From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Not much.
Mains level : Paper 2- The lockdown hits the poor hardest and how it could have been avoided?
Lockdown announcement has not been matched by national strategy — on containing fallout for poor.
Two arguments advanced against lockdown
- India’s decision to lock down was necessary. Two arguments are being advanced against it.
- The first argument: India is a poor economy, with millions at the margins of subsistence, who cannot bear the consequences of a lockdown. The density and living conditions in India make social distancing difficult in many cases.
- The second argument: It is that the extent of community transmission does not justify such drastic measures.
What are the justifications for the lockdown?
- The only hope: Precisely because millions in India are vulnerable and will not later have the possibilities of quarantining or medical care, the only hope we have of securing their lives is to slow down the spread of the virus as much as possible.
- And the only shot you have at it is when community transmission is possibly still at manageable levels.
- There is, therefore, a bit of bad faith in using the poor as the basis for expressing scepticism at the need for a lockdown. That is the most insidious form of privilege.
- The risks of any catastrophic spread will be even more incalculable for the poor.
Underscoring the importance of federalism and decentralisation
- States responding in innovative ways: One of the more encouraging things has been the way in which several state governments like Punjab, Odisha, Kerala, Delhi and others have come into their own, innovating under difficult circumstances.
- Role of panchayat and local officials: The much-neglected panchayat and local officials are key nodes in keeping track of possible cases and the creation of quarantining infrastructure.
- Role of frontline workers: It would also be churlish not to acknowledge the ways in which most of the frontline workers of the state are responding, learning and innovating in this situation.
- Federalism and decentralisation: If anything, this crisis is bringing home the importance of both federalism and decentralisation as central to a resilient governance architecture.
The preparation and follow-up of the lockdown
- But the national preparation and follow-up to take full advantage of the lockdown do not inspire full confidence.
- Lack of strategy: The announcement of the lockdown has not been matched by a commensurate national strategy.
- This is manifest, in the early signals on the following two important aspects:
- Containing the economic fallout for the poor.
- Building up the health infrastructure.
- It is, admittedly, early days; but the signs are not good.
Economic fallout for the poor
- Focus is not on the poor: In the entire framing of the problem, the poor have been at best an afterthought, at worst expendable damage.
- Steps taken not adequate: Steps like health insurance cover for frontline workers, increased food rations, are welcome steps. But a crisis of this magnitude required assurance to the most vulnerable that no stops will be pulled to secure their futures.
- Instead, what you got was incrementalism of the worst kind, masquerading as a big commitment.
- Low cash transfer: The cash transfers, in particular, through different schemes, are shockingly low.
- Need for the unprecedented social security support: This crisis is one of the rare instances where economists and even bankers, from across the political spectrum, have rallied around the intellectual argument for unprecedented levels of social security support.
- So the government’s “support by stealth” strategy is even more mystifying.
- Impact of lockdown on migrant labour: The magnitude of the crisis unleashed for migrant labour could have been avoided with a little forethought.
- What could have been done? Early announcement of cash transfers, shelter and food availability, would have obviated the need for migration.
Opacity on the health infrastructure side
- Issue of testing: Opacity is often a consequence of scarcity. And nowhere is this more manifest than in our discussion of testing.
- Underutilisation of capacity: Everyone understands that India has the scarce testing capacity, though it seems it is also under-utilising what it has.
- No clear testing strategy: The government is procuring more testing kits. But what is worrying is that there seems to be no publicly articulated statement of what exactly our testing strategy is, given the scarce resources.
- But there is still no sense of how we plan to put a testing strategy in place (not just numbers of tests, but where can they be optimally deployed), that will minimise the need for future lockdowns.
- What objectives is it trying to meet? There is more than a whiff of suspicion that there is a view that more testing might spread more panic.
- Or it might put more pressure on the health care system than it can handle.
- India has never understood that health expenditure is not an expenditure; it is an investment.
- Building up of health infrastructure: The success of the lockdown strategy is premised on an unprecedentedly vigorous building up of health infrastructure to fight the pandemic.
- There is a commitment by the Centre to infuse an extra Rs 15,000 crore in this sector. Some steps are being taken in building up capabilities, including ramping up production of ventilators and masks.
- Need for warlike mobilisation: This is an area where India needs almost a warlike mobilisation, to make sure we have enough testing, tracking, frontline workers, logistics and equipment in place to make sure that the duration of a lockdown is minimised or a repeat is not necessary.
- The creation of this kind of infrastructure will pay huge dividends even in non-pandemic times.
The prime minister is constantly asking the citizens to mobilise, and most of them respond. But it about time the state mobilises: On an economic stimulus that is truly meaningful and health infrastructure push that inspires confidence.