By Taranjit Singh Sandhu/newsweek.com
August is a special month for India. On August 15th, we celebrate Independence Day, this year marking 73 years since our freedom from colonial rule. As we are confronted with a pandemic of unprecedented scale, our celebrations this year will suitably respect the necessary health protocols—social distancing and limited gatherings—both in India and abroad. Much like July 4th in the United States, August 15th for us is a moment of celebration, reflection and introspection.
The last few months have been a challenging period for India, with our 1.3 billion people, bustling cities and far-flung villages. Yet so far, in combating the pandemic, we have held the line. And we have used the crisis as an opportunity for change. The absolute number of COVID-19 cases in India is over 1.8 million, but the recovery rate is also significant: over 65 percent. The case fatality rate (CFR) has dropped to 2.13 percent, well below the global CFR. Even as we continue to save lives and deal with economic consequences, we are encouraged by the fact that two out of every three Indians infected with the novel coronavirus have already recovered, and many more are well on their way back to health.
There could be many reasons for this—biological, immunological and social. Even so, it is obvious that the early and decisive steps in the initial stages of the pandemic, along with the persuasive appeals and urgings of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, led our citizens to embrace discipline of lockdowns, social distancing, self-isolating and following relevant medical and health protocols. We have continuously raised the bar on testing, and today more than half a million tests are being carried out each day in India. The world’s largest health insurance scheme, Ayushman Bharat, covers 500 million citizens, and with the aid of over one million health workers—mostly women—spread across the country, it has followed a rigorous program of containment and contact tracing. India’s federal polity has empowered state governments to take the lead in these strategies, providing the flexibility for a phased opening up of the country, whether in Kerala or Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh or Assam. At its core, India’s countrywide COVID-19 response has seen a whole-of-society approach, followed the science, and invoked both common sense and the common good.
Even as we have sought to protect the health of our citizens, we have endeavoured to ensure that it did not come at the cost of their economic well-being. The government has moved quickly to ensure food security, with $20 billion worth of food grains provided to 800 million individuals and $7 billion transferred to families. In Jammu and Kashmir, one year after full integration with the rest of India, a special relief package of $50 million was announced for those adversely affected. Another 293,000 households have received drinking water connections. And 17 dedicated hospitals with 85,000 beds are operational, with a testing rate of 44,744 per million.
Our efforts in Jammu and Kashmir in tackling COVID-19 have been part of a clear vision of promoting development and better governance—aligning it with the social equalities and personal freedoms that are the right of all Indians, and ensuring the economic and social progress of every resident. No longer does Jammu and Kashmir remain sequestered from the many constitutional rights, democratic privileges and empowering legislations—including gender and child-friendly laws—that had progressively been rolled out, over decades, in the rest of India.
Just as we have sought to ensure that no part of the country is neglected, we have put in place policies for long-term economic transformation: strategies for a world that awaits us at the end of this pandemic. The COVID-19 experience has served as motivation to redouble our efforts to use innovation, digital technologies and manufacturing potential to contribute to mutually fruitful partnerships.
Under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership, we have unveiled a set of transformative reforms targeting the five pillars of an Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India): economy, infrastructure, technology-driven systems, a vibrant demography and demand. These reforms will unleash the country’s full economic potential, enable India to play an important role in global economic revival and make India a trusted participant in global supply chains. They will open up our markets in key sectors, from defense production to agriculture, mining to infrastructure, accelerating foreign investment and igniting the entrepreneurial spirit of our people. They will also go hand-in-hand with an immediate stimulus of $270 billion, close to 10 percent of India’s GDP, with a specific focus on heavily impacted small and medium enterprises.
The green shoots of an economic rejuvenation must be nurtured with the support of friends and partners. The strength of India’s strategic partnership with the United States will be central to the times ahead. Through the pandemic, we have worked together to maintain the integrity of our product supplies, under stress from shortages or dependency on single country sources. As a responsible pharmaceutical manufacturer and stakeholder, we have kept open medical supply chains and made sure that essential medicines from India reached the U.S. and other partner countries.
As the world moves towards a vaccine, India’s research labs and vaccine manufacturing facilities are part of the global efforts—at least three of them are direct products of India-U.S. collaboration. And when the vaccine will be ready for distribution, Indian companies with expertise and capabilities in manufacturing and vaccine delivery will step up to the plate and play an important role in public health outreach across the world, including in Africa and Latin America.
The India-U.S. collaboration in health is only one example of the range and depth of the partnership. Already, we are witnessing renewed interest in India from U.S. digital and innovation giants—in the last three months, more than $40 billion has been pledged as investments that will spur economic growth and create jobs in both countries, leveraging our complementarities for mutual benefit. Those are not stand-alone events: from biotechnology to artificial intelligence, defense to renewable energy, fighting against terrorism to cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, there is no area of human endeavor that has not benefited from our binational cooperation. High-skilled professionals and students from India bring in important skill sets and bridge technological gaps, enabling U.S. companies to be globally competitive while generating more jobs. This innovative lot will play an even more significant role in post-COVID economic recovery in the U.S.
But even beyond businesses and joint ventures, India and the U.S. are bound together at the people’s level—our partnership founded on the fundamental belief in the power of our democracies and our shared values. Through the visionary foresight of the political leaderships in both our countries, we have built a truly extraordinary cooperation. And both our governments are committed to build on these excellent foundations and advance this partnership that not only benefits our two peoples, but also contributes to the global economic recovery and responds to the challenges of our times.
As India approaches the 75th year of our democracy, we remember the genius of our founding fathers—many of whom were inspired by the ideals of the American Constitution. That moment was not an end, but rather the beginning, of a relentless process of nation-building, of the expansion of individual liberty and of India’s economic, social and political empowerment. In renewing that commitment, India’s natural partnership with the United States will be a source of strength.
(Taranjit Singh Sandhu is ambassador of India to the United States. The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own)