On April 15, 2021, India recorded the highest ever single-day spike with 200,739 Covid cases. If this continues, then in a week’s time, the single-day spike will reach 500,000 as the rise is very sharp. At present, the rise in cases has put pressure on the available healthcare facilities in many states. Maharashtra imposed a lockdown in the name of Janata Curfew starting April 14, 2021.
A point to be noted is that the harsh lockdown during 2020 was aimed at capacity building. That’s why, many (including me) are not in favour of a second lockdown. But then Maharashtra can’t be blamed for the present lockdown because the number of Covid-19 cases are uncontrollable there. I won’t be surprised if the Central government imposes another harsh lockdown in the first week of May if the spike is beyond control.
There are many reasons to explain the more dangerous and infectious nature of the second wave. Experts have stated the mutation of the virus, corona fatigue and many other reasons for the second wave. But they all unanimously agree that the carelessness and fearlessness among people regarding Covid are the main reasons for this steep rise. Despite multiple warnings, people indulged in thronging everywhere and were not following Covid-appropriate behaviour. To add to this, the opening of schools, election campaigns, festivals, etc. augmented the danger.
The point is simple: if people stick to Covid-appropriate behaviour, then no matter how mutated the virus, it can’t harm the public. Governments (both Centre and State) have alerted the public regarding this at many instances. Fines were put in place as well, yet, people did not follow the Covid protocol. The reason is simple. Human beings, by default, are anarchic. We always need a strict imposition of the law to remain disciplined. Counselling or advising rarely works. Furthermore, the Covid fatigue also added to the carelessness.
The lockdown is considered the best way to discipline people. I think as a last resort, the state governments, or even the Central government last year, had to impose a total lockdown. The public can be disciplined that way, but there the lockdown is bound to have economic and livelihood consequences.
I’ve discussed these factors in my previous article on this platform. I suggested that the enforcement of the Covid protocol must include civilians as we can’t depute policemen in every nook and corner to ensure adherence of Covid-appropriate behaviour among the public, followed by imposition of a penalty in case of violation. Many of my friends raised questions on how this power can be decentralised in the form of ground-level representatives. According to them, the Indian governance system holds authority that can’t be exercised by anyone else.
I differ here and present an example below.
Odisha was one of the first states to successfully manage the first wave of Covid-19. How? The Navin Patnaik government empowered the sarpanches in the state with district collector’s power. The sarpanches were also assigned the responsibility of ensuring the adherence of Covid-appropriate behaviour and quarantining of people coming from other state. They also managed the quarantine centres in the Panchayat, and if required, had the power to impose a lockdown/shutdown in a particular ward, village or even the whole Panchayat. This worked well in their favour. The sarpanch, along with other ward members, in fact, worked very hard to control the corona spike.
The PRI (Panchayati Raj Institution) is the basic outlet for deliverance of governance. Mahatma Gandhi was always of the opinion that villages should be the units of polity. The main intention of the implementation of PRIs was to deliver governance directly to the public. It’s a fact that due to vested interest of political leaders, till date, the PRIs are not empowered to govern, as has been mandated in the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act 1992 of Panchayt Raj Act.
This period of the pandemic, which is an extraordinary situation, has taught us many things. The result of the Odisha government’s experiment in giving all sarpanches the power of a district collector to fight Covid-19 is visible. Thus, I think all the sarpanches in India must be given the same power again, along with the responsibility of ensuring Covid-appropriate behaviour by the public. They can impose penalties and even shutdowns/lockdowns. Not only the PRI, but even urban local bodies should be included in this management, where councillors can take charge of their wards. Apart from this, there can be voluntary organisations/NGOs who can work under a particular police station in urban areas to control the public.
It is when things go beyond control that the harshest steps (like a complete lockdown) are imposed, irrespective of their financial and livelihood consequences. But is there anything wrong in using our existing institutions to discipline the public? I think governments should deliberate on this aspect.