Unlocking Delhi

The state of Delhi is part of the National Capital Region (NCR), one of the country’s most vibrant areas economically and culturally. Comprising residential and manufacturing hubs shared with Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, it also rivals Mumbai and Bengaluru in terms of its multicultural population. But Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s unlock decisions suggest that he has a hazy notion of the nature of the state he administers. The partial resumption of economic activity in the NCR would have gone some way towards softening the blow of a long closure on those who lost livelihoods and help the three states earn tax revenues, which had all but collapsed. Instead, he has chosen to indulge in a narrow parochialism, a policy as toxic as the majoritarian politics he has often publicly abhorred. His decision to close state and private hospitals (though not those under the central government) to patients outside the state does not behove a leader of national stature, apart from being legally questionable. It was therefore unsurprising that Lieutenant Governor of Delhi Anil Baijal has overruled the decision in his capacity as chairperson of the Delhi Disaster Management Authority.

Delhi has undeniably been severely hit by the Covid-19 outbreak. Admittedly, the early unlocking saw the number of cases surge, but that has been the situation in major cities nationwide. Mr Kejriwal has justified his decision on grounds that health services in Delhi are the cheapest and most efficient. This may be true — though Kerala could well be a stronger contender for those laurels — but that is an amoral argument for denying services to any Indian who falls ill in any territory that is an integral part of India. He also runs the risk of harming Delhi-ites if the Haryana and UP administrations choose to decline health services to residents of Delhi in their territories. 

It is also unclear why he should have chosen to close the borders with UP and Haryana for a week longer. In terms of containing the spread of the virus, the week-long sealing certainly did not achieve its purpose — the number of fresh cases in Delhi touched new highs almost each day. Instead, it prevented hundreds of white- and blue-collar workers who commute between the three regions from returning to work. There is much merit in the suspicion that the move was little more than a gimmick or possibly revenge against his counterparts in UP and Haryana who had extended border closures during the first phase of unlocking on grounds that the virus was spreading via Delhi. It is absurd that it required the Supreme Court to direct the Centre to convene a meeting between officials of the three states to sort out the chaos on the border.

This spectacle of competitive pettiness has not served Mr Kejriwal particularly well, and several other decisions have served to enhance his reputation as a maverick politician. His decision to allow malls and eateries to open but not hotels defies logic. His decision to file an FIR against the medical superintendent of the reputed private hospital Ganga Ram for allegedly not adhering to Covid-19 regulation norms (since identified as a clerical error) points to unwarranted high-handedness. The Covid-19 pandemic has put all politicians to the test. Mr Kejriwal would do well to use it as an opportunity to develop some much-needed political maturity.

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