Two days have gone by and they have not been too worrisome. Maybe it is because of the low number of reported infections and deaths as of now, in comparison to other countries. There is a widespread apprehension that the numbers will soon explode. This might make the next week unfold differently. There is a fair deal of action going on in the state to get people to understand and adapt to a lockdown. For now, every neighbourhood is busy figuring out how to get its essential supplies. Supermarkets are setting up their own arrangements on how they’d prefer to take orders and how should the customers collect it. Bengaluru is still busy issuing passes to those who need to move around during the lockdown. I am out of bottled water supply and had to shift to using water from our building’s storage and boil it. Minor adjustment to make. Those stranded in transit and making a desperate walk to their hometowns, especially in Delhi, are in the toughest spot. Not sure what will become of those men, women and children who are looking at several days of walk to their hometowns, unless the administration gets some transport support for them.
The day began with reading Krishna Kumar’s Hindi short story ‘Kathgodam’. A short story every morning is becoming a habit. Later, I watched RBI’s Governor address the media to announce policy changes and arrangements made by the central bank to deal with the economic situation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. He closed the address by saying ‘this too shall pass’. The choice of the closing sentence spoke of his objective disposition. Those in the financial industry are heaving a sigh of relief. What I found interesting was the sequence of live addresses and the institutions, in the last three days. We had the Prime Minister explaining the gravity of the situation to the people and announcing the lockdown to contain the pandemic. On the second day it was the Finance Minister who went live and announced relief and social security measures introduced to safeguard lives and help them cope with the pandemic’s impact. On the third day it was the RBI Governor who addressed the economic concerns and elaborated on how the central bank will combat the impacts of the pandemic on the economy and finance industry. If anything, this suggests that the welfarist character of the Indian state is very much present. In contrast, other affected countries have first worried about their economies and businesses and then about pandemic response, public welfare and social safety.
While the relief package for people does not look substantial enough and seems too little, for the Indian state to have vulnerable people as the foremost priority is good to see. I would like to believe that such a sequencing is intentional and not incidental. We are a welfare state with a bigger aspiration than pocket. Nevertheless, we plod on allocating the pittances that we can. It is probably necessary to have a welfare concern initiated than not do it at all for the want of resources. I have often felt that way about the old age pensions given by the central government. It is barely any money to support a person for a month, yet we have it and there are people in rural India seeking it.
I spent the day reading transcripts of the memorial lectures held at RBI, from its archives. If there is a lesson that emerges from the Covid response in India, then it is about its weak institutional capacities and state of affairs with public administration. There is a clear reform agenda here, if we were to take lessons from this pandemic seriously. There are basic problems of coordinated action among agencies, clarity of roles and standardisation of processes, management of law and order situations and assignment of clear responsibilities along with decision making powers. The arbitrariness in most government departments at both state and national level costs the country vital time as well as inflicting sufficient losses before we get our act together. The cost of ignoring so many groups of people who are financially, socially and physically the most vulnerable will be huge post-pandemic.
Delivering the Fifteenth L K Jha Memorial Lecture on ‘India’s Economic Reforms: Reflections on the Unfinished Agenda’, Prof Vijay Joshi observes the following on Indian state’s competence –
The competence of the Indian state has been declining relative to the increasing demands placed on it by the political awakening of disadvantaged groups, the high aspirations of the people, and the requirements of a complex and rapidly growing economy. State dysfunction in India takes two main forms: weak capacity in delivering its core functions; and the prevalence of corruption in state-business and state-citizen relations.
He goes on to observe even more pertinent issues –
On the quantitative side, it is not widely appreciated that though the state is over-bureaucratized, as evidenced by the complications that inhibit the ease of doing business, it is also under-staffed. Public sector employment is smaller now than it was 25 years ago, while the economy has grown massively. Even the elite Indian Administrative Service has shrunk by 10 per cent in the past two decades. The police force in the country has 25 per cent of posts vacant. India also has the lowest number of judges per head among G20 countries.
On the qualitative front, the situation is equally bad. The police force is stuck in the colonial tradition of crowd control rather than crime prevention. It is also deeply politicized, even at the top levels of investigative agencies. (…) The top civil service remains ‘generalist’ with little professional and lateral entry, and has become susceptible to intense political manipulation via staff transfers and postings. As already noted, at lower levels of government, productivity is extremely low in frontline services such as education and health care.
These are the very issues that have limited Indian state’s response to Covid – 19 in ways that we see. Our police are busy hitting people into submission or herding them in queues to issue passes in a painfully obsolete and ineffective manner.
As with most crises that deeply affect nations and people, they are opportunities to think differently and reform. India has done that before and we are here because of it. I hope this pandemic also proves to be a turning point for the Indian state to reform itself in necessary ways.