All this while we have survived and even thrived as a society despite the government. We collapse every time the government — colonial or post-colonial — intervenes in our lives, be it the Partition, the Emergency, anti-militancy operations, riots, demonetisation or the current 21-day ‘curfew’. Our governance is so apathetic that we shudder to think of handing over our lives to people who make us plead for curfew passes, medicines and food. Demonetisation and the Covid ‘curfew’ are the best examples, both planned and executed by top politicians and bureaucrats of the country, spending time and resources. One has caused irreparable damage to the economy, though with some political impact, particularly in the 2017 UP Assembly elections, but the second is poised to cause a systemic collapse with untold misery at a huge political cost to the BJP, if it is left uncorrected.
Compared to the Covid ‘curfew’, demonetisation was a breeze, or rather a successful political campaign which created a secular ‘other’. Anyone who did not have any black money was happy about the government’s decision to declare the Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes illegal tender. Most of India anyway is too poor to be corrupt. So they rejoiced at the decision to demonetise 1,000 and 500-rupee notes with a malicious glee over the sufferings of the rich and the corrupt. The misery of the corrupt was fair compensation for the poor’s minor inconvenience of standing in a queue to get their small savings converted into the new currency notes. After all, their lives have never been convenient. The midnight panic on November 8, 2016, was limited to a very small — and disliked — section of the Indian society.
But that is not the case with the Covid ‘curfew’. Demonetisation exposed the ineptitude of the bureaucracy in terms of inadequate quantities of the new currency, unready ATM machines and banks caught unawares; and, of course, demonetisation also laid bare the loopholes for the corrupt to convert their black money through heavy-duty cash-down shopping. Yet, it did not bring the common man's life to a complete standstill. The grocer, the vegetable and fruit seller, the regular autowallah and cabbie — veritably, the Indian social microcosm as a whole was ready to tide over the crisis by offering and accepting credit. Then, the digital economy and the e-commerce platforms blossomed, finding newer customers and buying and selling all that was essential and non-essential. But that is not the case now.
Covid fear is real and unlike demonetisation, the Covid ‘curfew’ is essential. There is no argument over the absolute necessity for the shutdown. But the response of the government to the Novel Coronavirus pandemic has been dismal. It has taken the easy, though necessary, route of a complete shutdown without any empathy. Just one image of the long line of migrant labourers walking away from Delhi towards their villages in UP, hundreds of kilometres away, proves how inadequate the Central and state governments have been in preparing the people and the government machinery for the shutdown. All that the government has effectively done is to deploy the police to shut shops, force citizens into their houses and then to mercilessly beat up vendors and buyers on the streets.
The Janata Curfew on Sunday was considered a mere one-day affair. If a 21-day ‘curfew’ was to follow, it should have been advertised and the people given time to stock up essentials, small and tiny private sector companies allowed to plan disbursal of salaries and migrant labourers — rural and urban — permitted to travel to their villages. But again the decision came at 8 pm for a nationwide lockdown, throwing people out into the streets scouring for milk, vegetables, foodgrains and everything else. There are no advisories for farmers, no planning for the upcoming rabi harvest, nor for all those who live hand-to-mouth. All the planning presumably will start now, with the collapse of the supply chain set to soon cause a nationwide breakdown.
There was no need to shut down food and grocery aggregators. In a city like Chandigarh, which is home to three governments, two Chief Ministers and two Governors, there is hardly any supply of milk, grocery or essentials at the doorstep as we go into the third day of the shutdown. All the promises of delivery of the essentials have failed to take off. The government’s biggest mistake was to shut down existing private sector delivery mechanisms and to create a new government system of delivery. This is a sure recipe for disaster. Most of north Indian kirana shops already have a perfected home-delivery system and they would have ensured the supply of essentials, had they been allowed to function without entertaining customers at the shops. Similarly, the government is sucking cooked food completely out of the system by shutting down restaurants, eateries, food chains and dhabas, instead of turning all of them into takeaways. The system needs food in circulation and a food scarcity could force us into an unparalleled crisis, about which it is better not to speculate.
One of the worst-hit industries is the media. A piece of fake news about the safety of newspapers has led to a situation where local government officials are issuing their own diktats. A deputy commissioner of a district in Himachal Pradesh even banned the circulation of newspapers on his own without consulting the state government, forcing the Chief Minister’s Office to intervene the next day. While the Government of India wants newspapers to be published and widely circulated to counter fake news, the local governments are violating the Centre’s guidelines in letter or spirit by making all those who are forced to go out and work haggle for curfew passes.
The greatest tragedy of the average Indian is to be left to the mercy of the government because the government is not a concept but individuals who make others queue up without themselves ever having to suffer a queue.
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