Annus Horribilis: It wasn’t just Covid that made 2020 one of the worst years | Business Standard Column

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The food crisis of the 1960s gave birth to the Green Revolution, and out of 1970s’ stagnation was born the first, weak impulses for economic reform. T N Ninan wonders what good will come out of 2020

We are into the closing week of a year that must go down as the worst since Independence, mostly but not only because of Covid-19. The other single year that comes close is 1975, which saw two years of political unrest culminate in the imposition of dictatorial rule and the virtual suspension of the Constitution. The country emerged from that trauma in 21 months. Among economic nightmares, the worst was not 1991 but the mid-1960s, when the combined impact of the 1965 war with Pakistan and twin droughts brought the country to its knees, devalued its currency, and made it a supplicant for American grain to feed itself even as famine raged in Bihar. Per capita income was virtually stagnant in the decade of the 1970s that followed.

The food crisis of the 1960s gave birth to the Green Revolution, and out of the stagnation of the 1970s was born the first, weak impulses for economic reform. Even if the immediate travails of 2020 prove relatively transient, one wonders what good will come out of it in the end.

India is better placed now than it was half a century ago to deal with multiple simultaneous crises. So while the issues confronting the country go beyond the extreme privations caused by the lockdown, and beyond also the vaccination challenge to tame a deadly virus that has taken a massive toll, the economic damage can be substantially repaired in the next couple of years — the sharp shrinking of the economy for the first time in four decades, the large-scale loss of jobs, the impact on government finances, and the ballooning of public debt.

But, to repeat, the blight on the year wasn’t just on account of Covid. In fact Covid brought to a halt the sustained agitation against a new citizenship law by people who feared the horrors of potential statelessness. As the year draws to a close, farmers in North India have laid siege to Delhi in protest against three new laws to do with agriculture (produce marketing, contract farming, and application of the Essential Commodities Act). In between, there were the first large-scale riots in Delhi after the post-Partition mayhem (1984 was a pogrom, not a riot). To this list must be added an equally disturbing but more silent crisis, sticking out of the findings of the latest National Family Health Survey. They pose a question that seeks an urgent answer: Who benefits from economic growth? On the Ladakh border, meanwhile, there is the loss of large tracts of territory to Chinese control, resulting now in tens of thousands of soldiers having to stand guard in freezing temperatures at heights of 15,000 feet in the dead of winter.

The Test cricket team’s performance does not lift the mood, but there is more than cricket on the mind of anyone who values the liberal heart of the Constitution and its guarantees of individual freedoms. The continuing erosion of civil liberty bulwarks comes along with partisan state laws for largely imagined social problems, high-handed executive action at state and central level, and prosecutorial targeting. One could add the messages implicit in the Supreme Court judgement last year in the Ramjanmabhoomi case, followed this year by the ‘not guilty’ verdict for everyone accused of conspiring to pull down the Babri masjid.

As the country enters the third decade of the century, one thing is clear: Its insititutions and instincts, resources and reserves will face tough stress tests. The government can argue with reason that it has dealt proactively with issues and pushed economic reform in the midst of crisis. But the violence in a Karnataka factory by unpaid workers reminds everyone that capitalism functions best with effective regulation and oversight. Meanwhile, the uncompromising stance of agitating farmers who fear the loss of a safety net is reminiscent of the anti-corruption agitation of 2011. The underlying problem was and is lack of trust between the rulers and the ruled. So it is time the most powerful government of the past three decades reminded itself of the promises it made: Good days, good governance, and progress for everyone.

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