COVID-19 Reviews

Jyoti Mukul’s The Great Shutdown: A Story of Two Indian Summers review: Global crisis, individual tragedies and a government’s role

The book underscores the disruption and havoc caused by public announcements made on a whim. 

The book underscores the disruption and havoc caused by public announcements made on a whim. 

If the lockdown had not been suddenly announced on March 24, 2020, as COVID-19 took hold, would it have spared thousands of migrants from the agony of having to trek back to their villages? As the government stalled all means of public transport, even as migrant workers lost jobs, a book was conceived in that turbulent, uncertain moment. Journalist-turned-policy analyst Jyoti Mukul’s The Great Shutdown raises questions about the necessity of such a severe lockdown, how the decision was arrived at, and its impact.

Making an exhaustive compilation of policy announcements and measures to tackle the disease, Mukul used the ultimate weapon available to the common man, the Right to Information Act, to fortify her statements with facts. She lays bare the flurry of announcements made daily by the government in the wake of COVID-19, scrutinising them for anomalies which she finds aplenty. She connects these with the people who are often at the receiving end of such decisions; their stories reminding us how decisions impact people who have no means to fend for themselves.

Harsh measures

“The approach of the police and of those implementing lockdowns in the U.S. and even in Europe was not to force, but to convince,” she writes. Here, the police functioning as the arm of the government subjected an already tormented people to brutalities resulting in deaths, she writes. An unfortunate pushcart vegetable vendor, Faisal, for instance, was beaten mercilessly for violating a lockdown; so was Lal Swami who had gone out to buy milk.

India stopped all international flights on March 22, 2020. Indian Railways was the next. In 1974, George Fernandes had led the all-India railways strike, which prompted the Indira Gandhi government to rope in the territorial army to run train services. But the scale of operations then and now is vastly different. The Indian Railways, the author tells us, could carry only around 200 million tonne of freight in 1975, compared to 1.21 billion tonne annually in 2019-20. It carried 2.7 billion passengers then and 8.4 billion passengers before COVID-19 struck. During the 12 months leading up to March 2021, however, which included two months of a national lockdown, it carried a marginally higher freight volume of 1.23 billion tonne, though passenger traffic fell by about 90% over normal times.

As with other instructions from the government, the Indian Railways first issued instructions to its zones on March 21 that no passenger trains would originate from any railway station in the country from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on March 22 following the announcement of the janata curfew by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the book tells us. A press release was issued at 8.14 p.m. for the same, but it didn’t take even 24 hours for the Indian Railways to make another announcement, at 1.48 p.m. on March 22, that all trains would be stopped till March 31, 2020. Then, it got extended to May 3.

Power moves

Nine days into the lockdown in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to the nation to switch off electric lights, and light candles, lamps and torches at 9 p.m. for nine minutes on April 5. What really happened following the announcement was this. “All of the country’s power sector managers, led by Union Power Minister R.K. Singh, had to use their collective might to prevent a potential collapse of the electricity grid because of the sudden drop in power consumption,” Mukul writes, detailing the flurry of activities that took place to prevent a power collapse.

There were four phases of the lockdown, each followed by an announcement made on national airwaves by Prime Minister Modi. The fourth phase of lockdown was lifted on May 31, 2020.

Undoubtedly, these were trying times for any country and India was no exception. But what the book underscores is the disruption and havoc caused by public announcements made on a whim. This is a story that needed to be told, and Mukul does a commendable job.

The Great Shutdown: A Story of Two Indian Summers; Jyoti Mukul, HarperCollins, ₹599.

The reviewer is a journalist based in New Delhi.

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Printable version | Jul 16, 2022 2:56:47 pm |