BY D.C. PATHAK
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the nation a second time on March 24 made the anticipated announcement of a nation-wide total lockdown for three weeks — to be enforced with administrative rigour — and explained at some length how ‘social distancing’ was the only option left for India to avert an unimaginable public disaster. He tried to make everybody, from the illiterate to the well-educated and from the poor to the affluent, understand that not venturing out of the house at all was the key to saving everybodys life. His emphasis on how the new order was almost like ‘curfew’, appreciation of the response of the people to the 14-hour lockdown called on March 22 and an implicit warning to those who would not take the prohibition seriously, managed to create an appropriate degree of ‘fear’ that the situation did need to generate for ensuring total compliance.
The first worry for the people at large would be about the scarcity of essential supplies — the Prime Minister emphatically talked of the medical services remaining available and also mentioned how the state governments would be responsible for ensuring supply of essential commodities. He has done well to convey to the public through subsequent tweets that there would be no shortages and that no panic buying was therefore necessary. The government has also promptly issued a detailed order on how grocery stores, medical shops and milk vendors would be accessible during the lockdown.
In keeping with his pro-active leadership in this period of an accruing national threat to life and health — on account of the corona pandemic — Prime Minister Modi first prepared the people of India psychologically to stick to a self-imposed Janata curfew, a typically Indian phenomenon, between 7 am and 9 pm on March 22 and not leave their homes out of ‘self control’ and ‘resolve’ and only then made the announcement — which might have come as a shock disclosure for many — that a minimum of three weeks of complete lockdown was unavoidable to clinically break the ‘cycle of contagion’ through total ‘social distancing’. People have, hopefully, understood by now that corona virus essentially spread through individuals touching a contaminated ‘surface’ or rubbing shoulders with a person who might have become a ‘carrier’ of the virus quiet unknown to anybody.
The Prime Minister has shown such personal commitment and involvement in the handling of this unprecedented threat that the people of India will feel inspired by him in wading through the crisis. His appeal for a little generosity from landlords and households employing domestic help showed his human sensitivity. This is an occasion for Indians to demonstrate their ‘scientific temper’ and justify the legacy of universal ‘wisdom’ that our thinking sages and philosophers had left behind for us. What is to be understood is that against this pandemic people are either safe or unsafe — together.
It is notable that both US and India — one is a fully developed country resourceful in terms of per capita income and the power of the State to rally round its citizens and the other is a developing nation, over populous and with a highly uneven socio- economic spread — have shown a matching degree of political will to combat the global menace. This is primarily because the leaders of the two countries are personally on the frontline of the battle. India needed to avoid running into the ‘community contagion’ phase. In the US, Gavin Newsom, Governor of California — the largest state of America population wise — became the first head to issue an unprecedented ‘stay at home order’ to get the people to hunker down in their homes for the foreseeable future and expressed confidence that the Californians will bend to ‘social pressure’ on their own and ‘meet the moment to flatten the curve together’. It is after the successful lockdown in a number of states that President Donald Trump was able to moot the idea that ‘we have to go back to work’ in his town hall meeting on March 24. In India, further steps are needed through radio announcements, mobile messaging and social media to reach out to those sections of masses who might not have on their own grasped the magnitude of the collective threat yet.
It is a matter of great concern that political protests launched in Delhi and other centres mainly by the Muslim minority under the prompting of the community leaders, on the issues of ‘citizenship’ — built around CAA — took to defiance even of measures suggested by the Government against the corona pandemic. In a situation where a grave danger was staring everybody in the face, the response of the protagonists of the anti-CAA agitation to the Prime Minister’s appeal for Janata curfew, was disquieting — they bluntly refused to stop encouraging mass squatting on the road. Some of the protesters were even prompted to say that they would ‘sacrifice’ themselves for the demand of withdrawal of CAA — a brainless plea that misses the point that a person intending to take one’s own life had no right to put somebody else’s in jeopardy.
The authorities have done well to clear off the Shaheen Bagh squatters on the eve of the total lockout. They should be prepared to make arrests under Sec 270 read with Sec 188 of IPC should these become neccessary. The corona threat has to be met regardless of the political spin that the opposition might give to such punitive measures of the government. There are cases of people hospitalised for corona treatment slipping away from the ward out of either panic or selfishness. Many workers based in metro cities have moved back to their villages in the north. All this made the country vulnerable to ‘community spread’ of the contagion. Unfortunately, even the educated lot held crowded celebrations after the government had announced advisories in the first week of March itself. One hopes these acts of negligence or defiance would be a thing of the past.
Some long range perspectives shaped up by the corona attack may make a lasting impact on the socio-economic life of the nation — some adding to the general good and others even causing distress to large sections of the people in a manner that would require helpful intervention of the State in time. The corona threat has made a transformative difference to business worldwide — the positive dimension of this is illustrated by the announcement of Amazon about engaging a hundred thousand new personnel to handle the spike in online business. There will be a new rationale behind employees working from home through telecommunication and thus adding to both efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Delivery services will become part of life in a big way. Tele-medicine will facilitate health management on one hand and enlarge the economics of the health sector on the other.
The cause of education — particularly in a country like India — will be greatly served because of the greater recognition and enhanced value of well developed online courses. We should ensure a quantum jump in distance education and provide necessary infrastructure for it to clear the illiteracy backlog and build systems of cost-effective higher education. Finally, there is going to be a significant upgrade in the awareness of the nation of the gains of a hygiene-based personal lifestyle that, in turn, would positively impact on many segments of business and socio-political life of the people.
On the negative side, economic slump at least as a temporary fallout of the corona pandemic has to be accepted as a reality. It is here that nearly half of India’s population may run into a dire need of financial aid from the State for a period. The Modi government should be prepared for handling that obligation making use of the direct transfer network it had thoughtfully created already. If employers show unwillingness to honour the lockdown by compelling workers to report on the pain of salary cuts, the government will have to think of penalising them. The question of financial compensation for the loss taken by MSMEs will also have to be dealt with subsequently. The government exists for the people and should not, therefore, seem to have become stingy in this situation of natural disaster. Forecasts of a recession setting in have been made by some economic experts — they have their legitimacy but in the past India had survived global economic downturns because of its sustainable domestic production, trade and commerce.
India’s economy has a very large indigenous base that should be further built alongside the efforts that have to go in for strengthening the import-export activity to the extent possible. Under a regime committed to national interest and well being the people have, on balance, reasons to be optimistic about the future. Politicisation of the issue of corona pandemic for finding fault with the government is not on — suggestions are welcome and more importantly it is the message of unconditional cooperation that has to come from all political quarters to enable the nation to get over this crisis. Political sanity, social common sense and individual willpower are on test and there is no reason why a combination of these will not ‘flatten the curve’ of corona contagion soon enough.
(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)