The global Covid-19 pandemic poses unique challenges to India and not just because it is the second most populous country in the world. Besides being a relatively poor country saddled with a billion plus population, the country has also been irresponsible in frittering away its resources. Significant sums of money have been squandered on questionable and non-priority projects. The Government setting aside Rs 15,000 crore, as announced by the Prime Minister, to cope with the pandemic while sanctioning Rs 20,000 crore to build a new Parliament Building and a new residence for the Prime Minister etc. is one such recent example. The money spent on these activities may help generate income for some Indians and sustain some parts of the economy. But the failure to build community assets and infrastructure, while promoting lopsided priorities has been stupendous.
The world’s tallest statue erected at a cost of Rs 3000 crore might have served some political purpose and fed into the vanity of others, but now that India is under lockdown and the government is desperately scrounging for funds to deal with the pandemic, one wonders if the money could have been better spent. It has been pointed out that India has more places of worship than hospitals
But people in power, especially during the last six years, never flinched from spending public money on organising religious festivals, be it at Ayodhya or at the Kumbh. A government, which spends most of the taxpayers’ money on salary and pension of government employees, a miniscule minority of the population, can ill-afford such extravagant diversions like mobilising a hundred thousand people to greet the American President. In short, our priorities have been warped and arbitrary in the past, for which we now seem destined to pay a price now and in the future.
It is surreal to remember that on February 24 the Prime Minister was serenading US President Donald Trump at the Namaste Trump extravaganza in Ahmedabad. A month later, on March 24, the entire country is under lockdown. Indeed, as late as in the first week of March, the Union Health Minister was claiming that the situation was under control and Indians had nothing to worry.
But televised address to the nation, occasional video-conferences with chief ministers and preemptory firmans issued from Delhi are not best-suited to meet the current challenges. It is time for the PM to hold daily interactions with chief ministers, address a daily press conference as the US President and the British PM are doing and call an all-party meeting and take the Opposition into confidence. That is if he is interested in rallying the nation to rise together.
The foremost challenge is to take care of people engaged in the informal sector. The army of rickshaw pullers, construction workers, street entrepreneurs, cleaners and scavengers face starvation following the lockdown. Many of them have already run out of their savings and have access neither to food not shelter. Getting food to them, ensuring that their families back home also receive money should be a priority. How to implement this gigantic task is the elephant in the room. All Indians will support the government in its mission, if only it is a little less arrogant and a little more imaginative.