The prime minister’s announcement extending the national lockdown till May 3 was obviously not an easy decision. His body language as he addressed the nation for the third time in three weeks, reflected the gravity of the situation, much more than his two earlier addresses.
The protesting migrant labour at Bandra (Mumbai) and in Surat within minutes of the PM’s announcement represented the stark choices that many face today — a spectre of death due to hunger and joblessness versus the possibility of death through the coronavirus. With no surety of food or work any more — though food packets are being distributed — workers wanted to go “home” and be near their loved ones. Follow Indian Express Covid-19 tracker for latest updates
In a country like India, social distancing is a middle class luxury. Yet we have few options. The hardships caused to the poor, the migrant, the daily wage earner, have to be mitigated. It is yet another bomb ticking away, which has to be defused urgently.
The prime minister has reached out to former presidents and Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. But has the time now come to formalise the process of consultation with those in the Opposition who are not part of the system today, given the enormity of the challenge ahead in the next one to two years (till the drugs and vaccine are tested, manufactured, and distributed)? And to move towards a governance that is national in its approach?
For there is a wealth of administrative experience, of dealing with national calamities, that lies on the Opposition side and it must be tapped. Be it a Sharad Pawar, or a Naveen Patnaik, or a Chandrababu Naidu (these names come to mind immediately but are only illustrative), there are many who have grappled with tsunamis, earthquakes, cyclones, riots. They have organised supply lines, mobilised resources, and rebuilt decimated lives and infrastructure.
A weekly or twice a week consultation by videoconferencing with a tight group of Opposition leaders, taking them in confidence about what the government is doing, might generate new ideas, anticipate problems, defuse crisis, even help coordinate with the CMs. And it would reassure the country.
This may also help reduce the social and communal divide which must be avoided at all costs. There are people in this country, for instance, who could have persuaded the head of the Tablighi Jamaat to put out a statement to his followers — around 80,000 in the country — to abide by what the government and doctors were telling them. The services of these people could have been utilised by the government in a track-2 effort, as has often happened in the past at times of crisis.
It is the government which has to act and deliver, but the system of governance can become more broadbased and national in character. The lead, of course, has to come from the PM-CM-DM-Sarpanch in that chain of command, with others acting as foot soldiers.
Our politics is undergoing a change. Three months ago, it would have been unimaginable for the PM to be spending four hours with the chief ministers, who are at the frontline of the battle today, urging them to evolve their unique strategies and offering them support. Some of the BJP CMs fired off the shoulders of their non-BJP counterparts!
A marker of this new-found “cooperative federalism” between the Centre and the states will be the money that comes the CMs’ way. Do they become entitled to the CSR funds, which they have demanded, in a situation that is unprecedented? The success of the battle by the states will depend on the funds they can get, which they are crying out for.
As for kickstarting the economy again, the Congress’ experience could be utilised — and there are bright minds sitting out there. They might also have ideas on how to mobilise the resources that are urgently needed, for the states, for health equipment, for ensuring that no one goes hungry, and to restart economic activity.
With half the country’s districts affected by the C-virus, the ultimate frontline fighter is the District Magistrate. One of the reasons for the success of the Bhilwara model in Rajasthan lay in the leadership given by the Collector, and he was given unstinted support by the state government. In Pathanamthitta, one of the first districts in Kerala to be hit by Covid-19, the Collector trekked 3 km carrying rice to a tribal hamlet!
It might help to set up citizens’ committees at the district level, roping in retired bureaucrats and police officers who have extensive knowledge of the district, and NGOs, to ensure that the lockdown is implemented, supply chain does not break, school buildings are kept ready for quarantining or treating people, anganwadi centres are used for cooking, law and order is maintained, and issues of child nutrition, women’s safety and mental health addressed. Such committees would also come in handy when the lockdown has to be eased.
The MPs and MLAs are suddenly finding themselves on the peripheries. Private sector, too, is able to play only a limited role. Paradoxically, it is the old “steel frame” of bureaucracy which is coming in handy today.
In times to come, will we see a reversal of migrations worldwide and between states in India? Will we move more towards policies of self reliance than of globalisation? Will we go back to the “basics”, of giving primacy to nutrition, health and education, as if our life depended on it, and because these are also sectors which can generate employment? How will it affect the media, also a frontline warrior in the battle to provide information, and our democratic institutions?
Those are questions for the future. For the moment, India will be better prepared for the crisis that looms ahead if there is a national consensus on what our response should be.
Crisis has a way of deepening the faultlines in any society. But it also brings out the best in human beings, and this one may well throw up heroes in every bylane of India.
(The writer is a senior journalist)