The HINDU Notes – 11th February 2020 - VISION

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Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The HINDU Notes – 11th February 2020





📰 ‘Review court can refer questions to larger Bench’

Nine-judge SC Bench frames 7 questions on religious rights

•A nine-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court on Monday upheld the decision of the five-judge Sabarimala Review Bench to refer to a larger Bench questions on the ambit and scope of religious freedom practised by multiple faiths across the country.

•The nine-judge Bench, led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) S.A. Bobde, said a Bench engaged in the review of a particular judgment could indeed refer other questions of law to a larger Bench. Arguments on merits would be heard from February 17.

•The Bench also framed seven questions of law which it would decide now. These are: what is the scope and ambit of religious freedom under Article 25 of the Constitution? What is the interplay between religious freedom and rights of religious denominations under Article 26 of the Constitution? Whether religious denominations are subject to fundamental rights? What is the definition of ‘morality’ used in Articles 25 and 26? What is the ambit and scope of judicial review of Article 25? What is the meaning of the phrase “sections of Hindus” under Article 25 (2)(b)? Whether a person not belonging to a religious group can question the practices, beliefs of that group in a PIL petition?

•On the last day of hearing, Chief Justice Bobde had defended the November 14, 2019, reference made by the Review Bench, led by then CJI Ranjan Gogoi. “By making this reference order [on November 14], the Bench [led by Justice Gogoi] has not prejudicially affected anybody’s rights. It may be the most innovative idea, but it has not affected any rights,” he had said orally.

Wider issues

•On November 14 last year, the Gogoi Bench, in a majority judgment, did not decide the Sabarimala review cases before it. Instead, it went on to frame “larger issues” concerning essential religious practices of various religions. It further clubbed other pending cases on subjects as varied as female genital mutilation among the Dawoodi Bohras to entry of Parsi women who married inter-faith into the fire temple and Muslim women into mosques and referred them all to a larger Bench.

•The reference order also asked the larger Bench to consider the rule pertaining to the prohibition of entry to women of menstruating age into the Sabarimala temple. Chief Justice Bobde, who succeeded Justice Gogoi, set up the nine-judge Bench to hear the reference.

•The November 2019 reference hit a bump on Monday last, with senior advocate Fali Nariman objecting to it. He argued that the court could not declare law in thin air.

•“Fundamental [to judicial process] is you apply law to the facts of cases and not decide the law before looking into the facts... Never indulge in the exposition of law outside the realm of the facts of the case,” he said.

📰 Supreme Court upholds changes to SC/ST atrocities law

In exceptional cases, High Courts can quash cases to prevent misuse

•The Supreme Court on Monday upheld a 2018 amendment which barred persons accused of committing atrocities against those belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes from getting anticipatory bail.

•But two of the judges on the Bench, Justices Arun Mishra and Vineet Saran, held in their joint opinion that a High Court would also have an “inherent power” to grant anticipatory bail in cases in whichprima faciean offence under the anti-atrocities law is not made out.

•The two judges held that a High Court, in “exceptional cases”, could quash cases to prevent the misuse of the anti-atrocities law.

Justice Bhat’s caveat

•The third judge on the Bench, Justice S. Ravindra Bhat, in his separate opinion, however, added a caveat to what his two companion judges on the Bench said about the use of this “inherent power” by the High Courts.

•Justice Bhat stressed that the courts should take care to use this power to grant anticipatory bail “only sparingly and in very exceptional cases”.

•It should not become a norm lest it leads to miscarriage of justice and abuse of the process of law. The intention of the Parliament to protect the oppressed classes would suffer a defeat, he said. “I consider such stringent terms, otherwise contrary to the philosophy of bail, absolutely essential, because a liberal use of the power to grant pre-arrest bail would defeat the intention of Parliament,” Justice Bhat explained.

•“It is important to reiterate and emphasise that unless provisions of the Act (anti-atrocities law) are enforced in their true letter and spirit, with utmost earnestness and dispatch, the dream and ideal of a casteless society will remain only a dream, a mirage. The marginalisation of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities is an enduring exclusion and is based almost solely on caste identities,” Justice Bhat observed.

