Dignifying the Needs of the Vulnerable: calibrating a public policy response to Covid-19

Ashank Desai Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay > Talking policy > Dignifying the Needs of the Vulnerable: calibrating a public policy response to Covid-19

DISCLAIMER: The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s); and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Centre for Policy Studies or the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.

By D Parthasarathy

An epidemic – especially in a densely populated and highly unequal country like India, with state capacities stretched to the limit – presents special challenges to policy scholars. The unique problems that epidemics pose, the kinds of risks they give rise to, and the constraints and restrictions that epidemic containment requires – all these necessitate special guidelines, procedures, norms, and laws within the larger sphere of disaster management and governance. Recent scholarship on the theme of disaster justice (Parthasarathy, 2018; Verchick, 2012) points to the fact that as political subjects, disaster victims rarely have a public voice. The lack of compassion, humanity, and constitutional morality in the measures currently being taken to contain the Covid-19 pandemic have been identified as problematic in disaster governance by many commentators; this testifies to the failure of the state to address the dignity of human need (Nussbaum, 2003: 54). How do we design social institutions (in this case disaster governance strategies and agencies) that treat the vulnerable and the marginalised not as victims but as human beings with capabilities and dignity? How do we understand and design policies that address the issue of distributional injustice, i.e., the unequal distribution of public bads arising from chosen strategies of pandemic containment? This would require ‘a vision of social justice that will have the requisite critical force and definiteness to direct social policy’ (Nussbaum 2003: 56).

Commentators writing in the progressive media have critiqued current state policy for its lack of compassion towards daily wagers and migrant labour, the humiliation and indignity that they are subjected to, and the failure of state agencies to act promptly and efficiently (Mander, 2020; Ray, 2020; Ayyubi, 2020; EPW, 2020). In doing so, they make larger points about political will, the politics of disaster governance in a hierarchical society, and the failure of disaster management plans and agencies to address the special needs of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. Such criticisms, however, elide an awareness and knowledge  of India’s disaster management policy processes, laws, institutions and guidelines. As in the case of previous disasters, the current crisis around the management and containment of Covid-19 reflects the inability or unwillingness of the state to implement robust disaster management guidelines and plans. Critics, activists, and scholars usually identify two sets of factors to explain the failure to implement disaster management plans or any policy for that matter – a) the lack of justiciability, and b) the failure to address key vulnerabilities in the plans and guidelines. Both of these do not apply to Covid-19 containment measures. The National Disaster Management Act (NDMA, 2005) gives teeth to the policies, strategies, and institutions for disaster governance, and hence legally; failures, exclusions, and inefficiencies in implementation constitute illegal actions that are open to challenge in courts, as has been the case with the Mumbai floods (ET, 2020; FPJ, 2017; LiveMint, 2019). 

Second, India does have a separate set of guidelines for Biological Disasters (NDMG, 2008) which covers epidemics/pandemics, and calls for special attention to the vulnerable groups in incident response. In line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction [1], Indian disaster management guidelines are comprehensive, detailed, contextualise different kinds of disasters, and specifically mention the needs of the vulnerable (identified as those affected by inequality, women, the elderly, children, the poor) their livelihoods, and so on [2]. In addition, India also has an Incident Response System (NDMG-IRS, 2010) with a separate set of detailed guidelines, which very specifically has, as one of its chief objectives, reducing the scope for ad hoc measures. These guidelines aim to evolve a system of response management that is not only ‘smooth and effective’, but do so by involving civil society institutions, and fine-tuning responses ‘depending on the nature and type of disaster’ (NDMG-IRS, 2010: 13).

