Journal Articles

The Indian state and the broken social contract

Yamini Aiyar


January 4, 2021

IN March 2020, as the Covid-19 induced global panic made hitherto draconian acts – border closures, surveillance and lockdowns’ – legitimate forms of state action, India faced an important choice: unleash state power to manage the pandemic or invest capacity in the public health system.

The choices India made on 24th March (when the prime minister announced the first 21-day national lockdown) and in the months that followed, laid bare deep fault lines in India’s state capacity and the social contract that shape state action. Through the lockdown, the most pernicious elements of state failure – its stubborn refusal to deliver a modicum of justice, and uphold the rights of all its citizens, its centralizing tendencies and above all its penchant for using coercion over building trust and investing in the public health system – were unleashed on citizens. Elements of this remain visible as India redesigned its approach in the months after unlocking.

In the shadow of Covid-19, the Indian state was put to test in unprecedented ways. Its response will frame our debates on the Indian state and what it will take to ‘capacitate’ the state to deliver basic public goods in the years to come. As 2020 comes to a close, we need to look back to look forward.

India went into lockdown when the globe was in active pursuit of flattening the Covid curve. Weeks after the first Covid-19 patient was detected, Indian elites joined the global chorus seeking swift governmental action. Lockdowns were the consensus instrument. It is worth remembering that days before the national lockdown, several state governments had begun sealing borders and implementing state specific lockdowns. Lockdowns were a fait accompli.

Epidemiological models predicting millions of infections, combined with the global obsession for flattening the curve, played a part. But another factor that legitimized lockdowns as India’s only option was the reality of India’s broken public health system and a deep distrust in its ability to respond to increased infections. After all, India could not pull off the Wuhan miracle and build a hospital from scratch in 10 days. The global visibility on Covid-19 (the daily tracking of infections and testing rates) and the elite pressure in India required state action.

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