Social Contracts in the time of Covid-19   

By Benjamin Lyngdoh       

Man is a social animal. What make this animal different from others are its established norms of civility and civil society. We live in a certain way and do things as per pre-defined processes all of which are accepted as being appropriate and ordered. Well, one can only imagine what would happen if these ‘norms of civility and order’ were to collapse. What type of animals would we become? I suppose there would be anarchy and a loss of respect for the promotion of overall well-being. In the heart of this, there begs a question. What is that underlying element/factor that defines civil society? To this end, the answer is ‘social contracts’. It is what makes society and ensures its progression and development over the course of time. In its absence there would be anarchy at all levels. It would lead to the evolution of ‘tin-pot dictators’. This would result in a multiplicity of self-proclaimed dictatorship without pure demarcation of accountability. After all, we all love power and authority; but who wants to be accountable? Be that as it may, social contracts are the bedrock upon which modern civilizations are built and sustained. In its absence, societies would be thrown into a dangerous tailspin of socio-economic decline. This is what Meghalaya is faced with in the context of the covid-19 pandemic. Accordingly, I place the following pointers –

Firstly, J. Rousseau famously said that ‘man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains’. Well, leaving aside the wide frames of social contract theories; in short, his seminal work of the mid-18th century largely forms the basis for modern social contracts. It is based on the realization that a people have to follow certain norms and ways of life which are enshrined in the form of laws and regulations. Here, the people lose a certain degree of freedom while living in a civilized society. However, in return their rights and liberties are protected and upheld by the authority. This authority is predominantly in the form of a government and its governance. This relationship thrives over time as a give and take arrangement; a trade-off and as a mutual benefit between the people and the government. This is precisely the reason why we have governments and elections and in the end call ourselves a democracy. The people have the power to decide who shall control/curtail their freedom through elections/protest (or even agitation). In addition, social contracts can be explicit or tacit. So basically, this is the crux of a social contract. In the operation of it all, the people look up to the government for provision of a reasonable and respectable socio-economic life in return for the freedom sacrificed. Thus, for a social contract to really work; the government must deliver and the people must agree!

Secondly, the covid-19 pandemic has created a situation where there is a need to have a re-visit into certain aspects of social contracts. This is because the socio-economic demands and expectations of the people have multiplied manifold over the course of the pandemic. There is a sense of anxiety and distress amongst the daily wage earners, returned back workers from other states, small traders, micro entrepreneurs, etc. On a larger scale, the entire unorganized sector of the state is in uncertain waters. So, what is to be done about it?

Yes, we are not responsible for this covid-19 pandemic; but, it has not spared us from its destruction. As such, there is a need to re-visit and strategize our social contracts circling around such pandemics. This is because today it is covid-19; in the future it will be something else. At the outset, there is a need for a comprehensive database on the people/units in the unorganized sector. This will help in data mining at the click of a button and thereby assist in the formulation and implementation of relief measures (both cash and kind). This will enable the targeting of genuine people in need and prevent leakages of relief into undeserving firms/individuals. In this age, big-data and its analysis are indispensable and it would be even better if the database is maintained on a real-time basis (at least through monthly update). All of this will ensure that we act on time and that too effectively. Overall, such databases will also go a long way in assisting policy and planning even during non-turbulent times.

Thirdly, how do businesses run for two/three months without revenue flows? This is a pandemic-related question which business schools have never contemplated; but at least they are into it now! Keeping this aside, for our ‘hand-to-mouth’ ridden unorganized sector the difficult economic circumstances and its cascading social effects are extremely dire. Now, the talks of struggling households not being able to send their children to schools are gaining ground. In fact, schooling comes later; even daily survival has become an issue for many. As such and keeping in mind our ground realities, funding these distressed people is the only way out. But of course the government does not have money! Here, the point to be noted is that if we start looking for money as and when a problem happens; we will never have enough. Hence, we need to preempt such pandemics and other related disasters. The creation of a dedicated contingency fund in the lines of relief funds for natural disasters can be a means of meaningful help. It will ensure timely action. This intervention may be thought of within the larger financial planning framework of the state on an annual basis. Yes, the result of this is that the burden will increase; but it is a yoke worth carrying!

Fourthly, what happens when social contracts fail? Well, in such a case the government (or any authority) loses legitimacy. Then it has no right to direct and dictate a people. The people stop looking up to it for protection and provision and they start taking matters into their own hands. This becomes the first stage in the downfall of a democracy and civil society. Now, there are glaring examples to this end in our context such as – many youth are not psyched about the registration under Meghalaya economic survey 2020 and Meghalaya skill survey 2020 as they do not see anything fruitful coming out of it. The recent financial assistance provided to daily wage earners and small traders (particularly BPL families) was touted as being grossly inadequate. Some shops in Shillong have opened out of turn without care; parents are at odds with the government as far as opening of schools and payment of school fees are concerned, etc. These are all troubling developments.

Governments have to take note and respond. Have a re-visit into the social contracts. Today, the government machinery is duty-bound to mitigate the tailspin of socio-economic decline. After all, these are all related to the highly contagious pandemic.

Lastly, coming back to Rousseau’s famous quote; yes, it is accepted that everywhere man is in chains. However, the chains become bearable and acceptable as long as the governance delivers; or else, such chains become a reason for protest, agitation, intimidation and maybe even violence!                                                                                           

(The Author teaches at NEHU)

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