May 3 is upon us. The government has to take a decision, extremely difficult one too, to lift or continue with the Lockdown. On one hand, the spread of Covid-19 across most part of the country is low but steady. With over 35, 000 cases of the virus and 1,100 over deaths, it is impossible to conclude that the virus has been contained. On the other hand, with the economy at a standstill, hundreds of millions remain without jobs and wages. So far, they have, with some assistance by the government, managed to ward off hunger. But, how long?
Perception is reality. What we perceive today is a nation facing a crisis of unimaginable and unmanageable proportions. It has the potential to lead to the deaths of thousands, if not more, either due to the virus or starvation. Unless contained thoroughly and properly, it indeed is a chicken and egg situation. Should the lockdown be lifted and if so partially or fully? Or should it be continued for further period, and if so, for how long?
There are no easy answers, if at all there are.
With a population of over 1.3 billion, poor and insufficient health infrastructure, abject poverty of hundreds of millions, slowing, if not failing the economy, either situation will have an impact the other — and the nation — harshly.
Yes, we have so far done well with the virus, though not with the economy. We do have a younger population, unlike the European nations. But the world’s best countries are going through hell on account of both the virus and the economy. Should we falter in our decision, the resultant danger would be catastrophic.
Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees to all citizens, the “Right to Life and Livelihood”. The government is, therefore, obliged to ensure the protection of both. Equally, Article 39(1)(a) obliges the state to direct policy towards securing adequate means of livelihood to Citizens and Article 41 obliges the state to make effective provision for securing right to work within limits of economic capacity. And, such protection must be equal, without any discrimination on ground of religion, race, caste, creed or status. There is stark inequality amongst us, in terms of wealth, resources, or opportunities. This crisis can only make those divisions even more sharp.
So, how does the government handle the situation? By taking all along, and not by walking alone. There is no doubt that the Central and the state governments’, both the political and bureaucratic wings, have worked tirelessly over the last six weeks to the keep the nation safe. They have had sleepless nights working, for which the nation shall ever remain grateful.
But, is this enough? The challenge demands much more. The Prime Minister is the absolute leader, and he must realise that to ensure the life and livelihood of 1.3 billion people, he must tap on every available human and material resource from within and outside the country. Best minds, best ideas and best execution are needed today. Gone are the days of mediocrity and experiments. The nation must think and act, out of the box. Experts from the fields of finance, agriculture, business, human resources, medicine, law, amongst others, must be assembled immediately as a core group to manage the crisis. The Cabinet Secretary and National Security Adviser should be permanent members, to ensure timely and smooth execution of ideas and suggestions of the core group. The prime minister must chair the group and may co-opt his colleagues and bureaucrats for only discussion and policy framing relevant to their ministries. States must have representation to give their inputs. Federalism must be preserved in the crisis and not killed under the garb of the Disaster Management Act.
Citizens must be prepared to make sacrifices and contribute to National Development. It would not be an exaggeration to believe that in this country, there will be a couple of million people, each of whom can contribute a crore or more towards Nation Building, provided the process of collection and use is transparent, in public gaze and is scrutinised by the Comptroller and Auditor General along with Independent Auditors. A pool of five to ten lac crores can be created in this manner.
Contributions can come in cash or kind and contributors need not disclose their identities and the government should not ask the source of funds. Time has come for the rich to make their sacrifices now. This is not socialism. This is pure nationalism.
A country of the size of India cannot survive in modern world without global support. We need finance, technology, and human resources from the world over, to take this country forward and ensue safety of the lives and livelihoods of all our people. But, to attract all that, we need to revisit our laws and policies. By tweaking only a few of them, we can achieve a lot. Create zones for investments in all the sectors, relax labour laws, give tax exemptions, and protect their investments and intellectual property, by bringing new laws and agreeing to only mediation and arbitration in the international community. The time is ripe. The vacuum that could be create in international Trade on account of the emergence of the virus in China must be quickly occupied by India.
At the same time, a great push should be given to domestic industry and agriculture by making money available, and that too at international rates. Make necessary changes in policies to encourage our players and give them a level playing field. Basic inputs must be available reasonably.
Most of all, cut red tapism and kill corruption at all levels. It is not enough that our top leaders are honest. Everyone in public life — executive, legislative and judicial — must be free of corruption. And, make them efficient. The government must immediately change priorities and expenditure. The defence budget must be slashed must be slashed, and investments in health and education increased exponentially. The nation is people and if people are not healthy and educated, the Nation suffers. The examples of South Korea, Japan and Kerala stare in our eyes. There are many other, hundreds of areas like the security of so-called VIPs, where good money is being wasted. Find them and stop them.
India is a great nation. Its people are amongst the best in the world in every field. It is just that they are constricted by poor leadership and laws. Unshackle those and see the results. If we do not do it now, we will never do it. End will then be painful, very painful.
Dear Prime Minister, now is the time to show “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas”
– The writer is a Senior Advocate and the President of Supreme Court Bar Association