COVID-19 Should Prod India to Prioritise Citizen Welfare to Face Future Crises

The Indian state must be reformed to support citizens’ rights and welfare by prioritising job creation, social safety nets and long-term investments in public health and education in order to tide over another crisis like COVID-19.

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This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.

On March 25, 2020, India entered a national lockdown with four hours’ notice. Deemed to be one of the world’s strictest and largest, it exposed old fissures in Indian society. Wealthy individuals could socially distance themselves in their homes, gated compounds and apartments, while India’s migrant population, one of the world’s biggest, and its poor, were cut off from work, sustenance and home overnight.

The effectiveness of the government’s response to COVID-19 has been debated in multiple forums. What factors led to the collapse of the state’s capacity to prepare for and adequately respond to the pandemic? Is the state ready to deal with an increasingly unequal, unhealthy, and unhappy society? As we approach the second anniversary of the lockdown, the weaknesses of the Indian state must be assessed to ensure it does not collapse during another crisis.

The pandemic reflected the centralising tendencies of the state. The lockdown was unilaterally imposed by the Union without consulting the states, undermining Schedule VII, which lists health as a state subject. The free movement of people, an essential feature of our democracy, was suspended overnight. Indians living abroad were unable to come home because flights were suspended, while those in the country were left stranded without fiscal or material support.

Also read: Budget 2022 Shows How Quickly We Forget the Social and Welfare Net That Served Us During COVID

Containment measures are necessary to curtail epidemics, but so are citizen’s rights and welfare. The Indian state’s tendency to centralise power in response to a crisis tilts the balance between these tradeoffs against citizens’ rights.

A patient suffering from COVID-19 waits to get admitted outside the casualty ward at Guru Teg Bahadur hospital, New Delhi, April 23, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

The Indian state has a long way to go to becoming more effective at supporting the needs of the 135 crore people that it administers. Firstly, state and local governments need to be fiscally empowered to raise funds and administer containment measures. States with strong local government bodies were more effective in responding to the virus, as seen in Kerala and Mumbai – and in Tokyo and Manchester. The ambit of the 93rd and 94th Constitutional amendments should be widened to provide fiscal autonomy to LGBs.

Secondly, India’s poor data protection policies need to be revamped to protect citizens’ rights. The Aarogya Setu app was created using ambiguous provisions of the Disaster Management Act, forcing citizens to share their personal data to access essential locations such as residences and grocery stores. Patients’ testing and health data were leaked, including addresses, phone numbers and medical history, because of unclear data storage and processing policies. The Personal Data Protection Bill (PDPB) has not been introduced for discussion in Parliament yet, and it does not seem to cover public health data.

Finally, it is time that the backbone of India’s health and education systems such as ASHA workers, schoolteachers and Anganwadi workers, graveyard and sanatorium workers, and other ‘essential workers’ are treated as integral to the country’s functioning. Such workers were critical in responding to the pandemic, but are still not treated as full-time employees in many states. Lack of job security, compounded with risky work and low pay, highlight a potential shortage of such workers in the future, just when India would need a far more reactive, responsive and accessible public health system.

The pandemic has devastated the country, and it is estimated that 3-5 million Indians died. The lack of a nationwide safety net pushed an estimated 46 million into extreme poverty, and unemployment has risen to around 8% since 2020. To prepare for the challenges that the pandemic left behind, the Indian state must be reformed. It must be reformed to support citizens’ rights and welfare by prioritising job creation, social safety nets and long-term investments in public health and education – over its centralising tendencies.

Vibhav Mariwala studied history and anthropology at Stanford University. He tweets at @VibhavMariwala.