Locking down two different Indias

While some can practise social distancing, most Indians simply cannot as they have no social security

Published - March 31, 2020 12:15 am IST

 “The lockdown has a disproportionate impact on the socioeconomic conditions of the poor and unorganised sector.“ Migrant workers outside a bus station in Ghaziabad.>REUTER

“The lockdown has a disproportionate impact on the socioeconomic conditions of the poor and unorganised sector.“ Migrant workers outside a bus station in Ghaziabad.>REUTER

What could possibly have been the reason for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to give only a four-hour notice for the lockdown? If the requirement was to keep the population indoors, strictly enforcing social distancing, how abjectly this has failed! Lakhs of migrant labourers have been jostling to get any form of transport back home; walking and sleeping in the heat and rain, in the open, through day and night, dodging the police and sometimes even hiding under tarpaulin in trucks. Almost as many have died undertaking this inhumane journey as people have lost their lives due to COVID-19 so far. What answers does Mr. Modi have for them? This is the largest manually induced distress migration in independent India. Tragically, it could have been handled much better.

Decision without planning

COVID-19 is a disaster that came with prior warning, and therefore did not warrant an arbitrary, unplanned and ill-prepared decision. The Prime Minister’s 8 p.m. top-down lockdown announcement was not accompanied by practical and necessary relief measures. It brought uncertainty, confusion, and insecurity to an unprepared people. The announcement was rapidly followed by suspension of all public transportation — again with practically no notice. A unilateral lockdown order, keeping millions of migrant labourers in suspended animation, was bound to fail. With doomsday predictions and no work, and no guarantee from the government, migrant labourers logically sought the security of their distant homes, like all of us have. They decided to travel any way they could, including by foot, to go home. Policymakers and the ruling elite have no clue about the lives of the unorganised workforce.

Contradictory and uncoordinated government orders followed in rapid succession adding to the chaos. Bus services were suspended, and then orders were revoked. On March 29, for instance, with lakhs walking home, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued orders to stop the home-bound and quarantine them for 14 days. The propagandists uttered platitudes of support reiterating mandatory ‘social distancing’. The pretended ignorance of how the labour force lives — crammed together, 10 in a room — makes such statements pointless. In the slum or basti, social distancing is a non-existent concept. No order will work unless the government recognises and addresses the dire circumstances of the so-called informal sector. Those secure in isolated rooms in spacious homes, with a huge food stock, cannot wish this problem away.

This lockdown is shaping itself as the expedient response of an elite terrified of falling victim to a virus. There is clearly little imagination or application to work out a plan of action based on compassion and understanding of conditions on the ground. This virus upends the sharp divide of the two Indias we have manufactured. COVID-19 was spread by the callousness of those who arrived from abroad, many of them afluent and influential, and who violated quarantine. The lockdown has a disproportionate impact on the socioeconomic conditions of the poor and unorganised sector. Desperation has not robbed them of dignity or independence. There is surprisingly no anger being expressed — yet. All they want is to go home.

A week of the lockdown has brutally exposed the callousness and indifference to the realities of India’s informal workers. Stranded without income security, transport or food, the walk home became a logical choice for these workers. Men, women and small children, wearing makeshift masks and walking for miles every day through different States, proclaim that if death comes, they would rather it be at home.

Ensuring food and transport

People will stay where they are, only if real support is provided. It is impractical and perhaps impossible to force these workers into 14-day quarantine camps as the MHA order states. What’s worse are the consequent orders taking action against officers who responded to the human tragedy by organising transport, or the callous Haryana government order setting up “jails” for the migrants on the road. These workers are not criminals and fugitives. If the government can ship Indians abroad back to India at substantial cost, there is no reason why this transit can’t be better organised. Those already walking home should reach safely with proper screening en route, food in their stomachs, practical health protocols in their minds, and some reassurance in their hearts. When they reach their blocks, they can be put under observation, further screening, isolation, testing, and quarantine where required. Their families also have to be given minimum guarantees of food, health, and some income by the government for the next few months. We must remember that they are primary breadwinners, and the added anxiety of the survival of their families back home is also pulling them back.

Draconian orders and platitudes will not work. Governments must show leadership, resolve, commitment, and compassion. Resources have to be effectively and optimally used. There is no excuse for hoarding the 58 million tonnes of current foodgrains stock when only four million tonnes are required by the PDS every month. As many have demanded, over and above the Finance Minister’s announcement of free grains to Food Security Act card-holders for three months, the government must use these resources to immediately provide States with at least an additional month’s quota, without conditions, to help prevent hunger amongst those who may have no cards. Hunger today not only walks the road, it stalks the land.

We have enough material resources in the country. Districts like Bhilwara in Rajasthan, which are “corona-sensitive”, have already requisitioned private hospitals, resorts, schools and college hostels for dealing with the crisis. Whether such resources are in private or public hands, this is a time that they must be made available for all, and put to use on the basis of greatest need.

While many front line functionaries such as sanitation workers, government officials and health care workers have been working zealously and extending assistance, the government needs to ensure that this response is uniform and persistent. Civil society must keep track of, and support, the most vulnerable. If supply chains of our most essential services are to be maintained, front line workers of all these servicesin the formal or informal sector must be given equipment, quick basic training, and adequate insurance. No life is more dispensable than the other.

There can be no social distancing without social security. Critically, to pull through this as a nation, we must reduce our inequalities and persevere in this together. An already individualistic tendency has been reinforced by forced isolation. COVID-19 will affect the producer and the consumer. We will live, or die, in this interconnected world together.

Nikhil Dey and Aruna Roy are social activists working with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan

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