The young workforce has to be thrown back into the great rebuild ahead. But the playbook will be revised many times as we go
I was at the serving end of a serpentine queue of humanity, distanced by a metre each, standing under the hot sun with whatever containers they could grab at the last minute, to fill with food. As I stood there trying to help all with a spoonful or two of nourishment, it struck me that these people, who form the invisible algae layer of the economy, will soon wither away with a scarred psyche of a war they couldn’t see or understand. The invisible virus is a mystery in terms of its mutations and manifestations to the best scientific minds in the world. Hence, it leaves little scope of being understood by a lay person. In such a scenario, based on the limited and evolving research on the Coronavirus, it is imperative for each State to decide the best way forward to protect its citizens and save the economy.
India took the bold step of putting its 1.3 billion citizens under lockdown for almost a month. Much has been written and published on the plight of migrant workers walking along railway tracks in hopes of reaching home, some succumbing to fatigue and hunger. But the lockdown is possibly the only solution to save a giant scoop of humans from an epidemic. Criticism and the emergence of a “hard State” have become topics of conversations and on the social media. Somewhere, as it always happens in a war, these messages start being taken seriously and a fertile patch is laid for seeds of discontent against the powers that be.
However, in this new India, the reach of the Government has been amplified tremendously via the digital media. To the Government’s credit, despite a sudden hard lockdown for almost a month, it ensured the supply of essential items like food and medicines for citizens and critical business continuity as far as possible in the current scenario. But the biggest niggling point which remained was the lack of seamless flow of information from the top to the executor wielding a stick and many times a clueless policeman manning a checkpoint.
The country watched the Prime Minister, for the second time in a couple of days, addressing the nation at a time unseen and unheard of in this century. The citizens then rushed out in a collective panic to stock up on whatever they deemed necessary to prepare for an uncertain time ahead. Such was the panic that policemen on the streets had to intervene and the much-talked-about police bandobast and upturning of supply carts got ample publicity. In retrospect, a lockdown of this magnitude could have been planned better, with Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and clear dos and don’ts percolating from the top Government official at the Centre to the lowest clerk in the States, the police force, civil defence personnel and right up to the volunteers on the ground. It could have saved the Government from a lot of criticism for an otherwise, “just in time decision.” The other issue is that almost simultaneously all Central Government departments got into a frenzy of issuing multiple advisories which further multiplied at the State and District Magistrate level. This led to obvious confusion among the law-enforcers and law-abiders, alike. Sure it is also a great sign of participative governance where almost every key decision is available for the common man to see and share. However, it would be best to create a central dashboard or tracker of all crisis-related orders, right to the village panchayat level if need be, in one framework. The world-class digital channels of a giant connected governance created in the last few years will need to be integrated right to the last mile, once this crisis is over.
The next step would be to plan the kickstart of the nearly $3 trillion economy, even as the full ramifications of the dreaded virus play out in the subcontinent. A task force comprising several inter-ministerial departments and senior-most Government officials has been created to rebuild the India of tomorrow. This task force should open multiple channels of communication with the war room officials currently waging a battle against Covid-19 and with industry bodies to chalk out a post-crisis revival plan.
Again, the decision to allow transportation of essential and non-essential items stuck on trucks in highways crisscrossing the country is a positive one. However, the vital question of those vehicles still stuck has to be sorted. The labour force, which was unloading those trucks and was the crucial link in the supply chain, has fled. It will take a huge amount of confidence-building measures, including giving some sops like a free, post-health check-up documented ticket back to the fields, factories and under construction buildings of India. The word documented here means a proper ticket issued in any category with the name and details of the person travelling for work in any mode of transport.
While it may look like a hard State keeping a tab on people’s movement, yet the irony is, one has to somehow track, if any resurgence of the dreaded virus is to be prevented. There could be other better ways to do the same in anonymised formats as well. The crux remains once at the end of 21 days, hopefully the virus has been clustered and isolated, the rest of the country can be eased back to normalcy.
The young workforce has to be thrown back into the great rebuild ahead. But the playbook will be revised many a time as we go about this business of kickstarting the Indian economy.