India’s problem is its romance with informality

Manu Joseph
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.
(To be contd)