Updated: January 16, 2021 8:49:13 am
In an unprecedented step, India will not print the annual budget documents as has been the case since the first budget was presented on November 26, 1947. This considered decision was taken in the light of COVID-19 constraints, since printing such documents entails keeping 100 officials in isolation in cramped conditions in North Block for almost a fortnight. This is a prudent and commendable decision. Bravo.
Extrapolating from this departure from traditional practice, there is a compelling case to review the Republic Day parade (January 26) and consider deferring this grand annual spectacle for reasons that could be clustered as “COVID plus”. The parade has already been trimmed and will now terminate at India Gate instead of the Red Fort. Further, the number of personnel in a marching contingent has been reduced from 144 to 96 and to ensure appropriate social distancing, only 25,000 visitors will be permitted. Anxiety about COVID-19 and the increased footprint due to the new variant has already led to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson cancelling his own participation as the chief guest. Hence, the 2021 parade will be further trimmed.
Given these developments, it is opportune to review the Republic Day parade and its symbolism. Public health regulations and COVID-19 precautions indicate that preparation for the parade and the conduct of this grand event will increase the probability of the virus spreading. This is an empirical reality.
In end December, 150 army personnel who arrived in Delhi for the parade tested positive for the virus and were swiftly quarantined. Luckily, no further cases have been reported. However, bringing the marching contingents, state tableaux and 25,000 invitees together for a four-hour public, open-air event (even if they are all masked) may not be as prudent, for the likelihood of exposure leading to COVID-19 infections is certain. Is this desirable?
The 2021 parade is standalone but there are two other elements about continuing with the parade that warrant a wider debate. The first is the symbolism of the parade and what it represents. There is little doubt that for pageantry, colour and spectacle, the Republic Day parade is distinctive and has earned high praise globally for how it is conducted. India adopted its Constitution on this day in January 1950 and became a sovereign republic, thereby shedding the last formal colonial links.
The day is special for both the country and its citizens, as are all national days the world over. But should the world’s largest democracy continue to “celebrate” its sovereignty and commitment to the letter and spirit of the Constitution by this marked emphasis on its military capability? This is an issue that merits informed and objective debate both within Parliament and among citizens for there will be many views on this subject.
The parade is an expensive event and some numbers are instructive. Preparation for the parade begins months in advance and entails expenditure by the Centre and state governments. It is a complex budgetary exercise to arrive at a consolidated figure but some strands provide a ballpark figure. An RTI query elicited the following expenditure incurred by the central government on the parade: It increased from Rs 145 crore in 2001 to Rs 320 crore in 2014 and this does not include components such as VIP security arrangements, traffic diversions, etc. One may conjecture that the corresponding figure for the 2020 parade may be closer to Rs 500 crore.
At a time when the government coffers are severely strained due to COVID-19 and the defence ministry is seeking innovative ways to “tighten the belt” of the “fauj”, any fiscal saving ought to be given due consideration and Rs 500 crore is not insignificant. To place this in context, India has 33 Sainik Schools that train young boys for the military and the first schools began in 1960-61. Thousands of these children became officers and did the nation proud. Alas, some of these schools are now likely to shut down (for example, Kazhakootam, Kerala) since funds as modest as Rs 6 crore are not available.
The limited suggestion is to defer the parade this year and deliberate on its continuation in the course of the year. Perhaps, a parade every 10 years? The next one when the republic is 80? And in the interim, use the funds saved to school the next generation to defend the country and the flag.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 16, 2021 under the title ‘Review the parade’. The writer is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi.
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