As the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) spreads across the world, we are reminded of the frailty of the human condition and of a world that has been halted in time like a deer caught in the headlights. We hear about historic pandemics and biblical plagues, but seldom has there been such a challenge to modern civilisation, one that has pressed the pause button on lives and livelihoods. With over 2.3 million cases and over 150,000 deaths, this pandemic has put more than 100 countries and a third of the world's population in lockdown. Economists warn that the damage to the economy is likely to be similar — or worse — to the Great Depression.
How India, with one of the largest working-age populations in the world, battles Covid-19 will determine how the future unfolds for the world. While the West's policy sages are painting a grim picture of a post-pandemic world, India is charting out a path to recovery and redemption. The Government of India's (GoI) policy responses to Covid-19 have been stellar, and have evolved from precaution to prevention and now, to precision.
First, India was expeditious in taking precautions to curtail the spread of the coronavirus — from issuing travel advisories, introducing temperature screening of foreign travellers at airports, and establishing quarantine centres to being one of the first countries to ban international and domestic travel. These measures significantly contributed to reducing the case count. In fact, 46 days since the first reported case, Italy's daily case volume was over 1,000 times larger than India's. Similarly, despite similar caseloads in India and the United States (US), 40 days since the first reported case, the daily volume in the US was 25 times that of India's two weeks hence. The growth rate of daily and cumulative cases in India has been consistently linear and lower.
Second, India undertook one of the boldest measures ever seen by implementing a lockdown of over 1.3 billion people to break the transmission chain of the virus. This move was implemented sooner than it was in China, the United Kingdom and Spain, and it has estimated to have reduced the number of people infected by about 150 times. India's three-week lockdown is showing results in terms of a flattened pandemic curve. Consequently, the growth rate of cases has declined by over 40%. At a national level, while the doubling of cases has slowed from three days before the lockdown to 6.2 days now, as many as 19 states and Union territories (UTs) have demonstrated progress with better-than-average doubling rates. India's federal setup is a model of cooperative partnership, bolstered by constant interaction and consultation between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the chief ministers.
Third, with the extension of the lockdown till May 3, the GoI's focus is on precision policy, mapping out hotspots and moving towards restarting the economy. While the first phase of the lockdown focused on saving lives, the core objective of the extended lockdown is finding a balance between lives and livelihoods, particularly in rural India.
With the graded lifting of curbs from April 20, the guidelines provide autonomy to states and districts in charting out their plans. In fact, this decision indicates the GoI's willingness to ease the economic crisis for the hardest hit — the poor and the migrant workers. The GoI has disbursed almost $4 billion to over 320 million people via the direct benefit transfer mechanism.
With states recalibrating the resumption of core economic activities, the latest guidelines follow a traffic light approach. There will be colour-coded zones — red, orange and green. The red zones (hotspots) will continue to have a lockdown; orange zones (with some cases) and green zones (with no cases) will witness a relaxation in restrictions on economic activities. So far, 170 out of 718 districts have been identified as hotspots. On average, about seven out of 10 cases in each state have been reported from three districts. Further, one in two districts in India has no reported cases and will be allowed to restart economic activities.
These guidelines allow for an entire ecosystem of primary and agro-based industries to gear towards production. This is significant considering the total area under the summer crops (including rice, pulses, coarse cereals and oil seeds) has jumped significantly, registering an 11.64 lakh hectare increase over the last year. The country is even moving towards a bumper harvest in the coming months.
The coordination between a proactive political leadership, an agile bureaucracy and the supportive public has led to a semblance of life returning back to normal. We have pan-ministry guidelines being issued in rapid succession to ensure supply chain bottlenecks are dismantled, and beneficiaries in non-hotspot areas, particularly farmers and small and medium entrepreneurs, kick start economic activity.
Since the beginning of the lockdown, about Rs 16,000 crore have been released under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-KISAN) Scheme benefitting 8.31 crore farmer families. Similarly, under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PM-GKY) about 4,000 MT of pulses has been dispatched for delivery to the States and Union Territories. The eNAM platform is being leveraged to debottleneck agri-logistics by creating an interface for large transport aggregators and an All India Agri Transport Call Centre launched for coordination between States for inter-state movement of perishables like vegetables and fruits, inputs like seeds, pesticides and fertilisers etc.
The Indian Railways has been running 134 Parcel Special Trains on over 65 routes for perishable commodities, and 247 flights have been operationalised by the ministry of civil aviation under the "Lifeline UDAN" scheme to transport essential medical cargo to remote parts of the country.
Besides unlocking the agri sector, which is the primary source of livelihood for about 60% of the country, the guidelines also allow for the unlocking of other sectors such as construction - which has one of the largest number of informal daily wagers, e-commerce, self-employed services of plumbers, electricians etc. and manufacturing and industry in special economic zones. In fact, these measures will significantly contribute towards restoring livelihoods for a majority of the country.
Despite the easing of restrictions, there is a need to remain vigilant, as the battle against coronavirus will have to continue to be fought by each citizen, through self-discipline, wearing of masks, and social distancing. Technology is a critical tool in this battle. Contact tracing is being extensively done through Arogya Setu - a unique app built by the best of India with quality, privacy, security, and scalability. It has reached an astounding 60 million users within 15 days of its launch and added immense value in our fight against an unknown enemy.
India has already proven its success in terms of saving lives. With only 0.4 Covid-related deaths per million population, India is far ahead of "advanced" countries like Spain, the UK, the US and even Germany which have recorded 441, 228, 118 and 54 deaths per million, respectively. On aggregate, just four countries --- France, Italy, Spain and UK account for half the Covid-related deaths worldwide. While the US accounts for 25% of the total deaths, India accounts for only 0.3% of the total. Even in terms of testing, India is reporting 4.7% positive cases as a proportion of total tests while this number is at least five times more in countries like France, Spain and the US.
In fact, the International Monetary Fund and the World Health Organization have lauded the government's proactive response, and India has also received the highest score in Oxford University's Coronavirus Government Response Tracker. Going forth, India's measures to augment a post-pandemic economy will also attract the international eye, serving as a template for the world to follow.
The Prime Minister in his recent address struck a chord with the 18th century Urdu idiom jaan hai toh jahaan hai! (Only if you are alive, will the world survive). While the phrase uniquely captures the struggles of our current time, India's consistent strategies and evolving policy priorities will ensure the gears of India's economic engine take flight, taki jaan rahe aur hamara jahaan bhi (so that our people survive and so does the world we have built.)
Amitabh Kant is CEO, NITI Aayog. Sarah Iype is a Young Professional at NITI Aayog.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Hindustan Times, and is published by special syndication arrangement.