The Indian state and the broken social contract


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IN March 2020, as the Covid-19 induced global panic made hitherto draconian acts – border closures, surveillance and lockdowns’ – legitimate forms of state action, India faced an important choice: unleash state power to manage the pandemic or invest capacity in the public health system.

The choices India made on 24th March (when the prime minister announced the first 21-day national lockdown) and in the months that followed, laid bare deep fault lines in India’s state capacity and the social contract that shape state action. Through the lockdown, the most pernicious elements of state failure – its stubborn refusal to deliver a modicum of justice, and uphold the rights of all its citizens, its centralizing tendencies and above all its penchant for using coercion over building trust and investing in the public health system – were unleashed on citizens. Elements of this remain visible as India redesigned its approach in the months after unlocking.

In the shadow of Covid-19, the Indian state was put to test in unprecedented ways. Its response will frame our debates on the Indian state and what it will take to ‘capacitate’ the state to deliver basic public goods in the years to come. As 2020 comes to a close, we need to look back to look forward.

India went into lockdown when the globe was in active pursuit of flattening the Covid curve. Weeks after the first Covid-19 patient was detected, Indian elites joined the global chorus seeking swift governmental action. Lockdowns were the consensus instrument. It is worth remembering that days before the national lockdown, several state governments had begun sealing borders and implementing state specific lockdowns. Lockdowns were a fait accompli.

Epidemiological models predicting millions of infections, combined with the global obsession for flattening the curve, played a part. But another factor that legitimized lockdowns as India’s only option was the reality of India’s broken public health system and a deep distrust in its ability to respond to increased infections. After all, India could not pull off the Wuhan miracle and build a hospital from scratch in 10 days. The global visibility on Covid-19 (the daily tracking of infections and testing rates) and the elite pressure in India required state action.


The state’s own disenchantment with the health system, however, prevented it from drawing its own experience of dealing with zoonotic diseases, with relative success – NIPAH, H1N1 – amongst others to mobilize disease surveillance and strengthen the health system, including fever clinics and hospitals, on a war footing. State governments had begun making some investments in this direction pointing to the importance of localized, state specific health responses, however, here too the dominant narrative of a weak state overshadowed any debate on the consequences of lockdowns.

Precisely because India’s health system cannot cope with the virus, it needed to be contained, the argument went. Severe measures would therefore, the PM said, help India win the virus war in 21 days. The political focus was now on managing lockdowns rather than the health system.

The hasty announcement of the national lockdown with four hours’ notice, its severity and subsequent state failure to provide adequate economic relief, has all been the subject of public scrutiny and debate. However, there has been relatively little debate on the political consensus to lockdown as a measure of first resort. After all, politicians and bureaucrats are not blind to the realities of poverty and the fact that the everyday lives of Indian’s are not conducive to social distancing and lockdowns. Yet, the decision to lockdown had wide elite acceptance. This consensus itself tells us a lot about the nature of the social contract, and its intersections with our cognitive maps about the state, and its capacities.


The elite consensus offered the perfect setting for what Debraj Ray and S. Subramanian evocatively describe as a perverse ‘Politics of Visibility: draconian on high profile measures such as lockdowns and weak on the measures that are less easily observed.’1 The legitimization of this politics of visibility, by the dominant narrative of weak state capacity, is revealing of how easily the narrative of state failure can undermine the state’s capacities to deliver.

The politics of visibility also reveals the ease with which the state marginalizes concerns of the poor. However, democracy is a powerful corrective. That the policy elite is now resisting large-scale lockdowns, despite their resurgence as a tool in Europe and parts of the United States when cases surge, is an important reminder that even the most invisible voices can make themselves heard and de-legitimize the use of brute state power. The ravages of the lockdown, as I discuss below, have not led to a reframing of the social contract but they have served as an important corrective to India’s Covid-19 policy approach.


Through the lockdown, the prime minister sought to create a new political mobilization, not unlike the demonetization exercise of 2016. While announcing the lockdown, he appealed to citizens’ to come out in support of the war against Covid-19. Frontline health workers were labeled ‘Corona Warriors’ and it was the nations duty to support them in this warlike effort. The lockdown became an opportunity to construct a new nationalism. Citzens’ were asked to mobilize by banging their thalis and light lamps. While India’s middle classes and elites responded to this call for action, a far larger but hitherto invisible group of citizens – India’s casual and daily wage workers, many of whom migrate to cities from rural India, rose in defiance.

