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From 1962 war to Covid: A brief history of shocks in India

How is the Centre’s handling of the pandemic different from its response to previous shocks?

Written by Dhanmanjiri Sathe |
Updated: June 10, 2021 8:29:59 am
Doctors helping patients for routine breathing exercise at the Post covid care ward at Dhanvantari covid hospital in Vastrapur, Ahmedabad. (Express Photo: Nirmal Harindran)

Covid-19 has been a great shock to the world and India. A shock would not be a shock if it could be predicted. Hence, the question to ask is how does a country respond to shocks? India as a country has faced many shocks and here’s my list.

The first shock was the Chinese aggression of 1962 when over 1,000 soldiers died. The response was to nominate a new defence minister, increase the budgetary allocation for defence and alter India’s understanding of the world and foreign policy in a fundamental way.

The second shock that India faced was the severe drought in 1965-1966, which was internationally humiliating. The response to it was the launching of the Green Revolution. On the one hand, the government started to buy surplus foodgrains from the farmers and on the other hand, the grain was distributed all over the country. Starvation deaths were avoided and the state took on the responsibility of citizens’ bodies. The first point to be noted is that there was a team headed by Indira Gandhi (prime minister), C Subramaniam (agriculture minister) and M S Swaminathan (scientist), which made the Green Revolution possible. Second, science and technology were relied on. And third, organisational innovations (like the Food Corporation of India) were made. Further, given the magnitude of the crisis, it was never mentioned that agriculture is a state subject!

The third shock was political and it came in 1975 with the imposition of Emergency. Within this, I want to look at the harsh family planning programme because it involved citizens’ bodies. This programme was forcibly conducted, mainly in north India, by Sanjay Gandhi with the support of Indira Gandhi, the PM and his mother. It was felt that vasectomies were the answer to the burgeoning population problem. It was an abominable action on many counts. State-of-the-art science was used, though for repressive ends — it is well known that the contraception methods for men (like vasectomy) are better than those for women.

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After this, there seems to be a period of lull. No big shocks till 1991 when there was an external sector shock. The team to deal with this crisis consisted of P V Narasimha Rao (PM), Manmohan Singh (finance minister) and M S Ahluwalia (finance secretary). Experts like S S Tarapore (from the RBI) also played a very important role by not acceding to the capital account convertibility requirement of the IMF. Armed with the knowledge of economic theory and how the Indian economy actually works on the ground, a change was sought to be brought about. Both policy and organisational change was brought about slowly, without disrupting the economy. The devil was in the details and the experts thought of many innovative ways (like in the initial stages, 60-40 exchange rate for the exporters) and got good results.

Now, there is the shock of Covid-19, starting from January 2020. Admittedly, this is a once-in-a-hundred-years shock, it encompasses the entire world and one will have to learn while on the run. We will keep aside the economic issues and concentrate on the pandemic as such.

One can begin by accepting that science is not something fixed and given. In view of new evidence, back-tracking is justified. But even then some major gaps remain. We would evaluate the government’s response to the shock on the basis of the above mentioned three criteria — the team, the science and the organisational innovations put together.


Health being a state subject, it was said that states are responsible. But given the seriousness and contagious nature of the virus, and the kind of financial, physical and scientific resources that the Centre possesses, shouldn’t the Union government have played a crucial role? There is no clarity about who is in the team. It is not clear if the Covid-19 task force and control room in the Niti Aayog are the same. The Prime Minister makes some announcements, the health minister and some other ministers issue various kinds of statements. So, the information comes about in a dispersed manner. This is happening at the state level also.

Many ideas are floating about issues such as the gap between the two shots and taking two different vaccines. Only after they have floated for some time, a final announcement is made by the authorities. This pattern has unfortunate results in a country where vaccine hesitancy is high.

It was said initially that the central government was going to procure vaccines. Later, the responsibility was put on the states. So every chief minister tried to do something, which led to confusion and competition amongst states. Now the PM has announced the Centre will procure the vaccines.


Further, rampant unscientific statements are being made by people in the government — for instance, sharing the platform with those advocating Patanjali medicines. Allowing Kumbh Mela, mega election rallies were obvious cases of not following science. The UK, Germany and Sweden followed different “sciences” with different results. But they were listening to the expert opinion. In our case, two scientists resigned from government groups, revealing the unimportance the government gives to science.

The government needs to improve on all three criteria. We are again in the international arena to meet our need for vaccines, but our national pride does not seem to have been hurt much. That is worrying.

This column first appeared in the print edition on June 10, 2021 under the title ‘Shocked and awed’. The writer is emeritus professor at the Savitribai Phule Pune University.

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First published on: 10-06-2021 at 03:30:49 am
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