•The judge said the express provisions of the Constitution and statutes like the Act, meant to protect the oppressed classes, underline the social or collective resolve to ensure that “all humans are treated as humans, that their innate genius is allowed outlets through equal opportunities and each of them is fearless in the pursuit of her or his dreams”.

•Despite Justice Bhat’s caveat, all three judges on the Bench have upheld the constitutionality of Section 18A of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act of 2018. The sole purpose of Section 18A was to nullify a controversial March 20, 2018, judgment of the Supreme Court diluting the stringent anti-bail provisions of the original Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989.

•A two-judge Bench of the Supreme Court had on March 20, 2018, held that there was no “absolute bar” on accused person obtaining anticipatory bail under Section 438 CrPC, “if noprima facieis made out or if judicial scrutiny reveals the complaint to beprima faciemalafide”.

📰 U.S. nod for air defence system sale to India

It is awaiting Congress approval

•The U.S. Department of State has approved the potential sale of a $1.867 billion Integrated Air Defence Weapon System (IADWS) to India. The potential sale, which is being processed via the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route, is now before the U.S. Congress for consideration, with a 30-day window for Congress to raise any objections to the sale.

•“The Integrated Air Defence Weapon System, also known as the National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System (NASAMS), provides integrated air missile defence and is currently deployed around Washington, DC,” a Department of State spokesperson said. “The IADWS system includes radar, launchers, targeting, and guidance systems, advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM) and Stinger missiles, and related equipment and support.”

•The government had asked to buy an IADWS comprised of five AN/MPQ-64Fl Sentinel radar systems; 118 AMRAAM AIM-120C-7/C-8 missiles; three AMRAAM Guidance Sections; four AMRAAM Control Sections and 134 Stinger FIM-92L missiles, as per a statement from the State Department.

•Also included are 32 M4A1 rifles; 40,320 M855 5.56mm cartridges; Fire Distribution Centres (FDC); Handheld Remote Terminals; Electrical Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) Sensor Systems; AMRAAM Non-Developmental Item-Airborne Instrumentation Units (NDI-AIU); Multi-spectral Targeting System-Model A (MTS-A); Canister Launchers (CN); High Mobility Launchers (HML); Dual Mount Stinger (DMS) Air Defence Systems; Vehicle Mounted Stinger Rapid Ranger Air Defence Systems, the statement said.

•Communications, testing and training equipment and documentation and technical and logistics support are also part of the package, as per the statement.

📰 CRR exemption for retail, MSME loans for 5 years

Loans from Jan.31 to July 31 eligible

•The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has exempted banks from maintaining cash reserve ratio (CRR) for loans to retail and micro, small and medium enterprises for five years, if these loans are extended between January 31 and July 31, 2020.

•“An amount equivalent to the incremental credit outstanding from the fortnight beginning January 31, 2020 and up to the fortnight ending July 31, 2020 will be eligible for deduction from NDTL (net demand and time liabilities) for the purpose of computing the CRR for a period of five years from the date of origination of the loan or the tenure of the loan, whichever is earlier,” the RBI said.

•During the monetary policy review last week, the central bank said lenders will not have to maintain CRR for loans extended between the above mentioned time period.

•“...the Reserve Bank is actively engaged in revitalising the flow of bank credit to productive sectors having multiplier effects to support growth impulses,” the RBI said.

•This exemption was available for incremental credit disbursed as retail loans to automobiles, residential housing, and loans to micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs).

•At present, CRR is 4% of net demand and time liabilities. Banks do not earn any interest for maintaining CRR with the RBI.

