The COVID-19 pandemic has taught India several painful lessons. The first is that we can no longer continue with the ruthless exploitation of nature. The climate crisis, erratic weather phenomena, pollution of air, land and ocean have pushed the country, and the world, to a dangerous brink. Unless this is reversed immediately, we are in for serious trouble by the end of the century. It is extraordinary that the lockdown period has led to nature regenerating. We saw blue skies again after many decades, pollution levels dropped and several species of animals, birds and insects staged a comeback. We must try to ensure that these positive developments are sustained so that we do not revert to the old normal, but adopt a new normal vis-a-vis nature.
The second lesson is that India needs a drastic restructuring of its developmental plans which involves allocating at least 3 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) each to health and education. If the country does not strengthen these sectors, all plans of becoming a world-class power are doomed to fail. It has been a national failure that we have not done so since Independence. It is also clear that in a vast federal country such as India, a crisis like this demands close cooperation between the centre and the states, regardless of which political party is in power.
Health is a state subject and it is the states and the union territories that have to deal with the crisis on the ground. This is an area where cooperative federalism rather than confrontational federalism is required.
Third, despite efforts of leaders such as the United States President Donald Trump to trash the concept of globalisation, the fact remains that international collaboration in crises like this is essential.
This applies to the quest for a vaccine as well as the availability of medicines and personal protective equipment. As our ancient concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family) tells us, in the final analysis, no nation, howsoever great, can be an island unto itself. The human race will ultimately sink or swim together. We have some of the best scientists and researchers in the world, and several of India’s laboratories are working overtime to find a vaccine against the Coronavirus. Here again, cooperation with the laboratories in other countries will be of great value.
I led the Indian delegation to the World Health Organization (WHO) general conference on several occasions as health minister. In its building in Geneva, there is a beautiful Nataraja image, a depiction of the Hindu god Shiva as the divine dancer, that I presented to the then director-general Dr H Mahler when he visited Delhi to celebrate the eradication of smallpox worldwide. Despite WHO coming in for criticism recently, I feel we must continue to cooperate with it fully and take advantage of its organisational expertise.
The fourth lesson is that the intolerable sufferings of millions of migrant workers from the sudden lockdown, and the lack of preparedness for their welfare, will remain a matter of deep shame to the nation. This teaches us that there has to be a safety net for the most vulnerable sections of society – the one-quarter of India’s population that still lives below the poverty line. Apart from other measures, an assured minimum income credited directly into their accounts is the only way to achieve this. This is the least that India can do as a nation. This can be achieved with the restructuring of India’s financial planning and reorienting its monetary policy.
Fifth, the virus has forced us to revisit family relationships and to extend support and affection, particularly to the elderly. Reports of increased domestic violence during the lockdown are disturbing. This is the opposite of what is needed. Existing laws need to be strictly enforced because any improper behaviour towards women, children or the elderly is unacceptable and against the tenets of Indian culture. The COVID-19 crisis has also impelled us to change personal lifestyles in a manner that unnecessary expenditure on luxury items has been minimised. That some of us can afford to spend on these is no justification for avoidable expenditure. The vulgar and grossly over-the-top engagement and wedding ceremonies, along with hugely wasteful banquets and receptions, should be restricted by law by designating a limited guest list, say, 50 people. With millions not getting one square meal a day, it is nothing short of criminal to waste so much money on so few.
Finally, the virus has taught us the benefits of silence and solitude so that we can look into ourselves and explore the deeper recesses of our consciousness.
We are so involved in superficial activities that we seldom get time to look within. In the ultimate analysis, it is our inner consciousness that will express itself in our actions and relationships. If we can find deep within ourselves the divine light that is the core of our beings, this will uplift not only each individual but society at large.
Karan Singh is a senior Congress leader, a former Union minister and a former parliamentarian. The views expressed are personal. First published in HINDUSTAN TIMES