Stripped of their livelihood2 and basic rights, workers refused to be locked down by a state that routinely abandoned them. They needed to make their way home. When the state blocked all transport, by rail and road, they walked. This was not an act of desperation. It was an act of power, of asserting their rights and dignity. And in their determination, these millions of hitherto invisible citizens deployed their own ‘politics of visibility’, forcing the world to take note – the ‘migrant crisis’ as this long walk home came to be called remains the defining image of India’s draconian lockdown. India’s broken social contract and failure to uphold the promise of equal citizenship were laid bare.

It speaks volumes of our polity that the Indian state stubbornly refused to respond to this powerful articulation of citizens’ voices. Once workers began walking, the state reacted in the only form it knew – through orders and coercion. First it ordered citizens’ (literally picking them up from streets, in some instances) to lock themselves up into state sponsored shelters. When the walking continued, the state responded with greater defiance. It refused to organize transport (it took nearly 36 days before trains were organized), food or shelter for walking migrants. Shelter was available only for those willing to abide by lockdown rules. On April 19, in a bid to begin economic activity, the home ministry issued guidelines that allowed labour stuck in government shelters to travel within the state to work but refused them the right to travel home. Worse, there was no word on workers’ rights – housing, food, social security.


The relief response, announced days after the lockdown, ignored the challenge of migrant workers entirely.3 It took till early May for the Ministry of Finance to extend the PDS ration subsidy to ‘migrant workers’ but this too was mired in paperwork. The state refused to offer any cash transfer linked income security. Instead it actively conspired to keep workers invisible to the state. ‘We simply do not have data (on migrants)’, was the excuse the Ministry of Finance repeatedly offered, in a tacit admission of how deeply broken the Indian welfare state was.4 Facing a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, when unemployment rates skyrocketed to 25% and income levels had dropped severely amongst households in the lowest income decile, the state was expected to raise the game and do what it takes. Instead, it sought refuge in its failings.

The executive had a free pass partly because mainstream politics failed to mobilize. Once the lockdown was announced and the suffering of workers became visible, in a rare moment of state-civil society solidarity, local NGOs and civic associations galvanized, many in partnership with government, to offer humanitarian support.5 Politicians and legislators, however, were conspicuously absent. The lockdown suspended normal sites of political action – Parliament, rallies, street protests. And our politicians succumbed. The violence of the lockdown was an opportunity for large-scale political mobilization and for forging new solidarities. But for a brief encounter with the demand for jobs in the Bihar elections, the horrors of the migrant crisis has failed to mobilize politics and channelize distress into a political demand for change.


Politics has taken the indignities and suffering of millions for granted: doing the bare minimum rather than demanding justice and a fairer social contract. Ten months later, the policy debate has conveniently limited itself to portability of ration cards and a slogan: one nation, one card. The focus has now shifted to ‘big bang’ reforms in labour and agriculture silencing ordinary voices. Robust social security has still not made it to the political agenda. This is the Indian state’s greatest failing.

Beyond the ‘migrant crisis’, however, it was politics as usual. The lockdown opened new sites for state sponsored discrimination. From the early days of migrant movement, fear and stigma began to spread far. State coercion exacerbated this by converting Covid management into a law and order problem. Police were deployed to ‘manage’ containment zones, barricades were set up to restrict mobility, returning migrant workers being ‘jailed’ in quarantine and sprayed with disinfectant.

But the most egregious pursuit of state sponsored discrimination was in the Tablighi Jamaat incident. In late March, when Covid-19 patients were traced to a religious congregation organized by the Tablighi Jamaat in New Delhi, it offered an opportunity that the political establishment couldn’t resist. The ruling BJP deployed its entire propaganda machine, with the media as a pliant partner to demonize the Muslim community. According to one analysis, as many as 11,074 stories were published in the English media with the words ‘Tablighi Jamaat’ and between 1.5 to 10% of the stories had words with negative connotations such as ‘violating’, ‘crime’, ‘spitting’, leading to large-scale spread of Islamophobic fake news.6

Not a single political party mobilized against this demonization. Discrimination and othering were thus normalized into the pandemic response. Ordinary citizens were cast as ‘wilful spreaders’ setting the stage for a discourse on Covid-19 that blames patients rather than emphasizes the provision of care.


This distracting strategy enabled the spread of unfounded fears and stigma about Covid-19. It also set the tone for the executive. Managing Covid-19 was about controlling people rather than controlling the virus. The executive could legitimately empower itself in unprecedented ways, policing citizens everyday lives.

