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The last of the Colonials

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It is obvious to most people now that the COVID lockdown must be lifted in India. The most vulnerable are fed up with the lockdown and the loss of dignity and fundamental needs required for sustaining life. Once this crisis is over (or at least internalized), a conversation must begin around the efforts of the government; which initiatives worked well, which were middling and which failed entirely.

When the lockdown is analysed in retrospect, the part of the policy which will be most criticized (and rightly so) will be implementation and execution. India’s lockdown has been a success in preventing the worst: a situation similar to Italy, Spain or the US. The citizenry has surprised even itself, giving lie to its own defeatist self-image of a nation where it is impossible to achieve compliance in anything. However, the bureaucracy has left much to be desired.

India’s lockdown is among the most stringent in the world

Confused messaging: From the buses for migrants to the railway charge fiasco or forgetting to clarify that essentials would remain available when lockdown was declared, led to people thronging in crowded areas. MHA circulars, so verbose that one needs a private Shashi Tharoor to interpret them, have left people scratching heads and require revisions and re-revisions which muddle the process up.

Simple purchase of test kits and PPEs got deferred with allegations of favouritism, blocking via red tape, tender processes and ultimately, finger pointing among departments when plans fail to materialize in a crisis.

Random closure of borders, police brutality, harassment of e-commerce delivery personnel and essential workers shows wanton exercise of power to carry out orders with no SOP and as per the wish of the local administration.

At the same time, a new fiscal stimulus (or even a plan there-of) is anywhere in sight, large companies are getting subsidized to solve a problem of flagging demand at the consumer’s expense, perplexing those with an even basic knowledge of economics. The babus huddle together, while 1.3 bn obedient school-children wait patiently at home to know their fate.

Confusion over lockdown orders has led to Police implementing rules as they see best

Some of India’s most respected institutions seem to exist in a bubble that insulates them from the common citizenry like an exclusive club. Typical examples in this regard include the military and the bureaucracy. The recruitment begins from every section of society and every social situation well-represented, but immediately afterwards, the society retreats into a shell, separated by power from those it actually seeks to serve. The rush to claw their way into the South Block and the true “powerful” elite entails being closer to the legislative and not the citizenry. This means that real ground work is left for those considered “fringe” or to state civil servants, which creates a huge disconnect from the citizenry and is a detriment to federalism. This is perfectly demonstrated by demarcation of “zones” that see violent push back from states and blanket bans on commercial activities with no heed to circumstances in different states.

This existence on two levels of advisors and implementer means that any legislation will never really be implemented efficiently and effectively, leaving much to interpretation and innovative methods to “integrate the people” into the legislation, not framing legislation as suits the myriad of people’s situations.

A lot of this malaise is dictated by a continued leftist-colonial nostalgia which never managed to seep out of the shell this society has drawn itself into. Adored by a generation that was (and is) a slave to License Raj for their daily life, the idea that “the person who signs the file must be the most intelligent in the room” has shown little signs of dissipating. The culture of “administration by filing” and hierarchical bureaucracy does not create an agile machinery which will respond befittingly to a crisis. In a country like India, to think that one body is the ultimate repository of all knowledge and the only one capable of coherent administrative thought is a dangerously arrogant idea.

Systemic change in a body like the civil society will not appear overnight. Freer exchange of ideas and fresh infusion of a different Point of View must be allowed to percolate into this society. The walls must be lowered in the short-term, if demolition is not feasible. The further retreat of the civil society into a huddle as the crisis has taken shape must be discouraged.

Most foreign nations have become much more receptive to ideas of independent think-tanks and institutes being given an equal seat at the table. As innovative technological and management solutions are the need of the hour to deal with unprecedented crises, students and professors from different management and technical institutes must be encouraged to pitch their solutions. Promising ideas should be rewarded with implementation: they must not be discouraged by the roundabouts and red-tapes in government offices. At the very least, help must be provided by being transparent and open with data and information.

More importantly, management principles and techniques pertaining to crisis and change management now commonplace in management colleges and public policy departments must be diffused into the traditionalist system: not just for the advisory bodies, but for the implementer too

As the lockdown opens, newer and hitherto-unknown challenges lie ahead of India. The mistakes of the lockdown imposition must not be repeated. This is a golden chance to turn crisis into opportunity; to show that in a democracy, people can be willing contributors to decision making and not just a liability to be herded into isolation.

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