Pandemics, Policy and Justice: Continual Effort

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Bharat Rawat

Pune, 20 July 2021: In my recent pieces, I have been harping on five things inter alia. First, the scale and dimension of the present pandemic are such that there is no aspect of the society which has not been adversely touched – inter-personal relationships, societal ways of functioning, livelihood patterns, health sector, education sector, domestic policy, foreign policy and what not. The adverse effects are being felt by all – the poor as well as the rich – with worsening inequality scenario. Second, the future capability of performance is being affected adversely by this pandemic as the education sector is very badly affected in both possibilities of conduct of the knowledge flow processes and the resultant unequal access. Third, the very scale and the very socially unequal depth of the impact of the pandemic mandate the state to go for conscious and conscientious policies which would be collectively shared by the society. Fourth, given the nature of the impact, there is the necessity of focusing the policies on the needs to address the requirements for enhancing the qualitative capabilities of the youths and children. The imperative for this arises to address the evolving future needs of society. Fifth, while evolving and implementing social (social is a very inclusive term her incorporating economic, political, ethnic and other conceivable dimensions of existence in a society) policies, the principle of equalisation of opportunities for all should be adopted.

While evolving and implementing policies, we must agree at the beginning itself that the perfect one would not be achieved, but this does not preclude us from endeavouring to achieve the ideal. Here it is worth quoting, even if we may not fully agree with, what Marcel Wissenburg wrote in 1999 in Imperfection and impartiality: A liberal theory of social justice:  “One reason why we live in states and societies is that there is no escape. We are born into them; we do not choose them or create them. Rather, they design us and our desires, needs, habits and customs; our own contribution as individuals to their make-up is usually negligible. We are in chains from the very first moment of our existence even though by nature we may be free. Only collective action can change the state and society. We also live in chains because it is the only alternative to a state of universal warfare, as Thomas Hobbes believed, or to a state of universal fear and insecurity, as less pessimistic contract theorists argued. We are not angels and we do not as a rule expect our fellow humans to be angels; we need them in chains to protect ourselves, and we chain ourselves to chain them.

Yet the bare existence of a state is not enough to warrant its preservation. Our individual chances of having a life worth living depend on the existence of protective and, as such, necessarily oppressive institutions, but institutions also depend on us. To exist and function, the institutions that makeup states and societies require our active support; to give this support we need good reasons, and one among many good reasons is thought to be justice. To paraphrase Augustine, it is justice that makes the difference between the state and a band of robbers; it is justice that legitimizes institutions.”

The significance of justice lies in the fact that no society can thrive and sustain unless there is a socially shared sense of justice coupled by another shared feeling that justice would be established sooner than later either by the collective social or by the governance of the day in cases where palpable injustice is being felt. For governance, the primary concern may be with legal justice. But for social coherence, there is the imperative for legal justice to be necessarily founded on moral justice. In other words, for the society at large, the two should mean more or less the same.

This is particularly important for a large country like India with heterogeneity in every dimension – geography, history, culture, ethnicity, gender and what not – but still constituting a collective unity. While the issue of equalisation of opportunity and the incorporation of justice while performing has been something absent in the Indian political debate. The beauty of the recent reshuffling of the Council of Ministers has brought into sharp focus a very refreshing articulation on these two. There could be differences on who should/should not have been there, but the articulation on equalisation of opportunities and the issue of justice in the heterogeneous reality of India has been done. The various reports which have been emphasised in the various formats of public media remind me of what David Schmidtz calls neighbourhood of justice in his Elements of Justice (2006): “What we call justice is a constellation of somewhat related elements. I see a degree of integration and unity, but the integrity of justice is limited, more like the integrity of a neighbourhood than of a building. A good neighbourhood is functional, a place where people can live well. Yet, good neighbourhoods are not designed in the comprehensive way that good buildings are. (Indeed, designed communities feel fake, like movie sets, with histories too obviously tracing back to the dated plan of a single mind.”

If justice is a neighbourhood, then a theory of justice is a map of that neighbourhood. The best theory will be incomplete, like a map whose author declines to speculate about unexplored avenues, knowing there is a truth of the matter yet leaving those parts of the map blank. A theory evolves toward representing the neighbourhood more completely, in the hands of future residents who have more information and different purposes, even as the neighbourhood itself changes.

 This salient incorporation of justice in the political functioning or rather the formation of the institutional capacity for the polity is something very significant. As I said, the perfection in the incorporation is a different matter altogether, but an attempt has been made. The significance of this development is forcefully enhanced if we recall the recent statements of the Chief of the RSS on the unity of religion, community, ethnicity and geography; these statements in fact preceded the reshuffling of the Council of Ministers by only a few days.

In fine, what we are witnessing in this country today is a fresh articulation on the debate on justice – with participation, inclusiveness and distribution as key elements – given the heterogeneous reality of India. As David Schmidtz says, “A theory evolves toward representing the neighbourhood more completely, in the hands of future residents who have more information and different purposes, even as the neighbourhood itself changes.”

(Bharat Rawat is the state president in Maharashtra for Muslim Rashtriya Manch)

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