It is extremely easy for arm-chair intellectuals to criticize the government on how it is performing in controlling the outbreak of the Covid 19 pandemic. The Prime Minister, presumably on the advice of the best specialists in the country, decided to clamp down a national level lockdown to make it possible to create conditions for social distancing – which is considered to be the most effective solution for a slowdown in the spread of the infection and flattening of the penetration curve. In a country like India, the rate of the spread has to be controlled as otherwise the existing medical infrastructure and human resources would just not be able to manage the problem and it would not be an exaggeration that we would end up in a situation that is as helpless as the outbreak of the pandemic flu in 1918 .
Even the worst of his critics would accept the fact that the two televised addresses of the PM were extremely effective and did reach out to the masses. It was clearly established that he was a man in control of things and has this enormous capability of connecting with the people across social and economic classes at pan-India level. It must not have been an easy decision for PM of a country which has as many as 363 million people living below the poverty line to announce a national level lockdown.
While there are experts who are empirically trying to establish that the economic fallout would result in a huge number of deaths due to non-Covid 19 reasons and are trying to provoke a debate that the State should take a call on whether it would have been better to let the Covid 19 spread to whatever extent it could rather than to get into a situation where the helplessness resulting because of lack of employment and income could result in ‘food riots’ in the near future. Since the fatality rate of Covid 19 for people below 50 years of age is 0.4 or less, it is easy for people who look at issues purely from the perspective of numbers to come up with arguments that we need to trade off between economic sustainability and deaths due to this infection. Big data and statistical extrapolations are tools that should, generally, be used for projecting future scenarios based on existing ground realities and/or assumptions thereof. It requires qualities of a statesman-politician to be driven by an inner calling that is based a comprehensive understanding of socio-psychological dynamics of the people of the country, a very strong people-connect, and the capability to take decisions that are not always supported by the data put together by analysts and researchers.
No one can accuse the PM of not having taken the right decision. It should be assumed that he would have been briefed about the economic fallout of the lockdown and if he took a decision despite that, he has more than established his love for human life. Despite all the political manipulations that he might have indulged in for coming to power and retaining it – and for which he is often and severely criticized – he has, in the management of the of Covid 19 outbreak, shown that he can have a larger than life human face, has a big heart and also has the capability and strength to take huge risks – in this case he has shown that he has the “56 inch chest” for which he is often ridiculed. It is interesting to see the PM, who is a hard boiled politician, follow the tenets of the Hippocratic Oath – “I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course.” And. “Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm,……………”
Even if the rate of growth of the economy takes a dip by the lockdown decision, it is still worthwhile to save the lives of the millions of people. After all, what are those great things that are happening in the Indian economy that cannot be set right by some innovative policies for resurgence. These are not ordinary times. The ambition of becoming an economic superpower can be deferred by a few years and the satisfaction of having saved some lives can be far more satisfying than achieving a double digit GDP growth. As it is, the leadership of the country has, over the years, been extremely callous to the people at the base of the economic pyramid and now we cannot get to the level at which these people contract the disease in their pursuit of livelihood – which gets them close to the people who have shown little or no respect for the protocol that was put in place for indulgent international travelers and and hosts of international guests.
Having praised the PM for his good intentions and decision-making capabilities, he cannot be let go free on the way the whole lockdown was managed. The state machinery should have been whipped into planning for mitigating the agony that the migrant wage earners faced. Appeals to landlords to not accept rent does not work in India. Big decisions should be rolled-out with near ruthless execution and this does not mean the ruthlessness that the police showed in managing people on the streets. There should have been ruthlessness in ensuring that all schools, colleges, stadiums, government and private not in use property and unoccupied hotels are converted to camps for these homeless people. There should have been a lot of back-end work done with NGOs and voluntary groups to ensure food and health care services were provided. The PM is not to be blamed for what has happened. But, it would not be out of place to assume that despite all the good work that has been done, and is still being done, it is a colossal failure on the part of the executing agencies. Unfortunately, our PM gets into micro-management and thus absolves the people, who are supposed to do that, of all their responsibilities. He is supposed to take larger decisions – which he always does with enormous alacrity – but is, more often than not, failed by the people who are supposed to take things forward. The PM, often, gets into the management role and and that creates all the problem. He needs to wear just one hat and not juggle with multiple hats. He is a leader and should not get into the manager’s role. Needs to imbibe what the management Guru, Peter Drucker, said “management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
BTW: OYO claims that it has a million rooms globally. Most of its properties are India-based. NCR has a repulsively high presence of OYO properties and these are presently empty or being sold at ridiculously low prices. Why couldn’t the government approach OYO to make its properties available for people on the streets and why shouldn’t the young founder of OYO have offered its properties to the government for free or at nominal prices. Indian private sector, by and large, has shown extreme apathy towards the misery faced by people and whatever is being done by companies is alike a person paying some change to a beggar on the street to overcome the guilt of having amassed unearned wealth. Anil Agarwal’s Vedanta Group which primarily deals in natural resources and has been a beneficiary of government support through successive governments. The Company generated a net profit of over Rs 5000 Crores in 2018-19 and had the lack of sensitivity (or lack of understanding of the scale of the problem) to donate Rs 100 Crores for the cause of Covid 19 pandemic – and interestingly this news was all over the media.
Everyone would have hailed the decision of the lockdown if only one had not seen the sea of people thronging at bus stands to get back to their villages, groups of people being fumigated while squatting on the floor like animals and the reports appearing that 22 migrant labour had died on their journey back home. Must compliment the PM for a bold decisions and the Central and the State Governments for the fabulous job that has been done, and is still being done. But, things could have been a little better managed.