One of the most visible forms of executive power was the torrent of confounding orders that were issued once the lockdown was announced. These orders sought to manage supply chains, border movement, curfew timings and even seating patterns inside private vehicles. In May 2020 a database run by PRS legislative research services collecting Covid related government circulars had a collection of 4000 such orders!


Laced in bureaucratese, these orders left in their wake a bewildered and disempowered citizenry. Files, paperwork and orders are the instruments through which the Indian bureaucracy functions. Faced with the challenge of coordinating the lockdown, orders were the default modus operandi. For the first time, inter-governmental tools of communication were being deployed as instruments of public communication in everyday matters. These orders presented the executive with new powers of overreach – businesses and small enterprises began complaining that the licence raj of the 1970s was back.

The real victim of these orders and the bureaucracy’s obsession with paperwork was the relief effort. The Indian welfare state is constructed on a deep suspicion of people and the bureaucracy. The need to curb discretionary behaviour of corrupt officials and local elites is hardwired into the welfare architecture. Citizens’ have to ‘prove’ their eligibility, and access to bureaucratic paperwork – ration cards, voter identification – holds the key.

In ordinary times it is this hardwiring that has architected a welfare system where entitlements like PDS ration are linked to beneficiary identification based on an individual’s residence and proof of identity. Once the lockdown hit, this proved fatal. Migrant workers were unable to access the PDS systems because they lacked ‘beneficiary proof’. The need to move to a demand based, inclusive system became urgent. But for a system hardwired on paperwork, moving to an inclusive demand based system proved difficult. Instead bureaucrats busied themselves trying to ‘enrol’ beneficiaries and issue e-passes, leading to kafkaesque paperwork and endless delays. According to newspaper reports, in August 2020, only a quarter of the PDS grain allocated to migrant labour was utilized.

Universalization, through a demand based system was the need of the hour but the bureaucratic hard-wiring limited state imagination and legitimized a politics that sought to do the bare minimum for welfare. It created the context for restricting cash transfers rather than extend benefits to informal and casual labour in urban areas. Despite severe income losses amongst households in the bottom quintile of the wealth distribution, India’s direct fiscal stimulus of less than 2% GDP, has remained significantly low, by global standards, and the hardwiring of the welfare state is an important reason for this.


The lockdown has also set the stage for new tensions in centre-state relations that undermined fundamental tenets of the federal bargain. The executive sought its power through a unique legal regime. In late January, after the first Covid-19 case was detected, the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 was invoked to initiate contact tracing and quarantine measures. In mid-March, the Government of India declared Covid-19 a national disaster and hours before implementing the national lockdown, issued an order placing control over Covid-19 management under the National Disaster Management Act, 2005 which gives the central government substantial powers. All union ministries, state governments and district administrators are obligated to follow orders.

However, states are meant to be at the frontlines of Covid-19 management. Public health is a state subject and social security on the concurrent list. Crucially, even from its early days, it was clear that the disease spread was spatially clustered. Analysis by Centre for Policy Research on early testing data from Punjab traced 80% cases to less than 2% of the states polling booths.7 A localized disease pattern requires an agile and location specific health response. Health resources can be repurposed, as China did in Wuhan and deployed in areas where outbreaks are occurring. This needed to be managed at the state and local government level. There could be no one-size fits all approach.


A public health approach to Covid-19 would have required empowering state and local governments. Early successes in Kerala and Dharavi were proof of this. Beyond public health, managing the economic fallout too required deep inter-state coordination to negotiate supply chains and labour mobility. Coordination rather than centralization was necessary. However, with the imposition of the national lockdown and the deployment of the NDMA, India chose the opposite.

Fiscally, as well, state governments were paying a heavy price during this period. When state revenue collapsed, they had to turn to the Centre to use its sovereign financial powers to ease fiscal constraints. In the first quarter of the financial year, many states lacked the funds to pay wages. Capital expenditure, necessary given the crisis, fell significantly. Rather than deploy monetary, fiscal and credit policies to support states, the Centre chose to use this opportunity to deepen fiscal centralization. States repeatedly asked for increased Covid-19 related grant funding as well as easing of borrowing restrictions. In response, the Centre launched the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana imposing a centralized approach to relief on the one hand and on the other, introduced conditionalities for enhanced borrowing. States, despite being at the centre of the Covid-19 public health and relief response, were pushed to the margins.


