Home >Opinion >Views >India’s problem is its romance with informality

In the end, India will contain the pandemic. In the end, all morbid curves will flatten. A day will come when there is not one covid death in India, and that would not be because there are no Indians left. In the end, India solves all its problems. What India does ‘in the end’, why can’t the country do right at the beginning? This is one of those questions you ask of a civilization whose answer turns out to be its whole history.

I believe that India would have exerted considerable control over the pandemic in less than two months. I risk this optimistic guess not because readers have a short memory, but because of a few respectable reasons. India handles calamities well (in the end). Once a phenomenon becomes a calamity, India knows how to be exceptional. This is partly because what the country lacks in the form of order, it compensates for in informal ways. Heroes rise; private money pours; men and women do more than they need to. Even politicians, bureaucrats and billionaires, operating outside the system, create ad hoc solutions that actually work.

It may be difficult to see all this at the moment, as India is in the grip of a humanitarian disaster. Hospitals are under severe strain. There is vaccine scarcity, and a more dire oxygen shortage. Hospitals are turning away the dying. First, it was the public that was pleading online for help, then it was doctors, now hospitals. Government helplines have collapsed. Almost all government statistics appear to be incorrect. And there appears to be a vast undercount of deaths.

India is this way because we have no talent for systems. Many of our problems arise from this. A nation that has long struggled to draw straight lines on roads to mark medians and borders, given its innate disrespect for straight lines, will naturally have many other problems. We are repelled by order, processes, protocols, rules, planning, and the straightness of a straight line. I think we escaped the full curse of the central planning era because the planning part was lousy. We are an informal nation, addicted to the happiness of informality, a commune of natural villagers who deeply resent the urbanity of the modern process. We are good at maintaining social norms, but in everything else, our instinct is to wing it. In this, there is something very ancient about us.

This is behind not only India’s poor response to the second wave, but also the fact that somewhere, as a hospital awaits oxygen, an oxygen tanker arrives but starts to leak, and somewhere else a fire breaks out in an intensive care unit, killing covid patients.

People who could have sprung up on their feet in days are instead dying, chiefly because India did not anticipate or prepare for the second wave of a disease that had given us advance notice. Instead of bracing for an approaching tsunami, some Indians began to quietly gloat over a specialness about themselves that saved them from the plight of Americans, Brazilians and Europeans.

Ideally, all this should not surprise us, but the one dignity we offer ourselves is the right to be surprised by our country. As though we have seen far better times.

We are good at following a system if the clear consequence of a systemic failure is death. As in civil aviation. We do manage very well to fly without falling. Also, once people reach a stage that puts them on hospital beds, in the face of such clear optics of misery, India usually moves in admirable ways.

This is why my covid prognosis in India is so optimistic. Also, there is the precedence of the United States. Indians forget, but what the US went through when covid peaked was worse than what is going on in India today. There, too, hospitals were collapsing, people died in hospital corridors, and there were mass funerals. Even after accounting for the fact that the section of the American media that is popular in India was anti-Donald Trump, and so its pandemic coverage was a sort of political whiplash, it is hard to dispute that the US was reeling from the disease in ways that were similar to what India is going through.

There is a big difference, though, between the American disenchantment with their government and Indian. We have a far greater sense of failure because we have a very low opinion of our country. The second wave of the pandemic is only a confirmation of this opinion. Our children, who always start off as patriots, have no real pride anymore in their nation. India’s handling of the second wave has only lowered an already low opinion held by many of us.

As a result, some of India’s reasonable explanations for why we are suffering today are not appreciated enough. A few days ago, our external affairs minister S. Jaishankar answered the question of why India is short of vaccine doses despite being a producer of these. Apart from India’s contractual export obligations, he said, we are dependent on other nations for some important vaccine ingredients, and so did not have a practical or moral reason to deny those countries vaccine supplies, especially when India’s deaths were very low. Now that covid is a major calamity, India can withhold the export of vaccines.

Even so, this is a time for us to whip ourselves. That is another thing we’re good at—whipping ourselves. This is good. We have gained more from shame in our present than pride in our rumoured heritage.

But then we forget. Our civilizational shame is fleeting. Once the pandemic subsides, we will forget the terrifying days when people were dying around us and Indian hospitals were begging for help from the media and courts. We derive our peace and hope from forgetting.

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