It is therefore quite surprising that state agencies failed to anticipate the adverse impact of a lockdown on daily wage workers, migrant labour, the urban poor, and populations in densely populated informal settlements, and reacted too late when it came to address this impact. Like all kinds of disasters, pandemics carry with them a certain amount of uncertainty, because the virus mutates, evolves, and spreads dynamically, even as populations are in a state of flux, mobility, and panic. In such situations, policies and institutions need to respond by appreciating the differences and capabilities of those most vulnerable to disasters as well as to risk reduction strategies. The feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young (2006) poses pertinent questions about how moral agents (in this case state agencies tasked with virus containment and risk mitigation) ought to ‘conceptualise their responsibilities in relation to global justice’ (Young, 2006: 102). Her social connection model accounts well for structural processes that can produce injustice. If we are to effectively deal with uncertainty related to disasters against a background of pervasive structural inequality, domination and exclusion, we need a model of policy implementation through ‘institutional action in which agents across different divides can negotiate a common set of “parameters of reasoning”’ (Parthasarathy, 2018: 438). Young (2011) also urges us to move towards a paradigm of justice that recognises ‘the fuzziness and messiness of urban communities, the contestations and conflicts but also the technologies of dealing with everyday urban negotiations that interconnect communities and evolve norms, rules and regulations for dealing with common threats and problems’ (Parthasarathy 2018: 427).

As scholars of public policy, how do we respond to the challenges of state actors failing to implement a robust set of guidelines, and their failure to anticipate and be prepared for risks that may emanate from following certain chosen strategies of epidemic containment? Political calls to the leadership to follow norms of compassion, humanity and morality; or a demand for a more progressive political regime that is empathetic and sensitive to the most vulnerable are unlikely to work; since we have arguably arrived at the current crisis by a liberal democratic system that valorises the voice of a particular majority. Nor is justiciability sufficient to ensure justice in the present. The policy studies debate on implementation has not been very useful either, as it has tended to focus on a) reducing vagueness in the policies themselves, b) identifying specific institutions, actors, and steps to mitigate risks, and c) adopting a more bottom-up approach – as ways of enhancing the efficiency of policy implementation (De Leon & De Leon, 2002). Current policy process scholarship (Sabatier, 2019) points to problems with such conceptualisations, since well-designed policy ought to anticipate the problems of implementation and address them institutionally and strategically. To some extent, the enactment of a law for disaster management, inclusion of the needs of the vulnerable in a disaster context, the design of specific guidelines for pandemics, the development of an Incident Response System, and the fixing of responsibility and a chain-of-command upon specific bureaucratic agencies – all of these address the policy-implementation gaps mentioned above.

What is required – in the context of a politically unresponsive state or unsympathetic state actors, is to develop further on the global call to a) incorporate SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) into disaster management plans, and b) spell out more guidelines (with concrete steps) to minimise risk for the most marginalised in disaster governance policies. This can be done in two ways:

  1. Identify more clearly those sections of the population most at risk both due to a disaster (in this case Covid-19), and the hazards they are exposed to by containment strategies. This needs to be supplemented with a clear knowledge of their specific vulnerabilities, the hazards they are exposed to, and the specific kinds of solutions and delivery mechanisms that will work for them.
  2. Develop coalitions of actors at local levels: between elected representatives, state agencies, civil society actors, NGOs, and local people who are in a better position to assess risks, design strategies and implement them. The 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution need to be substantially pulled into service for these coalitions to be effective.

Policy process theories confirm the multiplicity of actors and interests that influence the making and design of a policy (Sabatier, 2019). This multiplicity needs to be recognised and organised into coalitions for shaping policies into concrete strategies, and for implementation at the ground level. Politics needs to return at local levels to ensure disaster justice, while legal and institutional pathways must allow constitutional morality to operate at higher levels. Such an approach will ensure that we go beyond the emphasis on identifying the vulnerable as “economically and socially weaker sections of the population” [3], and instead dignify their needs during and after disasters, even while acknowledging their capacities and capabilities to participate in risk reduction strategies.


[1] The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction developed under the aegis of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction provides a roadmap for how to make communities safer and more resilient to disasters. https://www.undrr.org/implementing-sendai-framework/what-sf

[2] A comprehensive set of 30 guidelines prepared between 2007 and 2019 are available on the NDMA website. https://www.ndma.gov.in/en/policy-and-plan/ndma-guidelines.html

[3]  A vestige of the Indian Constitution and included in the National Disaster Management Act of 2005 to refer to vulnerable sections of the population.


