We Are Fighting Two Disasters: Covid-19 and the Indian State

This is the 31st installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

India is in crisis, and it is not just because of Covid-19. This pandemic is a surging, temporal disaster that has laid bare an ongoing, ever-present disaster that has been with us for over 70 years – the dysfunctional Indian state.

All around us, the state is flailing, unable to fulfil its responsibilities. Our police are stuck in the 19th century, with a colonial mentality that treats all citizens as criminals by default, especially if poor. Governance has broken down. It is now clear that the state’s lack of administrative capacity is complemented by its lack of imaginative ability. The lockdown was bound to have many downstream effects, such as disrupting all supply chains and leaving migrants stranded. The administration did not see it coming – and even if it had, there is little it could have done. It is hard to program a machine with broken parts.

This is not the fault of any particular political dispensation. Most Indians have a sense that our political problems go beyond our political parties. In this crisis, especially, partisanship is pointless. Every decision carries costs, and in hindsight, everyone can be accused of making mistakes. In this fog of war, though, who can master the calculus of human life and figure out whether a particular measure will save more lives from Covid-19 now or cost more lives in the long run because of economic disruption and unintended consequences? It is a thankless task.

But here’s what I find perverse and sad: even the best decision, as I believe this 21-day lockdown was, will have enormous costs because India is a flailing state.

‘Flailing state’ is a term that was coined by the economist Lant Pritchett in a famous 2009 paper. It describes a state whose “head is not reliably connected to the arms and legs of implementation.” There is no administrative capability – and, I would add, there cannot be because of bad incentives.

I have long argued that the Indian state should do a few things well instead of many things badly. It does not do what it should. There is no rule of law in the country, and government-run services are invariably the worst. Protecting its citizens from threats (such as this coronavirus) is a key justification of the state. Not spending hundreds of crores building statues and buying media advertising so as to control the media.

The root cause of the problem is in the conception and design of the state. Our founders did much that we should be thankful for – but they got this wrong. They designed a state to rule the people, not to serve them. The Indian state is a bloated predatory beast that uses its power, unaccountability and monopoly on violence to extract hafta from society. It does not serve society, and stands in the way of society serving itself.

While the state is an efficient parasite, it is a terrible service provider. We see both aspects of this failure in the current crisis: the state is not doing what it is supposed to; and it is getting in the way of those who could make things better. This is illustrated, for example, by the restrictions that existed until recently on private providers making Covid-19 tests. Or in the silly price controls on sanitisers and masks that have worsened a shortage of them, which is the inevitable result of price controls.

If you think Covid-19 is a disaster, consider that around 3000 children die in India every day from starvation, and one in four Indian children are malnourished. Our young are wasting away, and our jobs crisis is turning our demographic dividend into a bug, not a feature. We effectively wage war on our farmers, our poor, our women. We live within a crisis far deeper than any pandemic can be.

All this, 73 years after Independence, is not because of a virus. It is caused by bad governance, and a failing state whose failure was written into its DNA.

Ironically, the state will probably use this Covid-19 crisis to increase its power and reduce its accountability.

Covid-19 will pass, but will we get past this other disaster? Before we do, we have to see it for what it is. We have normalised the failures of the state. We have become blind believers in the Religion of Government. We look to mai-baap for all solutions, and do not question it. We have allowed ourselves to become subjects, not citizens. We have abandoned reason, and while we will defeat this dangerous coronavirus, who will save us from the pandemic of apathy?