The perils of follow the leader syndrome

To the thinking Indian, the management of the pandemic, among other issues, is both unsatisfactory and misguided

Updated - June 25, 2020 01:22 am IST

Published - June 25, 2020 12:02 am IST

André Gide, the French writer, once said, “Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and begin all over again.” These words only underscore the need to be vocal especially when one has the country’s best interests at heart, more so when India is passing through one of its most difficult phases since Independence.

Listen to the inner voice

The novel coronavirus pandemic is causing great pain. But the reason for its most painful blow is its handling or mishandling by the government of the day, affecting not only the economy but also the very livelihoods of lakhs of Indians. We need to stir up our collective conscience, the inner voice that warns us that things are not normal. But how do we do it?

We must remind ourselves of what B.R. Ambedkar said on November 25, 1949: “‘The second thing we must do as to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not ‘to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enable him to subvert their institutions.’

‘... this caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship’.”

These words of caution hold good even today.

Managing disaster

COVID-19 has posed a grave threat to India right from the the time of the national lockdown. And yet, even now, the planners in the country do not have a national plan to combat the disease. The Disaster Management Act, 2005 expressly defines “Disaster” as “a catastrophe, mishap, calamity or grave occurrence in any area, arising from natural or man made causes, or by accident or negligence which results in substantial loss of life or human suffering or damage to, and destruction of, property, or damage to, or degradation of, environment, and is of such a nature or magnitude as to be beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area”.

Also read | Supreme Court order to media in consonance with Disaster Management Act

The Act is comprehensive and provides for, inter alia , the constitution of a National Authority, a National Executive committee, the constitution of an advisory committee of experts in the field to make recommendations and to prepare a national plan. This plan must provide for measures for prevention or mitigation. The Act lays down “guidelines for minimum standards of relief, including “ ex gratia assistance on account of loss of life... and for restoration of means of livelihood”. It enables the creation of a National Disaster Response Fund in which the central government must make due contribution and requires “any grants that may be made by any person or institution for the purpose of disaster management” to be credited into the same Fund. It also provides for a National Disaster Mitigation Fund, exclusively for mitigation. The Act also provides for State and local-level plans and for creating State Disaster Response Fund among others.

The Act was not enforced for a long time even by the United Progressive Alliance/Congress government which enacted it. The Supreme Court of India intervened at the instance of Swaraj Abhiyan ( Swaraj Abhiyan vs Union Of India And Ors ) and Prashant Bhushan. Justices Madan Lokur and N.V. Ramanna directed, in 2016, that the Act be implemented, and in particular the preparation of a National Plan, a National Disaster Response Fund, or NDRF, and a National Disaster Mitigation Fund, or NDMF. So, for the first time, the government came out with a National Disaster Management Plan (NDMP), 2016, which dealt with various kinds of disasters; it was amended in 2019. So why is this National Plan not even in place? Without it, the fight against COVID-19 is ad hoc, and has resulted in thousands of government orders, confusing those who are to enforce them as well as the public.

Obtuse steps

Worse still, the NDRF is inactive. On April 3, 2020, the government of India agreed to contribute its share to the NDRF. But curiously, “keeping in mind the need for a dedicated national fund with the primary objective of dealing with any kind of emergency or distress situation, like [that] posed by COVID-19”, a public charitable trust under the name of Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES Fund) was set up to receive grants made by persons and institutions out of the NDRF, in violation of Section 46 of the Act. The crores being sent to this fund are not even audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India. It is a totally opaque exercise. Curiously on May 22, the government of India issued a notification to fight the locust menace by extending relief under the NDRF as also the SDRF. So, according to the government, the threat of locusts is more severe than the novel coronavirus. Clearly, the government of the day has not only ignored the binding law but also circumvented it. The government has decided to fight the crisis in an ad hoc and arbitrary manner instead of the organised steps as mandated by the Act. In so doing, the experts have been sidelined.

Also read | PM CARES is not a public authority under RTI Act: PMO

Unilateral decisions without the advice of others only cause problems, two classic examples being demonetisation that was forced on the nation in November 2016, and the national lockdown of March 25 that was thrust upon a one billion-plus people at four hours notice. To add to this is the face-off between India and China at the Line of Actual Control. To thinking Indians, the handling of these situations is not only unsatisfactory but also misguided.

No one can deny that the Prime Minister means well, but his actions speak otherwise.

With Parliament not in session and the judiciary virtually silent, despite its suo motu intervention in the migrants’ crisis , no one is even demanding the implementation of an immediate National Plan for COVID-19. It appears that constitutional bodies have not paid heed to Dr. Ambedkar’s warning.

The media and civil society have to step in to guard the nation as they are the last bastions of a vibrant democracy. One can only think of the poem by Josiah Gilbert Holland, with the line, “...A time like this demands, Strong minds, great hearts, true faith and ready hands.”

As Albert Einstein once said, “The strength of the Constitution lies entirely in the determination of each Citizen to defend it.”

So, let us all take a vow to defend the Constitution of India. I know of no other way forward.

Dushyant Dave is Senior Advocate and President, Supreme Court Bar Association of India. The views expressed are personal

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