Since its birth in August 1947, the Indian nation has often passed through difficult times. Consider the suffering caused by the Partition of India; the famines and wars of the 1960s; Indira Gandhi’s Emergency of the 1970s; and the communal rioting of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The times our country is now going through may be the most challenging yet. This is because the Covid-19 pandemic has led to at least six distinct crises, as outlined below.
First, and most apparent, is the medical crisis. As the cases of citizens struck by the virus rise, the pressure on our already weak and overburdened health system will grow. At the same time, the overwhelming focus on managing the fallout of the epidemic will mean that other major problems are left unattended. The millions of Indians who suffer from tuberculosis, heart disease, hypertension and so on may find that the doctors and the hospitals that would otherwise be available to them are now harder to access. More worrying perhaps is the case of the millions of babies born in India every month. Over the years, an institutional structure had been put in place to vaccinate these newborns against deadly diseases (such as measles, mumps, polio, diphtheria, among other ailments). Now, field reports suggest that with their attention diverted to Covid-19, state governments are falling behind in their programmes to provide immunization to our youngest citizens.
Second, and also very apparent, is the economic crisis. The pandemic has grievously damaged such employment-generating industries as textiles, airlines, tourism and hospitality. The lockdown may have had an even greater impact on the informal sector; putting tens of millions of labourers, vendors and artisans out of work. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy estimates that the unemployment rate, which stood at 7 per cent in early March, is now over 27 per cent. In the richer and better-run countries of Western Europe, those rendered jobless are provided reasonably adequate financial relief to help them tide over this crisis. On the other hand, in our poorer and badly-managed Republic, those rendered destitute are given meagre support by the State.
Third, we have on our hands a major humanitarian crisis. The defining image of the pandemic for India will be the photographs and the videos of migrants walking hundreds of miles to reach their hometowns and native villages. The gravity of the pandemic may perhaps have mandated a temporary nationwide lockdown; but it should surely have been planned more wisely. Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of life in India knows that millions of Indians are migrants, working far away from where their families continue to live. How this fact escaped the prime minister, or his advisers, beggars belief. Had citizens been given a week’s (and not four hours’) notice by the prime minister, with the assurance that the existing, well-established system of trains and buses would work in this period, those who wanted to return home could have done so safely and comfortably.
As experts have pointed out, the failure to plan the lockdown properly has exacerbated the public health crisis. Workers rendered jobless should have been allowed to return to their families in early March when few were carriers of the virus; now, two months later, as the Central government belatedly and guiltily organizes trains for them, tens of thousands are carrying the virus back to their home districts.
The humanitarian crisis is part of a broader social crisis that the country now confronts. Long before Covid-19, Indian society was deeply hierarchical in terms of class and caste, and deeply prejudiced in terms of religion. The pandemic and its mishandling have furthered these divides. The burden of suffering has fallen disproportionately on those who were already economically disadvantaged. Meanwhile, the religious profiling of cases by ruling party MPs (and even more regrettably, by senior government officials) has made India’s already vulnerable Muslim minority feel even more insecure. The prime minister stayed silent while the stigmatization of Indian Muslims carried on unchecked; it was only after sharp criticism from countries in the Gulf that he issued an anodyne statement to the effect that the virus recognized no religion. By that time, the poison unleashed by the ruling party and its ‘godi media’ had penetrated deep into the consciousness of ordinary Indians across the country.
The fourth crisis is not as apparent as the first three. But it may become quite serious nonetheless. This is a looming psychological crisis. Those rendered jobless, those forced to walk home, may never have the confidence to return to the cities they left. One particularly worries about the psychological impact on our school children and college students, left to cope by themselves in the months ahead. Among adults too, the economic insecurity could lead to a spike in depression and other mental illnesses with profound consequences for themselves and their families.
The fifth crisis is the weakening of Indian federalism. The invocation of the Disaster Management Act has allowed the Centre to arrogate extreme powers to itself. At least in the first months of the pandemic, states were not given the autonomy they required to deal with the challenge in a matter best suited to their local contexts. The Centre kept on issuing a series of arbitrary and sometimes conflicting instructions from above. Meanwhile, the states are starved of financial resources by the Centre; even the money owed to them under their share of GST collections has not been paid to them.
The sixth crisis, which is closely allied to the fifth, is the weakening of Indian democracy. Under the cover of the pandemic, intellectuals and activists are being arrested under draconian acts such as the UAPA. Ordinances are being passed and major policy decisions taken without being discussed in Parliament. Pressure is being put on the owners of major newspapers and television channels not to carry criticism of the government. Meanwhile, the State and the ruling party are furthering the personality cult of the prime minister. During the Emergency, there was only one Deva Kanta Barooah who said “Indira is India, and India is Indira”; now, cabinet ministers are outdoing one another in sickening acts of public sycophancy towards the prime minister.
The Indian medical system is overburdened; the Indian economy is in a shambles; Indian society is divided and fragile; Indian federalism is weaker than before; the Indian State is becoming increasingly authoritarian — it is the combination of all these factors that makes this perhaps the greatest crisis the country has faced since Partition.
How can we, as a country, come through this extraordinarily difficult period with our economy, society and polity still moderately intact? To begin with, the government must recognize clearly the many (and interrelated) dimensions of the problems our nation currently confronts. Second, it must learn from what Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel did back in 1947 — when, recognizing the enormity of the challenge the country then faced, they set aside ideological differences and got erstwhile opponents like B.R. Ambedkar into the cabinet. A National Government of that kind might not be feasible now; but surely there is nothing to stop the prime minister from actively consulting Opposition leaders with ability and expertise. Third, the prime minister must learn to respect and rely on experts in economics, science and public health, rather than make decisions impulsively, based on their potential dramatic effect. Fourth, the Centre and the ruling party must altogether abandon their desire to harass states not ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Fifth, the Centre must accord full autonomy to the civil services, the armed forces, the judiciary and the investigative agencies, rather than seek to make them instruments of those currently in power.
This is a partial list of suggestions, based on one person’s understanding of our past and our present. It remains only for me to reiterate that this is no ordinary predicament; rather, this may very well be the greatest challenge in the history of the Republic. We shall need all our wisdom, all our resources, and all our compassion to overcome it.