Fifty-five days after India went in for arguably the most stringent lockdown in the world, the country opened up substantially on Tuesday, though the lockdown has been officially extended to May 31. This is a good moment to evaluate what the Centre did right, and what it got wrong in this period.
Here is where the Narendra Modi government was right. One, it understood the gravity of the challenge posed by the coronavirus pandemic, did not underplay the threat, and emphasised the need for precautions and social distancing. Two, despite the economic costs, it took the right decision in imposing a lockdown on March 25 — the country needed it then to reduce the spread of the infection and prepare the health infrastructure. Three, once it recognised the importance of masks and personal protective equipment (PPE), it scaled up domestic production. Four, it recognised the centrality of the states in this battle, with Mr Modi regularly consulting chief ministers and taking into account their inputs. Five, the prime minister’s messaging by first emphasising lives over livelihoods, and then the need to reconcile both lives and livelihoods — as it became clear that the pandemic was here to stay — was important. And finally, it behaved responsibly by helping countries in need, and not using this moment to score geopolitical points.
Where did the government go wrong? One, it underestimated the desire of migrant workers to return home, causing one of the most severe humanitarian crises India has seen. It was inconsistent regarding their travel policy, didn’t provide adequate safety nets, and was insensitive when reports of them walking home emerged. Two, it slipped on the health front — by, first, having limited testing criteria, testing at low numbers for long, and not providing enough PPE in the early stages. It is not clear if India still has the infrastructure in case there is a surge in cases. Three, it greatly delayed the economic package — and when the package was announced, it did not have a strong enough component to stimulate demand and provide immediate relief. Four, the Centre did not do enough to support the states financially. Five, it has been sporadic and often not transparent in its communication, particularly on the spread of the disease. And finally, in the enforcement of the lockdown, the security apparatus often used excessive force and violated guidelines of the government itself. As India prepares for the next phase in the battle, it should build on the strengths and remedy the weaknesses.