Vinod Mubayi

Prime Minister Modi is fond of claiming to have executed surgical strikes against the enemies of the country, viz. Pakistan. Whatever damage they may have done to the enemy is unclear, but his strikes on the Indian population disguised as moral lectures have inflicted more significant damage. While they were applauded as masterstrokes by the lapdog media, their consequences for the country have been considerably less pleasant. In December 2016, he suddenly demonetized the currency, rendering 86% of Indian banknotes worthless overnight. He justified this by claiming it would curb the twin evils of black money and terrorism and usher in a virtuous digital age of cashless transactions. There seems to have been no planning in advance for this momentous act and little thought given to what would happen. Three and a half years later, the economy is still trying to recover from the consequences of this disastrous action.

On March 24 he announced the nationwide lockdown in response to the coronavirus emergency. While the efficacy of this action in halting the spread of the virus will become known in the days ahead, no thought seems to have been given to its consequences on a major segment of the urban population; daily wage workers, especially migrants; the homeless; and the urban underclass in general who were given just four hours by Modi to get off the street and plan their future. The outcome was so predictable that one wonders whether Modi and his cohorts are clueless or simply uncaring. With no work and no income, unable to buy food or find a place to live, many thousands had no option except to return to their villages. And how would they get there with long-distance trains and buses canceled? On foot, in some cases forced to walk hundreds of miles to their destination.

It is a matter of common knowledge in India that the poor and marginalized, particularly in urban areas, face a much higher risk from a variety of usual suspects, like hunger, poor nutrition, waterborne diseases like dysentery, TB, malaria, dengue fever, etc. than they are likely to face from coronavirus. The measures proclaimed by Modi of social distancing mostly apply to the middle and upper class who have homes and cars and can implement the lockdown unlike the homeless who have nowhere to go. As there is no vaccine or cure known for the virus so far, the upper and middle classes can appreciate the protection offered by distancing and applaud Modi for this advice while watching the thirty-odd years old serials of the mythological epics, Ramayana and the Mahabharata, in the comfort of their living rooms to while away their boredom. The callous not to say criminal neglect of the underclass who are unable to implement this order by the regime is also understandable as they are the lowest concern of the Indian state except at times of elections.

After a couple of days of the lockdown, enforced with characteristic brutality by the police, disturbing images and videos of hundreds of people, men, women, and children, some aged and infirm, without sufficient food or water, walking along railroad tracks or recently constructed superhighways began to emerge. The ensuing bad publicity, the only thing Modi seems to care about, caused his regime to backtrack somewhat. Emergency buses were mobilized from neighboring states to transport those displaced by the lockdown to their homes. However, as videos and accounts in the mainstream foreign newspapers like the New York Times confirm, this action also was implemented with the inefficiency and callousness with which the state treats its underprivileged and marginalized with the result that only a relative few could board the buses in a chaos that likely increased the chances of viral transmission at the bus stations several fold.

Now the state has changed tack again and police checkpoints have been created at all state border crossings to stop migrants from returning to their ancestral villages. Reportedly, this blockade is being enforced with the brutality the police is well known for as is easily confirmed by the plethora of U-tube videos available in the internet age. Advisories (another word much beloved of the Indian bureaucracy, a word that can cover a multitude of sins of omission) have been issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs to states and union territories to provide shelter and food to migrants to prevent them from dispersing, ostensibly to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Could this not have been planned before the lockdown was proclaimed? Did it need some special esoteric knowledge to apprehend that the homeless and those in crowded slums could not practice social distancing and had nowhere to go?

The utterly callous if not downright criminal neglect of its most vulnerable citizens shows the Indian state at its worst. Naturally, this fact will not be admitted by the legions of Modi-bhakts or the middle- class apologists ready to proclaim each of his actions as a stroke of genius. But what is happening on the ground is there for all to see in an era where suppression of visual imagery on cell phones is virtually impossible. Social distancing (another unfortunate word in a country with three thousand years of history of caste discrimination) is needed as a strategy to reduce the risk of viral spread when there is no vaccine available. But like every other public health measure, its implementation needs to take full account of its feasibility for various population cohorts given local conditions. On this criterion, the Modi regime has suffered a signal failure, the cost of which will be borne by those with nothing to give except their life.

The noted journalist P. Sainath quotes Dr. Sundararaman, a former executive director of the National Health Systems Resources Centre, as asserting “there is a desperate need to identify and act on the reverse migrations problem and the loss of livelihoods. Failing that, deaths from diseases that have long tormented mostly poor Indians could outstrip those brought about by the corona virus. Particularly if reverse migration grows – with migrant workers in the cities gripped by hunger, failing to receive even their meagre wages.” Sainath comments that the package offered by the government to fight the coronavirus crisis, including the Rupees 1.7 lakh crore announced by the Finance Minister that turns out to be mostly a repackaging of old or existing schemes “is a curious blend of callousness and cluelessness. It’s not just one virus we’re fighting – pandemics are also a ‘package.’  Of which economic distress can be a self-inflicted or self-aggravated part – driving us from calamity to catastrophe.”

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