Atul Sarma, Shyam Sunder

The most noteworthy job that the Assam Government has done is the non-discriminatory extension of health services in the polarized milieu in contrast to the general mood unleashed by the actions of the Central Government. It is certainly in keeping with the diverse fabric of Assam.

The Government of India imposed a nationwide lockdown of 1.3 billion people in the country for 21 days from March 25, 2020 to contain the spread of Covid-19. Among others, this exposed (a) a massive dependence of migrant labours in urban economy and (b) the Government’s total indifference to the miseries of millions of migrant labourers dependent on daily wages/income without any shelter of their own. Covid -19 also laid bare the utter inadequacy of the health services to meet the challenges that the pandemic has thrown up.

Holistically, with the onslaught of Covid-19 and the following lockdown to contain it, 2020 is a complete washed-out year both for the economy as also for our social life. Yet the year has left behind some important lessons to learn and unlearn both at the individual and government levels. Although, the arguments made here would be equally valid for the governments of all the resource-endowed States of India, but this article is confined to the Assam Government in particular.

The pandemic broke out at a time when the country was greatly polarized and disturbed following a discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and mass agitation and protests in most parts of the country, in its wake. It also found the country in a state of hopelessness as regards the health services. The government (both Central and State) expenditure of barely 1% of GDP (1.26% in FY 20) in health services in a country of promises of demographic dividend is a sad commentary on the country’s priority in resource allocation.

However, the lockdown gave some time to the Government to prepare for making arrangements of the immediate requirements to face the Covid -19 challenges. The State governments have been in the forefront to fight the pandemic crisis. They needed to mobilize massive resources, financial and health personnel. The Centre, on the other hand, apart from providing guidance and monitoring, focused attention on agriculture reforms bypassing the States in their own jurisdiction. What is worse, the States were denied their statutorily committed GST compensation when they needed resources the most.

Looking across the country, the Assam Government under the leadership of the Health Minister and his team have done a splendid job by way of supplementing healthcare institutions making even makeshift arrangements for containing the spread and healthcare of the affected ones, minimizing thereby the fatality in the State. The most noteworthy job that the Assam Government has done is the non-discriminatory extension of health services in the polarized milieu in contrast to the general mood unleashed by the actions of the Central Government. It is certainly in keeping with the diverse fabric of Assam. More importantly, it was great to demonstrate for a State like Assam, particularly in the current context of the Indian milieu, that it is neither social nor religious categories but humanity which was the guiding principle of providing health services. This non-discriminatory stance along communal line should remain the core of the public policy of the State.

Now that vaccine is available, mass vaccination could be expected to bring Covid-19 under control. However, it will be useful to note that the current pandemic known as the novel coronavirus or Covid-19 is not the first nor would be the last one. The first two decades of the 21st Century have witnessed five other pandemics: SARS (2002-03), H1N1 Influenza (2009), swine influenza (2009), MERS or Middle-east Respiratory Syndrome (2009) and ZIKA (2013). But Covid-19 is the worst, only comparable to the Spanish flu that occurred a century ago in 1918 and infected an estimated 500 million people and killed an estimated 20-50 millions. Climatologists are of the view that with the warming up of the globe, several of the dormant viruses could get activated and lead to similar pandemic. This calls for putting in place adequate health infrastructure and properly trained health personnel in the State on a firm footing.

The other important factor that necessitates heavy investment on human development, i.e., on health and education is that more than half (52%) of Assam’s population are below the age of 25. What is more, Assam is one among the four most malnourished States in India, according to a recent study (for children below the age of 5) by the Lancet Child and Health. This means that the State should adequately invest in human development to reap the demographic dividend, the opportunity for which will not exist beyond a decade or two. This requires high priority on investment on human development as a State policy.

Covid-19 and the following lockdown and similar restrictions on economic and social activities have also brought to the fore that we can live with much fewer goods and services. This has a lesson for our development policy. It is not vague growth but the people and their basic needs as also climate compliant activities should be at the centre of development policy.

Assam is a resource-endowed State with fertile soil, water, forest and mines and minerals. As the Shukla Commission Report (1997) puts, “It has vast natural resources in its biodiversity and water wealth. These should be suitably exploited to raise living standards and the quality of life of all the people, with equity and safeguards to prevent degradation of the natural and socio-cultural environment.” But for lack of proper policy thrusts on harnessing them for the State’s development, these have become more a bane than blessing. For example, the rivers and numerous water-bodies of the State, if harnessed properly, could contribute to irrigation, power generation, fisheries, etc. Instead, floods cause enormous loss of assets and human lives year after year. Because of wanton destruction of forests, hills and hillocks, it has led to land degradation and adverse impact on climate.

Nevertheless, an elaborate study carried out years ago, using the input-output model, brought out the fact that most industrial activities that came up in India are basically resource-based and agro and small and household industries. Upgrade of technology and innovations with proper market linkage could substantially augment income and employment. Similarly, thrust on creating hubs for quality education and health services could leverage its centrality in location in the Northeast. Addressing effectively the negative externality of natural resources such as flood would arrest the loss of lives and property at one level and conservation of natural resources.

Such activities together with a thrust on access to basic needs such as clean air and environment, decent jobs, food, drinking water, health and sanitation, education, shelter, electricity and clean cooking fuel which are a sine qua non for a decent life to live should form the core of a post-Covid development strategy.