Continued economic stress, as a result of the ongoing pandemic, is likely to deepen these tensions. In July, reduced collections under GST opened a new sites of conflict as the Centre withheld paying states the compensation cess. The newly designed compromise formula requires states to borrow to meet the shortfall, once again placing the onus of managing fiscal stress on states. It is likely that this trend of squeezing state finances will continue in the years to come placing new pressures on fiscal federalism in India.

But the lockdown also created new lines of discrimination in citizenship rights – drawn by state borders. For the first time, citizen rights were determined by residency – entry into states, access to entitlements, health care and jobs were being framed based on regional, parochial identities rather than national citizenship. In June 2020, for instance, the Government of Delhi briefly flirted with the idea of reserving hospitals for ‘residents’ of Delhi. As economic distress becomes more acute, India risks new distributive conflicts over local resources and jobs that will be fought along federal lines. Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh have already announced job reservations for local ‘residents’. Arguably, one of the greatest consequences of Covid-19 may well be a renegotiation of the federal bargain, sharpened by faultiness that emerged through the lockdown.


By June 2020, India unlocked and economic activity partially resumed. The follies of the lockdown and its management gave way to a shift in policy. The Centre loosened control leaving decision-making to states, with no coordination mechanism. Despite initial chaos, states have now settled on an approach that focuses on localized containment, scaled testing, disease management and vaccines. But with the increased testing capacity, a new story hit headlines – people refusing to test owing to rumours and stigma with Covid-19.8

In July 2020, CPR in partnership with the Government of Punjab undertook a small pilot survey to understand the social dimensions of Covid-19 contraction. At the end of the survey, respondents were given a free voucher to undertake a Covid test. Only four of a total of 465 individuals chose to take the test. Moreover, respondents concealed symptoms.9

Underlying this reluctance to test and report symptoms, is the real challenge India ought to have confronted in designing its Covid response – the low levels of trust in public health care in India, ironically, the very reason why lockdowns were legitimized in the first place. As this essay highlights, the lockdown served to entrench a coercive, command and control approach to Covid-19 management which served to unleash fear, stigma and deepen distrust. Lack of trust risks driving the epidemic underground as people do not wish to enter the government system.

Crucially, it risks patients failing to access care in time. Even as fatality rates in India are not as high as early modelling anticipated, early analysis of hospital data in Punjab for instance, show that a high proportion of patients die within 2-3 days of being admitted to hospital.

An important learning from across the globe is that mistrust is the key barrier to effective public health interventions. This mistrust has driven people’s responses to seeking care for Covid. This is evidenced in the fact that removing barriers like institutional quarantine in cities like Delhi improved reporting and access to care.


This is the challenge that the Indian state needs to confront head on. It requires shifting gears away from a ‘top-down’, expert-led approach to Covid-19 management to a long-term community-led approach. It requires investing in local governments (Kerala offers important lessons on the role of local governments in disease management and building local trust), in ASHAs and in the local health system. Unfortunately, the current debate on Covid-19 vaccines seems to have moved the policy focus toward deeper centralization and taken the debate away from crucial investments needed in basic public health infrastructure. Investing in public health infrastructure will, above all, require Indian elites and the Indian state to shed its disenchantment and begin believing in its health system. This could be the foundation of a new social contract that India so urgently needs to forge.



1. D. Ray and S. Subramaniam, ‘India’s Response to Covid-19 is a Humanitarian Disaster’, Boston Review, 16 July 2020,

2. CMIE data recorded a 44% drop in per capita income in April 2020 compared with April 2019. Independent surveys highlight that households in the lowest income decile recorded the largest loss of income.

3. The only provision made for migrant workers was unlocking funds from the building and other construction workers welfare fund. However, enrolment levels were very low. PDS expansion did not reach migrants as ration entitlements are mapped to their home states.

4. Y. Aiyar, ‘Cash Transfers, There is a Way Out’, Hindustan Times, 25 May 2020.

5. M. Naik, ‘State-Society Interactions and Bordering Practices in Gurugrams Pandemic Response’, Urbanisation, November 2020.

6. S. Iyer and S. Chakravarty, ‘Tablighi Jamaat: Impact of Media Narrative’, Hindu Businessline, 7 August 2020.

7. CPR Covid-19 Research Group, ‘Spatial Clustering of Covid-19 in Punjab’, 2020.

8. ‘India Coronavirus: Rumours Hamper Testing in Punjab’,

9. Y. Aiyar, J. Das, P. Mukhopadhyay and N. Sircar, ‘Why Do So Few Indians Want to be Tested and Why Do So Few Report Symptoms’, 25 October 2020,