Covid-19 has till now infected over a million people worldwide, and taken the lives of over 75,000 people in more than 200 countries across the world. It has forced most countries to impose either total or partial lockdowns on the movement of people, goods, and services while only allowing for essential services to function. The World Health Organization has declared the virus a global epidemic.
India appears to be successfully responding to limiting the damage. There have been lesser people infected/dead in comparison to other countries like China, the US, Spain, or Italy. Nonetheless, the epidemic is expected to have significant national security implications for India.
First, from a strategic perspective, the emphasis on strengthening National Security against traditional threats has been reinforced. Geopolitics has, ironically, contributed to India’s efforts in dealing with what is essentially a non-traditional threat.
The geographical proximity of the virus’s origin and the rapid damage inflicted has allowed India to observe developments from close quarters and be forewarned. India has also, over the years, closely monitored all developments in China for national security reasons. This has also enabled it to pick up the intensity of the problem quickly, providing a window of opportunity, even with its limited resources, to prepare.
As both countries share a complicated relationship, linkages with China have been limited. The majority of the Indian population in China is young (students). India’s economic presence (business community) is limited, while Indian tourists (which would have included the elderly population) also do not comprise a very significant number. This has, inadvertently, contributed to limiting fatalities among Indians in China as the most vulnerable targets of the virus have been the older population, particularly with previous health complications.
Second, from a conceptual perspective, the virus is expected to make the Government’s outlook on National Security more inclusive. Over the years, National Security has primarily been viewed through the lenses of traditional threats, primarily as protecting territory and borders from external threats through the land, air/nuclear, or sea/maritime.
While non-traditional threats were acknowledged, the overwhelming focus continued to be on the dangers posed to a nation’s territory and borders, including by non-state actors (terrorism/asymmetric warfare) and from new domains such as cyber and space.
Non-traditional threats such as water and food scarcity, health and environment protection remained on the periphery of the national security discourse. This is expected to change in the post virus scenario. Non-traditional threats will also form the core of national security discourse.
The virus threat has highlighted the need for more skilled health practitioners, better health facilities, cleaner surroundings, and health education/awareness among masses. Current initiatives such as Skill India, Swach Bharat, and Ayushman Bharat will receive a renewed push and become part of on-going efforts to strengthen national security.
Third, from a social and intellectual perspective, the total lockdown is now forcing people to focus on their social and creative skills. The average over-worked and over-stressed individual, particularly in the non-essential services sectors, will possibly return to work with renewed energy, creativity, positivity, and more social skills. This is expected to enhance work productivity, thereby contributing to strengthening intellectual capital and physical output.
It also provides an opportunity for the Government and other related institutions involved in policy formation to provide an enabling environment to its human resources to alter a culture of decision-making, developed over the years, that is more reactive and tuned towards ‘firefighting’ crises rather than being proactive and ‘problem preventing’.
While a reactive approach may have possibly been forced by internal (limited resources, lack of skilled manpower, comprehensive national power) and external constraints (constant challenges on its western and eastern borders, terrorism), it also unwittingly helped the Government respond calmly to the current crisis. A proactive approach in the future should focus on preventing such challenges allowing India to enhance Comprehensive National Power and strengthen National Security.
Fourth, from an economic perspective, the virus will create the most significant strain on India’s national security efforts, especially on its budget. India’s economic sectors, which have been shut down, contribute nearly 78 percent share in gross value with the functional sectors under essential services contributing only 22 percent. In the short and medium-term, the total lockdown is expected to impact growth rate, employment, fiscal deficit, domestic demand, supply chains, and financial markets.
The Government has announced a fiscal stimulus of Rs 1.7 trillion, especially for the weaker sections of society left completely vulnerable. It has set up an Economic Task Force under the chairmanship of the Finance Minister for situation-specific interventions. Economic Security, particularly regular employment (MNREGA), housing (PM Awas Yojana) and ensuring steady availability of essential commodities, will also get a renewed push and become a core of India’s national security efforts.
The Government is estimating the present crisis to subside in the near future, particularly through physical social distancing. The global impact of the virus, in particular, the reality that it has significantly damaged major markets more than India, will make recovery a more challenging prospect in the immediate future.
*** The author has completed a Ph.D. from Jawaharlal Nehru University under the guidance of Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra, Rector and Faculty at US Division, CCUSLAS, SIS, JNU ***