The stark economic reality is now staring at us – high unemployment, migrants facing misery and poverty, many businesses facing extinction. Economic webs and supply chains are like glass – once broken, they cannot be put together again. And yet, India kept persisting with lockdown after lockdown.
This is what Ruchir Sharma wrote in the New York Times a few days ago: “By mid-April, many rich countries had started to debate reopening their economies, and protests were breaking out against lockdowns in several major U.S. states. In India, there was little public debate, much less protest. The hardest hit, the poor and unemployed, seem to accept their misery as fate, no doubt unaware of evidence showing the more stringent the lockdown, the more severe the economic damage. Some estimates suggest that India’s economy could contract by nearly 6 percent this year, making this the worst downturn in the country’s post-independence history.”
Only a few states got their act together on the health infrastructure – which has been an area of huge underinvestment by every Indian government over the past 70+ years. And on top of that, we have dislocated livelihoods and dismembered enterprises. As a friend put it to me, this is “murder by policy.”
Now, we are finally starting to say that we need to ‘learn to live’ with the virus. But the fear that has been instilled will take a long time to go. No political leader is willing to say publicly that the virus is not as fatal as was made out to be, and we need to take basic precautions and fully open India for business. Yes, we will see a spike in deaths – but that happens every time there is an outbreak of a disease. The vaccine is not coming anytime soon. The faster we resume normal life, the better it is for all of us – especially the most poor and vulnerable, for whom poverty, hunger and starvation will be much more harmful than the virus itself.
We need to shift the focus to jobs and incomes, to rebuilding India from the looming impact of the Third World War that was started by the pandemic but made worse by government actions. We need to stop the round-the-clock coverage of cases, tests and deaths on national and social media. This has magnified the fear that was initially instilled in the people by the politicians. We need to un-fear the people and unlock the nation.
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is famously said to have asked after a presentation was made to him about the various reforms that India needed to do to get on a 10% growth path – “Magar yeh karega kaun?” (But, who will do it?) This is the same question we need to ask as we now face the daunting task of bringing India back on track after a terrible sequence of decisions by political leaders at every level.
This is where I would like to propose something different for the “karega kaun” problem: the need for war cabinets at every level of government.
Tomorrow: India needs War Cabinets (Part 3)