📰 Liberty at the government’s whim

The J&K High Court’s recent ruling on preventive detention stands as an antithesis of the Constitution’s basic function

•Fundamental rights, we have been repeatedly been told, do not exist in silos. The values inherent in the rights to equality, freedom of expression and association, and to life and personal liberty are deeply intertwined, with each right deriving meaning from the other. Under this conception, our right to be treated with equal concern demands that we are allowed to speak freely, that our movement is unrestrained, and that any limitation placed on our personal liberty is founded on laws that are just, fair, and reasonable. But, despite the theoretical affirmation of this idea, judicial practice is permeated by cases where some laws are seen as special, as untouched by the rigours of due process. Prime among them, as a recent judgment of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court in Mian Abdul Qayoom v. State of J&K shows us, are laws providing for preventive detention — in this case, the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act of 1978 [PSA].

The background

•The petitioner before the court was the 76-year-old Mian Abdul Qayoom, who is the president of the High Court’s Bar Association at Srinagar. He was arrested originally in the lead-up to the Union government’s decision on Article 370 of the Constitution and has since been detained for more than six months in a jail at Agra, with a view, the government says, to “preventing him from acting in any manner prejudicial to the maintenance of public order”.





•Mr. Qayoom submitted in court that the grounds for his detention were not only indistinct and arbitrary but that the government’s order invoked a brace of first information reports lodged way back in 2008 and 2010, for which he had already faced detention. According to him, the order also made vague references to his purported advocacy of secessionist ideology, without, in fact, specifying clearly whether there was at all any criminal charges placed against him. What is more, the detention, he submitted, did not take into account his rapidly deteriorating health: according to his family, as a report in the Hindustan Times states, Mr. Qayoom not only ails from diabetes and heart problems — with a doctor having advised an open heart surgery just before his detention — but he is also surviving on only one kidney.

•The High Court, in its judgment, opened with the now customary panegyric on freedom. The right to personal liberty, wrote Justice Tashi Rabstan, is a “most precious right”. It has been held, he added, to be “transcendental, inalienable and available to a person independent of the Constitution”. And the right is not to be denied “except in accordance with procedures established under law” and that procedure, as held in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India , had to be “just and fair”.

A ‘standalone’ law

•A person unacquainted with the workings of our judiciary would hardly be mistaken in thinking that the court, having appealed to the powers of liberty, would then render its findings on whether the detention in question was justified as a matter of both law and fact. But the court here, in what has become an increasingly familiar routine, did no such thing. It instead held that preventive detention laws stand alone, that they are compelled by a “primordial” requirement to maintain order in society. In their absence, the court said, the right to personal liberty would lose all its meaning. And the need for such laws, the judgment added, is so intensely felt that the political executive ought to enjoy complete immunity in deciding when to invoke these powers. “The Court cannot substitute its own satisfaction for that of the authority concerned and decide whether its satisfaction was reasonable or proper,” wrote Justice Rabstan, “or whether in the circumstances of the matter, the person concerned should have been detained or not.” All that judges could do, he said, was to see whether the stated grounds — regardless of whether they are, in fact, credible or not — bear some nexus with the objective of the law.

Guarantees reduced to a trifle

•Effectively, therefore, the judgment places liberty at the pleasure of government. It reduces the Constitution’s core guarantees to a trifle. Yet, extraordinary as the verdict appears, a study of the history of the law of preventive detention in India, especially as applied in the State of J&K, would show us that we ought to have little to be surprised about. The ruling, in recognising boundless executive pre-eminence, only gives effect to a long-standing jurisprudence.

•In the litany of precedents that the judgment has cited, pride of place is occupied by India’s first big constitutional case, A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras . There, the Supreme Court of India found that Article 21, which guarantees a right to life and personal liberty, does not require the state to follow due process. It was therefore, in the court’s belief, that Article 22 had been incorporated, stipulating a set of procedural parameters for preventive detention laws. And such laws, according to the court, were immunised from the limitations placed on the legislature by other fundamental rights.

•The verdict in Gopalan has since been overruled. Not only has the Supreme Court held that the fundamental rights chapter comprises a network of mutually dependant promises but it has also ruled that Article 21 implicitly includes within it a guarantee of substantive due process. In other words, the clause demands that any action or law that limits liberty ought to fair, just, and reasonable, untouched by the caprices of the state.

