Modi 1.0 will help Modi 2.0 deal with the pandemic | Opinion
His policies and schemes have equipped both the Indian State and society better. The NPR and NRC will help too
The coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) has shaken the foundations of the international order. It has already taken a toll in advanced countries known for their health care infrastructure and accessibility. Developing countries, struggling with inadequate State capacity, face the challenge of both dealing with the health catastrophe and its economic fallout.
The situation is precarious in India, with its 1.3 billion people and a weak health care system. Health care in India has always been dismal. Public expenditure on health in India is around 1.2% of the GDP. India has a critical shortage of doctors, paramedics, nurses, hospitals, ventilators and other equipment. The private sector accounts for a key segment of health care capacity, but suffers from poor quality control, corruption, unfair practices and inaccessibility for the masses. And not much can be done to redress these structural inadequacies at such short notice, although the government has been moving fast to augment capacity like placing orders for 40,000 ventilators to nearly double their numbers.
But this crisis has also validated several of the major policy decisions of the Narendra Modi government in the past six years. Major relief measures such as medical insurance to frontline health workers and income support to vulnerable groups using direct benefits transfer are testimony to formidable state capacity. Such measures would have been unthinkable a few years ago, but for the massive infrastructure built by implementing policies like Aadhaar, Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojna (PMJDY) and Digital India.
Today India’s banked population is more than 80%, a sharp increase from around 50% in 2014. And the credit goes to the extraordinary push given by the PMJDY, which now boasts of 380 million bank accounts; 1.25 billion Aadhaar cards have been issued and the number of smartphone users alone has crossed 500 million, with a total number of mobile phones at 1.21 billion. Now 690 million Indians subscribe to the Internet, with urban net penetration at 104%.
The push given to National Payments Corporation of India has boosted innovation and connectivity, thus revolutionising banking and governance. There are more than 600 million RuPay cards, most associated with the PMJDY accounts and 1.2 billion transactions are being done over BHIM UPI alone which accounts only for the 5% market share in the bourgeoning UPI ecosystem.
The “JAM trinity”, which transformed the social security paradigm, has become the preferred route to support people staring at an uncertain future due to the lockdown. These schemes were fiercely opposed by vested interests as wasteful and exclusionary. So powerful was the opposition, that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government all but surrendered, despite originally incubating these schemes. It is to the credit of Modi that despite his earlier concerns, he quickly grasped the potential of these schemes and invested his political and administrative capital in achieving what UPA failed to attain. Because of this, India today is in a far better position to deal with the pandemic.
Schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana increasing gas cylinder coverage, Digilocker, BharatNet, integrating governance and social media, 100% electrification, construction of 1.8 crore houses under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, Ayushman Bharat and various pension schemes for the unorganised sector have made us better prepared to deal with the lockdown and economic distress. These schemes also generate a crucial database of the beneficiaries that is now being utilised by the government to ensure relief to the maximum number of people possible especially in the unorganised sector. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was mocked and dismissed as a gimmick, but sanitation has substantially improved. Better sanitation and hygiene has already been saving hundreds of thousands of lives, as per the estimates of the World Health Organisation, and its importance during a pandemic cannot be emphasised enough.
Covid-19 also settles the debate on the National Population Register and National Register of Citizens, by demonstrating the necessity for a complete and verifiable database of population and citizens as even now a large number of people are outside the ambit of relief measure due to the lack of such a database. Such a database and State-capacity of need-based surveillance, unshackled by strict privacy concerns, are central to the success of countries like South Korea, Taiwan and China and Singapore in containing the pandemic.
But, for now, it is the economic question that needs to be addressed next. A decade-long slowdown has already limited the capacity of the government to undertake relief measures. The economy was already in the midst of the restructuring due to disruptive policies implemented in the last few years including the shock induced by demonetisation. It is unclear if it can absorb another shock and yet emerge unscathed. We have no precedents to fall back upon. The nearest analogy might well be that of wartime reconstruction.