Situation of street during Lockdown for Corona crisis in Kolkata, West Bengal, India.

Pandemic in India: The Birth of a Stronger Social Contract?

States around the world are making dramatic changes to their ways of life to combat the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and this unprecedented crisis will test many states as never before. In the world’s largest democracy – India – this test could have profound implications for the very nature of the state. Ananay Agarwal examines the Indian social contract, and how coronavirus might change it forever.

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Societies across the planet are facing changes to their social contract in unprecedented ways. The global response to the pandemic resembles – in some ways – the massive changes to state-citizen relations made in response to the September 11 attacks in the United States. To better understand this, let us first examine the concept of a social contract.

The social contract

As a loose definition, a social contract is an unofficial agreement shared by a society, in which individuals take on certain obligations, give up certain freedoms and behave in a certain way in exchange for security, stability and the provision of essential services. To help explain this, let’s look at a few examples of different kinds of obligations.

In many societies, the children are expected to look after their aged parents. But why is the child expected or even obliged to do so? In the same vein, parents are expected to give their children the best future they possibly can, but why? One answer is that it is the natural outcome of a parent-child relationship, defined by millennia of evolution. When the child is young, parents take care of them, and so it naturally flows that when the parents are aged and can’t take care of themselves, the children take up the responsibility. In these cultures, it is something that is just ‘built-in’ into the relationship. Philosophers and social scientists refer to such arrangements as ‘natural obligations.’

Now, suppose you borrow money from your friend and promise to pay it back next month. In this case, you voluntarily put yourself under an obligation to pay back your friend. It can be an implicit agreement contingent on the strength of the friendship and/or generousness of your friend, or an explicit agreement involving a written contract that is enforced by the government of the country you live in. Such obligations are called ‘voluntary obligations.’

Now let’s take a step further back: the explicit agreement would likely be enforced by the government of your country. What makes obligations to your government so important? Why should you listen to your government when they tell you that you must uphold the repayment contract? Some argue that it’s because the state carries the biggest stick around and will essentially beat you with it if you don’t listen. There is also an argument to be made that just like a child doesn’t choose its parents, one can’t choose its state and thus their obligations are also natural obligations (this forms the basis of divine rule by kings and absolutist states where the state is seen as a paternal figure). But this is not entirely true either, as in modern times many people voluntarily change their citizenship status to other countries.

To summarise centuries of debate in a few sentences, people put themselves within the social contract of a state by agreeing amongst each other to do so. In an explicit form, this is the constitution adopted by most nations in the modern era. This document codifies the rules by which the society governs itself, and to which all its citizens agree to. The citizens give up certain freedoms, like the freedom to kill their neighbour to take an extreme example, in return, being protected from their neighbour killing them. To once again summarise centuries of debate, over time, this philosophy of mutual compact naturally tends to drift towards the democratic republic system of governance, in which citizens have an equal vote and vote for the national leader.

The Social Contract and the Nation

So how does it matter on which philosophy or foundation the government operates?  The answer to this question strongly affects the legitimacy and capacity of the state. In simple terms, if I willingly agree to be governed by and under a certain set of rules, the government can focus more of its efforts on governing, and less on ensuring it stays in power and that I submit to its directives. A good example is the fact that nations with established social contracts have relatively smooth transitions of power from one leader to another, whereas those with weaker social contracts tend to face massive disruption when power changes hands. This contrast can be seen with nations such as the United Kingdom, which generally maintain the same form of government for generations, and nations such as Libya, that have descended into anarchy and civil war when a dictator has died. The former also tend to have smaller informal sectors in the economy when compared to the latter (more on this later). This is, of course, a very sweeping example and we can’t place all the nations of the world into these two neat boxes. Most nations lie somewhere in the middle, and as such we must draw a distinction between different degrees of social contracts.

In this sense, nations with a strong social contract enjoy a large amount of confidence and trust in their government and institutions, and nations with non-existent social contracts are propped up, typically under the threat of pure military force. Most nations of the modern age lie somewhere between and have varying degrees of trust in their institutions and governments. This trust and social contract evolve over time and when crises arise, it is how the people with power respond to these critical junctures that increases, decreases or outright destroys the social contract.  

There is a strong argument to be made that the coronavirus lockdown has presented itself as just such a critical juncture, and the rest of this article will explore how India might emerge from it a dramatically-changed nation.

Covid-19 as a Critical Juncture for India

In a nutshell, India’s social contract lies somewhere in the middle. It has many things going for it, foremost being that it is home to the world’s largest free and fair elections. Of course they are not perfect and Indian elections do see scandals, but overall issues such as large-scale voter fraud are not commonplace in its vibrant democracy. The nation has had its brush with authoritarian dictatorship too, but has never experienced a military coup, like many of its post-colonial peers. Its Judiciary is largely independent, and functions as intended, even though it suffers from a severe backlog of cases due to a shortage of judges and other judicial resources. Overall, trust in government has been steadily increasing in recent years. Despite these positives, corruption and bribery are facts of life for most Indians. Financial fraud is also highly prevalent, with very few Indians filing their taxes. One key element of the Indian nation is that large numbers of Indians are not under the purview of the Ministry of Finance and participate in the nation’s vast informal economy. But financial inclusion is also growing, with bank account ownership is skyrocketing from just 53% of India’s total population in 2014, to 80% in 2017. Overall, a picture of an evolving state with increasing trust is being painted. Unfortunately, this topic is highly politically-charged and the exact perception of this will depend heavily on an Indian’s political leanings. It can be agreed though, that the social contract is not as strong as can be.

