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The appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to observe the Kumbh related rituals in more of a symbolic way to avoid crowding and protect public health in times of an escalating pandemic had the desired impact on at least some groups of holy men and they agreed to leave the site of the great religious celebration at an early date.  This will also discourage several other people from assembling here. This is a good example of how appeals from influential leaders in top positions can achieve good results for public health.

The Prime Minister should follow  this example with another good action which will fetch him even more praise and support nationally as well as internationally. He should immediately ensure the voluntary, happy and peaceful dispersal of a large and increasing number of farmers gathered at Delhi borders by accepting their long-pending demand for the repeal of the three controversial farm laws, a demand which has also received the support of several eminent citizens and experts repeatedly. This will provide an internationally acclaimed example of peaceful resolution of an issue in times of escalating  pandemic   in such a way that the assembling of many people repeatedly at several places can be avoided in entirely peaceful and happy ways.

As is well known, in the past Covid times have been used to promote authoritarian trends in many parts of the world including India and to push laws and policies which are harmful for farmers, workers and other vulnerable groups. This is leading to more discontent as well as to need for dissatisfied groups of people to assemble repeatedly at various places to protect their legitimate interests. It is high time for the authorities that they give up such a narrow approach. Instead the Prime Minister should ensure that contentious  issues are quickly resolved peacefully and various authorities should desist from using Covid times to push contentious and divisive issues.

Such a policy shift is still possible . It will certainly benefit India and set an example which will be appreciated all over the world. In fact this will also help the BJP and the NDA to get a lot of goodwill which they badly need.

This goodwill is all the more needed by governments and leaders at a time of a pandemic when very special conditions exist. How to ensure physical distancing is a frequently asked policy question. As widely circulated data points to a rapid escalation of pandemic , there is a tendency on the part of some authorities to see lockdown as an unavoidable if not a desirable option. However popular and charismatic leaders who have the goodwill of people may be capable of convincing people to maintain physical distancing in more voluntary, participative and democratic ways than by an enforced lockdown. As past experience has shown , it is easier to  enter a lockdown  than to come out of  it without risk, and to ensure the  most essential services and supplies to people during lockdown.

Of course appeals alone are not adequate. These have to be based on careful planning  for different localities and groups of people , and such planning in turn has to be based on collection of reliable data as well as discussions with people and their representatives. If this is achievable, then a range of voluntary , participative restrictions will generally work better than any enforced lockdown.

However this may be contested by others who may say that this has failed to give satisfactory or adequate results. Our response is that perhaps the problem has  been more with lack of adequate planning, clear thinking and genuine goodwill. Confused thinking, lack of reliable data  and authoritarian trends have been much in evidence. So we are not asking for voluntarism in a vacuum but instead we are asking for more basic changes in the entire approach .

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Protecting Earth for Children.


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