India’s next big challenge after the lockdown feat - GulfToday

India’s next big challenge after the lockdown feat

DC Pathak

The writer is a former director of the Intelligence Bureau in India.

The writer is a former director of the Intelligence Bureau in India.


Migrant workers return to their hometowns in Jharkhand after the government eased a nationwide lockdown on Thursday. Agence France-Presse

Advent of the Age of Information, attributed to the success of the IT revolution, was defined by an instant connectivity across geographical boundaries that created a new kind of economic globalisation where business would be conducted with unprecedented speed. The new ‘knowledge economy’ therefore, mandated that all relevant information needed for decision-making had to be quickly accessed and acted upon for achieving a competitive advantage.

Time became the new resource — besides money and manpower — that was not to be wasted. It is in this backdrop that the great learning from the experience of lockdown for the coronavirus pandemic, both for nations and individuals, is that new ways would have to be found to use the enormous quantity of surplus ‘time’ available with family units, for the cause of national productivity. The lockdown left sections of people — whose concept of ‘leisure’ mostly spun around empty luxuries — cribbing that they were not able to ‘while away time’. On the other hand, it saw countless families with only one bread earner wondering how to monetise the residuary time of the family in an environment of joblessness.

There is little evidence that even the well-off lot generally valued their solitude as an opportunity of enhancing their personal growth or increasing their power of imagination to their advantage using time as a valuable commodity. Incidentally, it is Albert Einstein who had famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” suggesting how imagination aided the ability to read a deeper meaning into the facts presented and thus make a quicker advancement.

The prohibitions of the pandemic have highlighted the importance of ‘work from home’ but only for the people who had certain kinds of jobs — mostly IT related. The need for Indian businesses is to explore a new work methodology in which the huge number of semi-skilled hands available in the country — practically in every home — are utilised for enhancing productivity by drawing them into ‘supply chains’ for goods and services — running across the length and breadth of the country. A range of business activity from ‘home kitchens’ to domestic stitching of ‘masks’ did crop up during the lockdown but what is going to be required in the short and medium term ahead is an army of ‘delivery hands’ acting — without having to move much — as the local links in these supply chains.

The indigenous economy of India can revive itself through innovative ideas on how to use labour intensive situations without giving up on technology-driven processes and utilise the resource of ‘time’ available at the hands of even unskilled people for increasing production. This should be done without detracting from the promise that India holds, of providing top-grade technologists and technology- savvy ‘knowledge workers’ to international businesses across the spectrum. In the Indian context, the mega tie-up between Facebook-WhatsApp and Reliance JIO may prove to be a game changer providing a big boost to the country’s economy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decisive move of getting the people to follow a 40-day lockdown has been globally appreciated as the most effective policy of saving the country from the huge disaster that corona would have inflicted on it. It gave the government time to build a certain capacity to handle ‘medical quarantine’ and ‘hospitalisation’ while it checked the rise of fresh infections that could have overwhelmed India’s health care system.

However, in India — unlike in any other country — the formidable test of democratic governance was in ensuring that while enforcing ‘equality of restrictions’ in an ‘unequal society’, it did not lose sight of the fact that the haves and the have-nots differed widely in their capacity to face the lockdown. The latter — comprising workers of the unorganised sector, daily wage earners and the migrant labour who lost their jobs — needed an uninterrupted supply of food for their families on an assurance from the government, beyond what philanthropic bodies could do, till such time as some work came their way. This is a long haul. It is clear that the lockdown required micro-management of public affairs that could be achieved only at the district level where this country, fortunately, still had the best organised machinery of the government closest to the people.

A policy favouring an appropriate relaxation of the lockdown after balancing ‘mobility’ with full ‘awareness’ of how to avoid risk, seems to be in the making and this is good. It would be a great pity if a lack of Centre-state equation came in the way of a united approach on corona crisis management that called for a decentralised way of handling it. New infrastructure for medical quarantine and hospital facilities with fleets of ambulances, for instance, has to be carried to the districts. There are many cases of local hospitals not attending to corona suspects for lack of facilities. This investment required urgently — on a different scale in different regions — would serve a long range purpose and act as a catalyst for employment and economic growth.

Corona pandemic was being fought directly under the leadership of the Centre and the challenge, as already mentioned, is of securing the right level of coordination between the central and state administrations for taking the focus of handling the crisis closer to the ground. The district administration should be provided with funds, manpower and supplies to free the less privileged of any food worries — it should be remembered that memories at the mass level tend to last long. The corruption-ridden public distribution system did show up its ugly side at many places because of inadequate administrative oversight.

In a public crisis officials should exercise discretion in a matter like grant of help without production of a ration card in some cases. India has, on the whole, done a marvellous job of dampening the Corona attack with an effective lockdown. Its long range success is going to be determined by the efficiency of the local authorities in taking care of the distressed lot on the ground — till they got back to work. There should be enough publicity through authentic messaging that a corona suspect was not to be shunned but put under medical supervision — grave social disruptions can erupt otherwise. In the recent interaction of Prime Minister Modi with panchayat chiefs, the participant from Kashmir made a brilliant suggestion — he gave the call ‘suspect but respect’ for the handling of corona cases.

The indigenous economy of India will revive at a faster pace as people will like to feel ‘self ‘contained’ and self-reliant’ in their neighbourhoods, townships and work zones. They would have a new awareness of a cleaner, safer and less-demanding lifestyle in which one stayed connected without being physically close to one’s near and dear ones — at least for the time being.

The corona lockdown has trained Indians, rich and poor, on how to keep out of the way of this ‘invisible’ enemy through ‘social distancing’ while getting back to work and let the virus degrade and fade away on its own. In times to come, India hopefully will be the manufacturing hub of the world and a prime tourist attraction as well — precisely because it handled the pandemic well. The route to that destination is a determined bid to become ‘self reliant’ by opting for our own products in the civilian sector and to the extent possible in the area of defence as well. A country surplus in food grains, plentiful in manpower, blessed with a large industrial base, having a huge national transport infrastructure and on top of the ladder in applied IT, can reset its economic agenda and steadily make up for the pushback caused by the corona pandemic. Corona prohibition was a top-down exercise. Economic recovery will be a bottom up phenomenon which suits India.

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