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Catch-22: Restart the Indian economy or save lives

Legally SpeakingCatch-22: Restart the Indian economy or save lives

This is not time to ask for documents like Aadhaar, ration cards or proof of citizenship but for the government and the nation to make every effort to preserve lives.

As we enter the fourth week of the nationwide lockdown, we are faced with a cruel Catch-22 situation. The whole point of a lockdown is to stop people from going to work because that is how the virus spreads, yet we want the supply chains restored, farming activities to proceed, factories opened, and money and food distributed for which people have to get out to work. Regrettably, it is the poor and vulnerable who are facing, and will face the brunt of this dichotomy.
This gigantic health crisis has resulted in a social calamity and an economic catastrophe. One thing is clear—the Wuhan virus is a great leveller, respecting neither social class, economic status nor religion. Everyone is at risk; everyone is also a potential risk for others. For now, the more affluent will be concerned about not getting infected—but for others, who, perhaps, are the most affected victims, their worry about loss of earning, the condition of their families in distant villages or still trying to reach their homes and families—are understandable concerns. Employment and income always were, and, will more so now, be the basic concerns of the poor. With longer and more stringent proposed lockdown in “hot spots”, frustrations are mounting. Post extension of the lockdown, we have witnessed an outpouring of this frustration in several areas.
The economy is at a standstill. Those with savings in the bank, realising that that there is no cure or vaccine in immediate sight, may for now be relieved about, and support a continuance of the lockdown. But the hard reality is that that there is a state of imminent collapse of the economy. The cautious exit plan effective 20 April 2020 advocating the opening up of economic activity in specified sectors is tentative and wary. Tentative—because of the human cost involved. Turning wheels of economy may dilute social and physical distancing and could increase exposure to the virus. The nation is faced with a conundrum of too little too late, or too much too early and regrettably only time will tell how this plays out.
As and when we emerge from this crisis, it is a given that the world will not be the same. A number of possible futures have been postulated, but it all depends on how governments and society respond during and after this pandemic. The paramount consideration will have to be to create a more humane and socially just and equitable future.
Sacrifices will need to be made. It is not that we as a people are not used to sacrifices, having seen the pain of Partition, of wars and natural calamities. Several lessons of grit, determination and resilience have to be remembered from the experience of the refugees who migrated from Pakistan in 1947 and rebuilt their lives in India. Barring a few families who had resources, most of them left behind their homes, property and savings. This influx of people created severe pressure on the limited resources of housing, food, healthcare and other essentials. It was a time of turmoil for the entire sub-continent and rehabilitation took years to implement. Countless Indians from West Punjab and East Bengal persevered and survived for years after 1947 without compensation, in lieu of their refugee claims, which was a pittance compared to what was left behind. The rehabilitation of refugees was an arduous exercise. It took a few years to get registered as a refugee, followed by the process of filing claims, proving them, getting them verified and accepted, sometimes facing legal challenges. There were instances of it taking nearly 10 years for grant of compensation.
Fortunately, today technological progress has facilitated existence of biometric data bank, Aadhaar, Jan Dhan accounts and much greater reach to every part of India and therefore disbursement of relief measures is far easier and more expeditious. However, the task before the Indian State is much more complex than before. All past disasters, whether wars or natural calamities disasters or epidemics, impacted only parts of India. This time, it is a pan-India disaster of gargantuan proportions reflected in the nationwide application of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 for the first time, and the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. The challenge is to first contain this disease and then to rebuild. Serious rethinking and recalibration will be required, both at the planning and implementation level. Healthcare, housing and education have to be prioritised. We cannot afford the human cost of another such lockdown in the future.  While today, people complain about the depredations to the economy, the turbulence in the stock market and the adverse impact on corporations large and small, it is time to remember that what is most precious is human life.
In focusing on the preservation of human lives, the Indian State is duty bound under the Constitution to ensure that all citizens and non-citizens alike are provided the basic necessities of food, healthcare and housing. Article 21 draws no distinction between citizens and non-citizens. Relief measures cannot be limited to those documented in government records, whether through Aadhaar or otherwise, for there are those who are residents not reflected in official data, such as migrant or casual labour, or others outside this system. Today each and every single person living in India is entitled to protection of his right to life which includes the right to sustenance. This is not the time to ask for documents, or ration cards or proof of citizenship but for the government and the entire nation to make every effort to support this national cause—the preservation of all lives.
The authors are a lawyer couple residing in Delhi
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