Executive knows best

•In overruling Gopalan , the court’s rationale was simple: the absence of a substantive promise of due process would mean that the political executive is free to use the most whimsical of motives to restrict freedom. Under such a notion, something as arbitrary as a coin toss can act as a substitute for a trial. But yet the apparent burying of the verdict in Gopalan has had little practical consequence. The PSA, which was introduced by the former Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Chief Minister Sheikh Abdullah’s government to purportedly keep timber smugglers “out of circulation” allows for detention of up to two years without trial, with extensions made available for the asking.

•As Haley Duschinski and Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh have noted, in permitting detentions based on postulations that are protected from review by courts, the law “establishes a broad jurisdiction of suspicion”. Even the Supreme Court, in Jaya Mala v. Home Secretary, Government of J&K (1982) described the legislation as a “lawless law” and warned of a looming danger in which normal criminal trials would be replaced by regimes of detention. But ever since its enactment, the PSA has served precisely this purpose. It has been used by successive governments to quell even the slightest hint of dissent. And when review of the orders is sought, courts have invariably followed the model that has now been adopted in Mr. Qayoom’s case: an assumption that the executive knows best and that any decision made by it is beyond the scope of judicial enquiry.

•The only thing transcendental about this approach is the omnipotent supremacy of the executive. In reducing judicial review to an irrelevance, the judgment, therefore, stands as an antithesis of the Constitution’s basic function. To understand the dangers inherent in vesting unbridled power of this kind, we do not need to see J&K as exemplifying a state of exception. Nor do we need to apprehend that the model employed will likely be adopted in other States. For, as Gopalan’s lawyer, M.K. Nambyar, told the Supreme Court all those years ago: no amount of fine phrasing can disguise the fact that detention without trial is repugnant to the “universal conscience of civilized mankind”.

📰 Prepared for the coronavirus

India has responded in many ways to contain the epidemic

•Declared by the World Health Organization as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, the novel coronavirus (nCoV) has infected more than 37,000 people and killed more than 800. The Indian government and health authorities have responded in a robust manner to contain the epidemic in various ways on the basis of available knowledge, but there are no grounds for complacency. While logistical challenges have been overcome by the Ministries, States, the military and civilians together, Indian scientists have shown their eagerness to attain world-class skills by rapidly developing diagnostics and treatment protocols.

A swift response

•Swift diplomacy was at work during the Wuhan airlift. The External Affairs Ministry obtained permission and ground support from its Chinese counterparts and coordinated with Air India through the Civil Aviation Ministry. The Health and Family Welfare Ministry provided the team of medical personnel to accompany the students home, and arranged for their health check-ups and quarantine at special camps organised by the Armed Forces Medical Services in Manesar and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police facility in Delhi. Temporary visa restrictions have been put in place. All the 645 evacuees have tested negative for nCoV. They are being monitored on a regular basis and will be tested again.

•India issued its first advisory on January 17. The Emergency Medical Response Unit in the Health Ministry was activated, the National Centre for Disease Control opened a 24X7 helpline, and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) worked to quickly put in place a testing facility at the National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune. The Joint Monitoring Group under the Chairmanship of the Directorate General of Health Services was activated to continuously assess the risk and review the preparedness to manage any case that might get imported to India.

•Thermal entry screening of passengers from China is taking place in 21 airports. Universal screening at earmarked aerobridges for all flights from China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand is carried out. There are inflight announcements and self-declaration forms in international flights, so that passengers with any symptoms can volunteer for screening. Screening at international seaports by the Shipping Ministry and border crossings by the Home Ministry is in place. Hospitals with isolation facilities near all international airports are prepared to meet any emergency requirements.

•In Kerala, where the three people with nCoV are quarantined, the health authorities have responded in a stellar manner. Kerala has not only traced hundreds of contacts of the confirmed cases and notified them to the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme for monitoring, but also used unique community-based isolation methods, innovated while dealing with the Nipah virus outbreaks. Its model of monitoring, with the District Collector as the administrative unit, has been shared as a best practice with all States. All the States have put together a robust system of contact tracing, community surveillance with community engagement, earmarking isolation facilities, sharing information, updating surveillance data, issuing daily health bulletins, skilling health workers with new guidelines, etc. The States bordering Nepal have even held special gram sabhas to empower people with information.

