SP duo which could meet all essential demands of the people.
Prime Minister Modi has since consulted leading lights of all professions and political parties on the possible measures that could be taken by India to sail through the crisis. The aim must be to get people back to work — sooner than later. Here a few lines of approach suggest themselves. All production units big or small — in the public or private sector — may have to reopen with staff in shifts coming in to resume work at the assembly lines. The enterprises that can afford it should deploy their own transport to bring in employees and executives of a shift by picking them up from fixed points. Public transport will have to reappear for others — here a new practise of restricting passengers to one-third of the capacity in a coach or bus to maintain ‘social distancing’ could be adopted. Anybody going out for work should wear a mask or a ‘face covering’ using a kerchief — the Mayor of New York has now recommended the latter for his people — not necessarily a high-end clinically prescribed contraption that was essential for medical and paramedic personnel handling corona cases.
The employers should incorporate ‘social distancing’ as an additional work ethics norm and include free meal at work to support it, if necessary. Precautionary thermal screening of people reporting for work would be important. Shopkeepers and the local service providers employing a few hands each can practice ‘social distancing’ even more easily. The availability of banking and ATM facilities should help the business in the unorganized and informal sectors of economy, to keep going. The important question of compensation being offered to businesses, particularly to MSMEs, will be under the consideration of policy makers. The environ of self-imposed restraint should be backed by the liberal use of Section 144 CrPC that discouraged assembly of four or more persons in the open. In India, where occasions for religious gatherings are so frequent, this kind of prohibition is desirable in public interest. The principle of only ‘essential’ movement being permitted will have to be kept in mind but without the rigour of a regulatory system of ‘authorization’ being brought into play. Opening of entertainment centres or a total restoration of educational institutions may not be a priority in the immediate context.
The leadership at the national apex had done its bit to protect the country from an imminent ‘community’ outbreak of the coronavirus and it is now for the states, the institutions and the people at large to have their share of responsibility in dealing with the residual overhanging threat. It is indeed remarkable how Prime Minister Modi connected with the people through simple devices like a collective applause for medical people and lighting a lamp to show ‘no one was alone’, to largely remedy the threat to mass psychology and mental health that this pandemic could have surely caused. He proved to be a national leader in the true sense and not a mere head of the government. Some sections of the opposition have tried to find fault with Prime Minister Modi — not for taking the lockdown decision itself but for making the announcement at short notice because of which, according to them, the formidable problem of large turnout of migrants on the roads with their families arose in the first instance. They should know that for both employers and the employees, the urgency of the lockdown was never in doubt. The outcome, by way of ‘reverse migration’, could have been foreseen but the authorities concerned of the state did handle the turnout of migrants subsequently on a satisfactory note. The aspect of mitigating economic distress caused by the prolonged lockdown to the masses without means, would mainly be tested by the performance of the administrative machinery of the country and would certainly be on public scrutiny — acting as a major factor impacting the political responses of the affected people.
There is little doubt that in many ways life will not be the same again even when the threat of virus is past us. In business and personal life predictable changes are in the offing. First, a decisive spurt in applied technology is already in evidence as businesses are learning to do with minimal manpower and the stores are opting to reach out to their customers on line. The debate on whether technology-driven automation could possibly aggravate unemployment is finally weighing in favour of the former — primarily because cost-effectiveness as a basic ingredient of profit would also acquire a new level of importance in a situation of economic slowdown. Secondly, resurgence of indigenous economy of India that was not so much dependent on the global interaction, is foreseen and that will become a major source of jobs and employment. And thirdly, a learning for Indians from the corona crisis is that just as they countered this danger by turning indoors they should also help the recovery of the Indian economy by taking to home products, domestic touring and indigenous services. There is likelihood of a huge enlargement of the system of take-outs and home deliveries of both products and services aided by the voluntary adoption of a few lifestyle changes by the people at large. Also, a greater reliance on home food partly due to the lack of assurance of ‘surface and hand hygiene’ at the food joints, inclination towards socialization in small groups of ‘known’ individuals rather than in large gatherings and a cultural shift in favour of willingness to use personal time more fruitfully, could be the lasting trend setters.
Interestingly, the corona pandemic has created reverberations in American politics by evoking a debate on whether in a democratic dispensation the ‘welfare state’ had to prevail over ‘free enterprise’ in order to do justice to the vast chunk of population that was economically weaker and hence more vulnerable than the affluent classes in the matter of surviving such a crisis. In the US, which is the third worst-affected nation after Italy and Spain, the Democrat nominee for Presidentship is said to be benefiting from the ideological stand of Bernie Sanders. In India the anti-Modi forces are highlighting the class divide in the context of corona lockdown by alleging that India’s poor and the weak had not been taken care of. The administrative response of the Centre and the states, if coordinated in the manner that the Modi regime was attempting to ensure, should enable the country to take care of the ordinary people — in quarantine camps or outside — through the period of acute difficulty. At the end of the day India will have its own politico-economic doctrine that suits its genius. (IANS)