Ram Madhav
April 27, 2021

Decentralise and empower states and civil society

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For the country to tide over this emergency, greater empowered involvement of different stakeholders is imperative

“Wait for Godot or wait for God?” — is a philosophical question that seekers direct at the masters. Godot was an enigmatic character created by the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett in his popular play, Waiting for Godot. In Beckett’s play, two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, engage in animated discussions about various issues while waiting for the arrival of Godot, who never turns up. Waiting for Godot eventually became an allegory in the Christian tradition for man’s urge for salvation which would never come.

Allegorically speaking, that appears to be the situation the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed many in India towards. The health care establishment has been so overwhelmed that many patients find it difficult to access. Although called a wave, the second outburst of the pandemic turned out to be a tsunami.

We were able to handle the first wave efficiently. It was possible due to the timely steps taken by the government on one hand, and the disciplined response of the people on the other. But, over the last few months, complacency seems to have crept in. Going by the statements of the leaders in the government, they did not anticipate the virulence of the second wave. Citizens too seemed to be taking things lightly by not following pandemic protocols.

Social media is full of criticism these days. The larger share of the blame is laid at the doorstep of the government. It may partly be because people had high expectations from this government. They were convinced from last year’s experience that the government knew how to handle the pandemic and would act swiftly. When things seem otherwise, they naturally blame the government.

Criticism is easy. But it must also be remembered that the challenge before the government is unprecedented. Nobody in the country has witnessed such a massive health care crisis in their lifetime. The last time that humanity experienced such a crisis was during the Spanish flu in 1918-19. An estimated 20 million Indians had perished during that pandemic. Globally, over 100 million were said to have died of that virus. The severity of the Spanish flu virus was such that Mahatma Gandhi, himself afflicted, had confided in a confidante that “all interest in living has ceased”.

Covid is not too dissimilar to the Spanish flu. Both spread through human contact, and nose and mouth were the infecting organs. There are lessons to be learnt from both the experiences.

One big lesson that the Covid-19 pandemic has taught is that a country of India’s size and diversity needed greater decentralisation. Decentralisation does not simply mean the Centre forwarding vaccines, medicines and oxygen supplies to the states for free distribution. It is about sufficiently empowering various stakeholders, including state governments, district and village administrations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Right from the time of the making of the Indian Constitution, there was a tendency for building a strong Centre. Many members of the Constituent Assembly had argued that we should make, not a federal, but a unitary constitution. Many expressed fears about Indian provinces developing secessionist tendencies if a federal system was put in place. The provincial representatives, on the other hand, were against centralisation. BR Ambedkar, in his own wisdom, rightly impressed upon the members the need for having balanced decentralisation of powers. He insisted that the dominance of the Centre will be “expressly confined to emergencies only”.

There is a health care emergency today, no doubt. But it must be appreciated that greater empowered involvement of different stakeholders is imperative for the country to tide over this emergency. The differential and higher pricing of vaccines for states is unconvincing. Health being a state subject, the states are responsible for health care and need a greater independent role. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s principle of cooperative federalism should be at work.

Civil society and NGOs, which have been facing some difficulties in the recent past, need to be encouraged to supplement the government’s efforts. In 1918, when British administrators had run away from the crisis and hidden in palatial rest-houses in forests and remote areas, it was the media and civil society which had provided succour to the suffering millions. “Never before, perhaps, in the history of India, have the educated and more fortunately placed members of the community, come forward in large numbers to help their poorer brethren in time of distress,” a British government report said.

Lastly, when a crisis befalls a nation, intellectual humility needs to be the way for all who matter. Just as success brings plaudits, crisis brings panning. There will be advice, both solicited and unsolicited and criticism, both warranted and unwarranted. But in such a situation, the wise betray humility, not haughtiness. Haughtiness may win the day, but humility wins the race. It can be called the Socratic way.

When unreasonably condemned by the Athenian court for treason, Socrates, referring to an oracle’s statement that he was the wisest among all citizens, humbly says: “What’s likely, gentlemen, is that in reality it’s the god who is wise, and the oracle is saying, ‘he among you humans is wisest who, like Socrates, knows that he’s really worth nothing when it comes to wisdom’.”

(The article was originally published in Hindustan Times on April 27, 2021. Views expressed are personal.)

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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