Treatment

•Till date no antiviral treatment for the coronavirus infection has been effective but studies among SARS-CoV patients show that the combination of lopinavir and ritonavir was associated with possible clinical benefit. Based on this research as well its own docking studies, ICMR has obtained approval to use this combination therapy as part of a public health emergency within a research framework and restricted use. On the diagnostics front, the NIV has leveraged its considerable expertise in real-time reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction testing to develop assays for in-vitro qualitative detection of nCoV, using primer and probe sequences of the virus provided by the WHO. Scientists at NIV are also carrying out genomic sequencing of nCoV and attempting to isolate the virus in order to replicate it for further research. Fourteen Viral Research and Diagnostic Laboratories have been upgraded to carry out nCoV testing.

•India has also offered help to other countries in the South Asia region as part of its Neighbourhood First policy. It evacuated seven Maldivian nationals from Wuhan. It has extended technical assistance to several countries to set up testing laboratories.

•The public too has helped deal with the crisis, particularly by preventing the dissemination of wrong information. We should all observe good hygiene and sanitation practices to prevent infection, avoid crowding in public places and perhaps even replace the handshake with the traditional Namaste.

📰 A mix Indian health care can do without

Ayushman Bharat entails diverting limited resources towards wasteful areas, ignoring productive fields in public health

•The United States has one of the most prodigal health systems, but this does not help the U.S. with the well-known reality that it is infamously poor-performing. And so does the fact that it is also one of the most intricate of health systems across the globe.

•Over a century, U.S. health care has seen numerous elaborate arrangements, from organisational and regulatory structures to payment mechanisms emerge, be dismantled, and reincarnate with even greater degrees of complexity. Health care has repeatedly topped the political agenda; been an area of passionate contention among an unexampled plethora of diverse interest groups; and scarcely ever been an unpopular topic of national discourse. However, fervent attempts to reconcile its health care with traditional American values of individual freedom and consumerism have not sat well with the ideals of equity and social justice.

Piggyback route

•In India, multiple policy pronouncements over the last few years have expressed an implicit intent to emulate certain features of the U.S. health system, enhance private initiative, and uphold the insurance route as the way to go for health care. These are being largely envisaged while riding on the back of the Ayushman Bharat-National Health Protection Scheme (AB-NHPS), which aims to provide insurance cover to nearly 50 crore poor Indians. With the great razzmatazz that characterised its launch, the AB-NHPS affirmed strong mechanisms to check insurance fraud which was commonplace in its precursor programme, the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY). In the scramble to succeed at this, deleterious emulation of the U.S. example appears to have already set in.

•Recently, 171 hospitals were reported to have been de-empanelled from the AB-NHPS on charges of fraud, which also included the issuance of fake e-cards and the manipulation of claims. A first information report was lodged against a few hospitals and multiple show cause notices were issued. This was almost within a year of the programme being launched with the promise of offering a religious check on fraudulent practices.

•The response to these has been envisaged through an unprecedented bolstering of administratively-heavy and technology-driven mechanisms. Already, national- and state anti-fraud units have been established and partnerships with fraud control companies conceived. One would ask this question: what is wrong in all of this?

•Let us return to the U.S. once again. Multiple layers of complex arrangements and concomitant complex regulatory provisions have ensured that health care in the U.S. is one of the most administratively and technologically intensive systems in the world. More than 50% of health-care spending in the U.S. in 2010 went into health worker’s wages, with a large chunk of the growth in health-care labour taking place in the form of non-clinical workers. What this entails is that for every penny spent on health care, very little goes into actually improving health.

