India’s National Security in a Post-COVID World
By Portia Conrad

The Novel Coronavirus/COVID-19 has currently infected over 13 lakh people including taking the lives of over 1 lakh people in 180 plus countries across the world. It has forced major countries to impose either total or partial lockdowns on movement of people, goods and services while only allowing for essential services to function. The WHO has declared the virus a global epidemic. This crisis is set to usher in a paradigm shift in global policies, at least in the short term, as all-powerful actors are likely to withdraw into themselves.

India appears to be efficiently responding in limiting the damage. There have been relatively lesser people infected/dead unlike China, US, Spain or Italy. However, it is but obvious that this epidemic will have several significant national security implications for India.

First, from a strategic perspective, the emphasis on strengthening National Security against traditional threats has been reinforced. Geopolitics has, ironically, contributed to India’s efforts in dealing with what is essentially a non-traditional threat. The geographical proximity of the virus’s origin and the rapid damage inflicted has given India an opportunity to observe developments from close quarters and be forewarned. India has also, over the years, closely monitored all developments in China for national security reasons. This has also enabled it to pick up the intensity of the problem quickly providing a window of opportunity, even with its limited resources, to prepare.

Second, from a conceptual perspective, the virus is expected to make the Government’s outlook on National Security more inclusive. Over the years, National Security has largely been viewed through the lenses of traditional threats primarily as protecting territory and borders from external threats through land, air/nuclear or sea/maritime. While non-traditional threats were acknowledged, the overwhelming focus continued to be on the dangers posed to a nation’s territory and borders including by non-state actors (terrorism/asymmetric warfare) and from new domains such as cyber and space.

Non-traditional threats such as water and food scarcity, health and environment protection remained on the periphery of the national security discourse. This is expected to change in the post virus scenario. Non- traditional threats will also form the core of national security discourse.

Third, from a social perspective, the total lockdown is now forcing people to focus on their social and creative skills. The average over-worked and over-stressed individual, particularly in the non-essential services sectors, will possibly return to work with renewed energy, creativity, positivity and more social skills. This is expected to enhance work productivity thereby contributing to strengthen intellectual capital and physical output.

It also provides an opportunity for the Government and other related institutions involved in policy formation to provide an enabling environment to its human resources to alter a culture of decision- making, developed over the years, that is more reactive and tuned towards ‘fire-fighting’ crises rather than being proactive and ‘problem preventing’.

Fourth, from an economic perspective, the virus will create the most significant strain on India’s national security efforts especially on its budget. India’s economic sectors, which have been shut down, contribute nearly 78% share in gross value with the functional sectors under essential services contributing only 22%. In the short and medium term, the total lockdown is expected to impact growth rate, employment, fiscal deficit, domestic demand, supply chains and financial markets.

The Government has announced a financial stimulus of 1.7 lakh crores especially for the poorer sections of society left completely vulnerable. It has set up an Economic Task Force under the chairmanship of the Finance Minister for situation specific interventions. The Government is estimating the present crisis to subside in the near future particularly through physical social distancing.

The global impact of the virus, in particular, the reality that it has significantly damaged major markets more than India, will make recovery a more challenging prospect in the immediate future.

Economic Security, particularly regular employment (MNREGA), housing (PM Awas Yojana) and ensuring steady availability of essential commodities, is likely to get a renewed push and become a core of India’s national security efforts.