Coronavirus lockdown has given us a blank slate. We can write a new world when it lifts

A fact that strikes my public policy students — mostly working professionals from various backgrounds — quite early in their course is that most of India’s problems are hard to solve because they are log-jammed. The status quo is often a sub-optimal equilibrium, but an equilibrium nevertheless. Even if you try to change things, they fall back into the rut.

Here’s an example that might appear familiar to you. The traffic junction is congested because of several interconnected reasons: there are too many vehicles, the road alignment is bad, the bus informally stops at the street corner blocking traffic, the auto-rickshaw stand is at a point that prevents vehicles from easily making a U-turn, pedestrians walk on the street because the footpath is blocked by vendors and so on. In the pre-pandemic normal, everyone knew that this was a problem, but were more interested in merely keeping the traffic moving. Some minor repairs here, some police ‘enforcement’ there, used to be all that could be done. While most people were unhappy with the state of affairs, it was rational for all of them to do nothing about it.

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown this status quo up in the air. The lockdown offers several weeks wherein urban infrastructure can be put in place because there is little traffic on the streets. Junctions can be realigned. Bus stops and routes can be changed to make public transport more accessible. Motorists can be better regulated and habituated to follow traffic rules. The whole area can be cleaned up and new norms evolved against spitting and public urination. By no means a silver bullet, the pandemic and the resultant lockdown relax some of the acute constraints that previously made reform impossible.

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