Range of concerns

•In India, the path of the AB-NHPS appears indistinguishable from the former, though only more menacing. It necessitates a battery of new structures, personnel cadres, data systems, and working arrangements only in order to sub-satisfactorily operate an insurance scheme that would cover less than half the population. Disregarding the death spiral that policy-driven over reliance on private health care could lead to — given India’s feeble regulatory architecture — this would entail considerable costs which would not primarily contribute to, or be indispensable for, improving health outcomes. And this is set in a context where public health spending fails to exceed a single per cent of GDP (antipodal to the U.S.) and where each rupee spent on health is highly precious. While a besottedness with cutting-edge technology and state-of-the-art systems can help garner eyes and promote businesses, each unnecessary penny incurred this way raises significant ethical concerns when basic health needs remain unmet and abject shortages of fundamental health resources and infrastructure stare square in the eye.

•Gupta and Roy have shown how the allocation for the AB-NHPS for 2019-20 would have covered less than a quarter of the targeted beneficiaries. For 2020-21, there has been a paltry increase in health-care sector allocation (5.7% above 2019-20 RE), while the allocation for the AB-NHPS is unchanged. It is very possible that the AB-NHPS continues to remain insufficiently funded and incapable of extending considerable financial risk protection to the poor. However, more investment is not necessarily merrier in this context. Embracing the complexities associated with robust regulation of the insurance programme and making the requisite technological and administrative investments appear attractive and commendable on the face. However, they entail diverting highly limited resources towards wasteful and dispensable high-end areas, which could have been set aside for much more pressing and productive domains, such as public hospitals and health centres. Improvements in these areas would have strongly reflected in terms of tangibly better health outcomes. Rather, the AB-NHPS appears attuned to reinforcing a stark contradiction wherein trailblazing but unproductive high-end structures thrive alongside decrepit but potentially fructuous basic structures. In line with the suggestions of experts and critics, it becomes essential to take a fresh, hard look at the larger question of whether adopting the insurance mode for achieving universal health coverage is a felicitous path for India.

•The grandiloquent fanfare with which the AB-NHPS has been rolled out and the global hype it has generated can readily adumbrate the pressing concerns that lie underneath, while floating the mistaken impression that much is being done for health care in the country. One persistent habit that has characterised Indian health care since inception is of leaping onto the next, more aspirational position or endeavour before doing sufficient justice with the previous one, thus leaving the basics unattended. The AB-NHPS, in the presence of this vice, can only be another precarious rung in the ladder.

📰 Facing up to realities

Health pandemics and economic crises cannot be masked for too long

•As India entered the 21st century, the Net National Income of the average Indian was Rs. 20,000. While this figure is not the actual earnings of an individual, it is a good proxy for the average Indian’s annual income. By 2015, it had grown to Rs. 90,000. Had it continued on the same trajectory, it should have been Rs. 1,65,000 today. Instead, as the recent Economic Survey shows, the Net National Income for the average Indian is Rs. 1,35,000. In other words, the average Indian has potentially lost Rs. 30,000 in net annual income. For most Indians, Rs. 30,000 a year is a very big amount. This is the cost of economic under-performance for the average Indian.

The POW trinity

•It is well accepted by most political economists that India’s economic performance is largely shaped by the ‘POW’ trinity — politics, oil and world economy. Political leadership and stability are critical determinants of domestic and foreign investment in India. Global oil prices play an inordinately large role in shaping India’s macroeconomy. World trade and global GDP drive India’s exports and industry.

•In 2014, India gleamed with hope. For the first time in nearly half a century, the ‘POW’ trinity was perfectly aligned. Indians handed a parliamentary majority to a supposedly strong, decisive leader with a promise of economic development.

•Beginning in 2014, global crude oil prices dropped precipitously from more than $100 a barrel to $40. It was estimated then that the steep fall in oil prices alone would add two extra percentage points to India’s GDP growth rate, besides taming inflation. The global economy was also on an upward trend from 2014, recovering robustly from the devastation of the 2008 economic crisis. The period from 2014 to 2019 was among the best five years for world economic growth in the 21st century.