The coronavirus lockdown is a humanitarian and economic crisis that has engulfed the world, and India is no exception. The way India responds to it will have far reaching implications and set future precedents. If handled well, it will increase confidence in the Modi Government, but it also has the potential to increase confidence in the Indian Government as a concept. A crisis like this can be used to push through many reforms, and it remains to be seen how the Indian Government will fare by the end of it.

India’s Response

The Indian Constitution defines an Emergency under Articles 352, 356 and 360. The first deals with national security, the second with breakdown of law and order in a state, and the third relates to a financial emergency. But none of these quite capture the current crisis. This conveys that India doesn’t really have any precedents to look back too. Indeed, the Spanish flu did arrive in India and killed an estimated 17 million people; more than all of the casualties of World War I. However this was at a different time, when India effectively had no social contract whatsoever.

India is now very different from the impoverished nation under colonial rule that it once was. With its own government and institutions, the results are readily visible. In the early days of the crisis, India took rapid action in limiting transmission from outside the country, by suspending visas and quarantining incoming passengers, foreign or national. According to health officials, over 1 million passengers had been screened by March 18. Citizens were quickly evacuated from affected countries like China, Japan and Iran. Iran and India share close political and social bonds, and when Iran was struggling to keep pace with the havoc the disease wrought, India deployed doctors to the country and sent a makeshift lab to assist overwhelmed local systems.

Attempting to make a phone call across the country, one would first be greeted by a warning message in the local language about the deadly virus. India’s Ministry of Health’s website displays the official figures on its front page, along with helpline numbers, advisories and even FAQs. On March 24, India also followed most nations into a lockdown and stopped public gatherings. Many relief camps for migrant workers have been set-up to ease the burdens of these impoverished individuals who have found themselves far from home with limited personal support networks. The government also came up with the ingenious idea of mobilising its vast train network and is using old carriages to set up an additional 80,000 mobile beds. This is especially useful for providing medical support to rural areas lacking adequate infrastructure.

The Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme (IDSP), that already monitors people for high risk diseases, has also been immensely helpful in stemming the spread of Covid-19. Under this, medical personnel first identify clusters of diseases and set up strict containment zones. The people inside are ordered to stay inside, and teams then go door to door testing people with suspected infections, along with their close relatives and contacts. If positive, the people are immediately taken to hospital.

On the economic side, the Finance Minister has extended many guidelines and eased regulatory compliance for industries most affected like small business and hospitality. Taxes have been delayed from March 31 to June 31, and the government has announced at least one stimulus package worth $23 billion to help those hit hardest by the lockdown. The government has said that it aims to distribute 5 kg of wheat or rice to daily labourers free of cost, with 1 kilogram of pulses for every low income family over the next three months. It also aims to hand out free cooking gas cylinders to over 80 million poor families, $6.65 a month to 200 million women for three months and a one time cash transfer of $13.31 to 30 million senior citizens. While these figures may not seem significant through a Western lens, to the poorest Indian citizens, they are likely to be a lifeline. Additionally, every front line healthcare worker including doctors, nurses and paramedics will be medically insured to $66,000.

The people of India have responded approvingly. In response to the Prime Minister’s request that people to stay indoors all day, people have largely obeyed, with the nation’s famously bustling streets now mostly deserted. The entire country heeded the PM’s call to applaud its healthcare workers at 5pm on March 22. They repeated the act on April 5 too, when the entire country shut down electrical lighting and lit candles and traditional lamps for 9 minutes to show unity. The PM has the nation’s ear, and he intends to use it to the fullest.

Of course, things have not gone perfectly. With India’s gargantuan size and population, it is impossible to enforce an absolute and air-tight lock down. People have not always listened, and many times broken the norms suggested by the government. Many migrant workers have been unable to leave the cities and reach their homes. The virus has also threatened to inflame communal tensions within the subcontinent. Some doctors were evicted from their homes by landlords fearing that they had contracted the virus. Despite the government’s stimulus package, there remains a fear than many needy people will slip through the cracks and not be able to receive the benefits. The nation also doesn’t have enough key supplies and testing equipment for a population of its size. Medical equipment is also not adequate, with reports that some hospitals made their own sanitizers, and doctors made their own hazmat suits. The government has clarified that India has 1 doctor per 1,500 people, compared to the WHO recommended 1 per 1,000. The police have also been criticised for being overly violent with offenders of the lockdown.

New Precedents

New precedents have been set on an enormous scale. As of writing, the PM has had two video conferences with all 30 Chief Ministers (elected heads of state governments). Many mobile applications have been launched by governments across the country to inform people and stop the spread of fake and sensationalist news. Instead of directing the Chief Ministers with an imperial fist, the Central Government has also sought their suggestions and advice; another step in the right direction for the federalist nation. Most impressively, there has been no real political blame-game between the country’s main parties, and all have rallied behind the flag of public safety. The government has explicitly directed various educational institutions to focus their research efforts on understanding the virus and the creation of a vaccine, and now some of India’s best engineering colleges have been mobilised to churn out medical equipment. Indians will be hard-pressed to remember the last time the government has actively directed research and production on a scale like this. Instead of the usual apathy towards NGOs, they have now been encouraged and directly mobilised.

The greatest transformations have come under the greatest of threats. At some point in the future, the lockdown will be lifted and the country will return to a degree of normality. But, to be optimistic, the new normal will probably be a changed nation. The most important question is whether the change will be for the better or the worse. Either way, India’s social contract is changing and deepening, and a stronger nation may be the result.

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Ananay Agarwal is a graduate of Delhi University and is currently a master’s student of Economics at the Institut d’études Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), and focuses on India and the wider South Asia region in both modern and historical geopolitics. He has gained first-hand experience in India’s burgeoning public-policy sector, having worked with several Members of Parliament during his studies.

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Photo: Indrajit Das – policemen on patrol in Kolkata, West Bengal