Ayyubi, Fuzail Ahmad. (2020, March 31). The One Ingredient Missing in the National Lockdown Is Compassion. Retrieved 7 April 2020, from The Wire: https://thewire.in/rights/the-one-ingredient-missing-in-the-national-lockdown-is-compassion

DeLeon, P. and DeLeon, L. (2002, Oct). What ever happened to policy implementation? An alternative approach. Journal of public administration research and theory, 12(4), 467-492.

EPW Editorial. (2020. April 4). Survival and Mobility in the Midst of a Pandemic. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 55, Issue No. 14. Retrieved 7 April 2020, from EPW: https://www.epw.in/journal/2020/14/editorials/survival-and-mobility-midst-pandemic.html

Free Press Journal. (2017, August 21). Supreme Court asks Maharashtra government to begin restoration work of Mithi river. Retrieved 7 April 2020, from Free Press Journal:  https://www.freepressjournal.in/cmcm/supreme-court-asks-maharashtra-government-to-begin-restoration-work-of-mithi-river

LiveMint. (2018, January 20). Bombay HC raps Fadnavis govt for not effectively implementing Disaster Management Act. Retrieved 7 April 2020, from LiveMint: https://www.livemint.com/Politics/O3G2t3mWRGxpAiJ6vr3sIK/Bombay-HC-raps-Fadnavis-govt-for-not-effectively-implementin.html

Mander Harsh. (2020, March 27). State’s measures to fight coronavirus are stripping the poor of dignity and hope. Retrieved 7 April 2020, from The Indian Express:  https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/coronavirus-covid-19-lockdown-poor-6333452/

National Disaster Management Guidelines on Management of Biological Disasters. (2008, July). Retrieved 5 April 2020, from NDMA GoI: https://www.ndma.gov.in/images/guidelines/biological_disasters.pdf

National Disaster Management Guidelines. Retrieved 5 April 2020, from NDMA GoI:  https://www.ndma.gov.in/en/policy-and-plan/ndma-guidelines.html

National Disaster Management Act. (2005, December 26). Retrieved 5 April 2020, from NDMA GoI: https://ndma.gov.in/images/ndma-pdf/DM_act2005.pdf

National Disaster Management Guidelines – Incident Response Systems. (2010, July). Retrieved 5 April 2020, from NDMA GoI: https://www.ndma.gov.in/images/guidelines/incidentresponsesystemjuly.pdf

Nussbaum M. (2003). Capabilities as fundamental entitlements: Sen and social justice. Feminist Economics, 9(2–3), 33–59.

Parthasarathy, D. (2018, October 9). Inequality, uncertainty, and vulnerability: Rethinking governance from a disaster justice perspective. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 1(3), 422-442.

Ray, S.S. (2020, April 3). As Poor Indians Suffer Amidst Lockdown, Constitutional Morality Leaves the Country. Retrieved 7 April 2020, from The Wire: https://thewire.in/law/constitutional-morality-coronavirus-lockdown

Sabatier, Paul (2019). Theories of the policy process. New York, USA: Routledge

United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. (2015, March 18). Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. Retrieved 5 April 2020, from UNDRR: https://www.undrr.org/implementing-sendai-framework/what-sf

Verchick, Robert RM. (2012, August 14). Disaster justice: The geography of human capability. Duke Environmental Law and Policy Forum, 23 (1): 23-72

Young IM. (2006, January) Responsibility and global justice: A social connection model. Social Philosophy and Policy 23(1): 102–130.

Young IM. (2011). Responsibility for Justice. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press

Economic Times. (2018, January 20). Bombay High Court raps Maharashtra government for not effectively implementing Disaster Management Act. Retrieved 7 April 2020, from Economic Times: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/bombay-high-court-raps-maharashtra-government-for-not-effectively-implementing-disaster-management-act/articleshow/62578897.cms?from=mdr

Image: Riya Kumari from Pexels

1 Response
  1. Alankar

    Thanks for this timely piece. At present our govt is mostly focused on alligning public health with insurance schemes. It leads to further commercialization of dire medical needs of poor majority; legally allowing public funds to reach private sector and certainly further decline of public funded health care systems. A pandemic like corona may help our public discourse to evaluate our state-led medical systems more.

Leave a Reply