•So, in the summer of 2014, a billion Indians glimmered in hope and excitement at the prospect of rapidly rising income levels and prosperity under a perfectly aligned ‘POW’. Six years later, not only has the average Indian’s income levels not grown faster than before, it is actually Rs. 30,000 short of what it should have been.

•Why did things go so wrong? The ongoing health catastrophe caused by the novel coronavirus in Hubei province of China offers meaningful parallels and lessons for India’s economic policy climate.

The coronavirus parallel

•In a recent article, The New York Times reconstructed the events leading up to the novel coronavirus crisis. In early December, several shopkeepers in an open meat market in Wuhan started falling ill. Doctors in the hospital treating these patients raised alarms about a mysterious illness.

•The Mayor of Wuhan, however, did not want any negative news about his city. He issued summons to the doctors who raised alarm about the illness and forced them to sign statements that their warnings were unfounded. Further, Wuhan’s healthcare authorities placed restrictions on discussing the illness in public. They assured the public that the disease was “entirely preventable and curable” and issued statements claiming that all was well. Ironically, at this time, the Mayor even held a “Health Expo” event to showcase Wuhan as a top healthcare destination.

•Within days, there were hundreds of deaths and all hell had broken loose. It was no longer possible for the government to suppress this bad news. Within a span of seven weeks from the doctors raising an alarm about a mysterious disease, the novel coronavirus became a global epidemic.

•It is both tempting and natural to ponder about the counterfactual. Could China have been saved from the novel coronavirus epidemic had the doctors’ alarms not been suppressed? What could the situation have been had the government not stifled factual reporting? Could doctors and scientists have discovered the virus sooner and ring-fenced it, had the Mayor not intimidated the doctors into silence? One will never know. But it is indisputable that drawing a veil over the ugly truth and facts made it much worse and the consequences more dire than what could have been.

•The parallel with India’s unfolding economic crisis is striking. India’s government had dismissed, ignored, silenced or shunted all negative data, indicators, views and opinions about the economy. From the initial signs in 2015 of a banking stress to falling private investment to collapsing consumption demand to dormant exports and rising unemployment, there were ample signs and metrics of the rapidly deteriorating state of the economy. But these were either quickly buried or altered. Sure enough, India’s economic growth has collapsed to a six-year low. Similar to the Wuhan situation, one is left to wonder about what could have been India’s economic situation today had early alarm bells been heard and acted upon, warnings not suppressed and expert advice not dismissed. The average Indian is paying the price for this severe folly – Rs. 30,000 a year.

•However, there is now one major difference in the way the Wuhan novel coronavirus crisis is being handled vis-a-vis the Indian economic crisis. The Chinese government has acknowledged the enormity of the Wuhan crisis and is acting at lightening speed to salvage the situation. It built a brand new 1,000-bed hospital in just 10 days to accommodate patients and contain the virus. It is building two more hospitals. Experts from across the country are being sent to Wuhan. There is an all-out effort by the government to help China recover from this crisis.

Nonchalant Central government

•On the other hand, India’s Finance Minister, in delivering the longest Budget speech in history recently, did not even seem to acknowledge the enormity of the economic crisis, much less outline concrete steps to revive the economy. Beyond the numbers about fiscal deficit, taxation and expenditure, the most worrying and important takeaway from the recent Budget exercise was the government’s seeming nonchalance towards the gravity of the crisis the Indian economy is facing. Any amount of analysis of the intricate details of the Budget numbers or schemes is moot unless there is confidence and trust built among economic participants that the government is seized of the gravity of the situation and is taking concrete steps to resolve it. At present, this is conspicuously missing.

•Health pandemics and economic crises cannot be draped and masked for too long. India’s $3 trillion market economy cannot be dictated and bullied into appropriate behaviour. It needs careful treatment by experts. It may be a cliché that desperate times call for desperate measures but worth repeating. While the run-up to India’s economic crisis was eerily similar to the way China ignored warning calls on coronavirus, one hopes, for the sake of a billion Indians and the world, that the Indian government emulates the Chinese government in handling its crisis.




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