April 25th, 2020 marks the end of the first month of India’s gigantic, country-wide lockdown to counter and check the spread of the COVID -19 – Corona virus. As the Prime Minister gets down to discuss on 27th April, 2020, with the CMs of all the states of India, about whether to continue fully or partially with the biggest ever global shutdown of this size, it is an apt occasion for citizen’s to review progress and point out key concerns, to both the Prime Minister of India, as also all the Chief Ministers.  

At the very outset, given the size and spread of India with 138+ crores population, we acknowledge the gargantuan nature of the challenge to formulate a policy to counter the spread of COVID-19. However when late in the evening of 24th March, 2020 the PM announced with only a 4 hour advance intimation of literally shutting down the entire country from midnight of 25th March for a 3 week period, citizens were taken by surprise. There was no thought given at the time of the surprise announcement, to the implication of a complete lockdown on the lives of poor, marginalised communities, women headed households, migrant workers living precarious lives in distant towns and cities, on the plight of small traders, shop owners, artisans, daily wage earners who don’t have resources or home space to store food items for 3 weeks and myriad other social sections to whom a nationwide lockdown spelt economic ruin and social disaster. Despite misgivings about lack of preparedness and the social, economic and humanitarian repercussions of the shutdown, there was very little choice left to anyone –  including most political parties, CMs, industry leaders and civil society – but to forcibly put differences behind and to unitedly confront the deadly scourge.

So much so, on 14th April, when the 3 week shutdown was extended for a further period till 3rd May, there was little choice for people but to grudgingly acquiesce to the continuation of restrictions, even though by this time people had come to know firsthand the consequences of such a sudden and arbitrarily enforced lockdown on their social and economic lives.  People were not taken into confidence as to the plan for economic and social revival of the economy and livelihoods of the crores living on the edge of economic marginalisation; ironically this was despite the fact that by and large, citizens had abided by the restrictions imposed by way of continuing with `social distancing’, quarantine, shut down of shops and economic enterprises. The health, social and economic cost paid by the people to the lockdown has not been cheap. With hospitals focusing only on the corona virus, government hospitals and PHCs have not been able to address existing ailments and health needs of people including to keep open OPDs, or tend to pre-natal care, TB medication, vaccination programmes and so on.  PUCL hopes that the cost paid by ordinary Indian citizens will not go in vain.

The desperate economic, social and hunger crisis experienced by millions of unemployed, marginalised and poor Indians cannot be ignored. The looming humanitarian and human rights crisis can be averted if care is bestowed by policy makers in the states and the national government to the following issues. 

  1.  Roll Back full lockdown – if it all have calibrated, limited lockdown areas

We however would like to caution the CMs and the PM, about further continuation of total lock down. We call upon the Prime Minister and Chief Ministers to take people into confidence and evolve a transparent method to determine in which regions the lockdown can be lifted, totally or partially and to continue with lock down system only in select areas. This will help people and local, small economies to revive and come back to life. We would like to point out that the field situation is explosive: millions of poor, marginalised and unemployed Indian are confronting the reality of acute hunger and starvation both in rural and urban India because of loss of livelihoods; serious economic distress confronts India’s farmers preparing for the next agricultural season, local artisans, shop keepers and a host of small entrepreneurs whose savings have evaporated and working capital destroyed. MSME’s are facing economic ruin unless a well thought out stimulus package is evolved and immediately rolled out. Millions of migrant labourers have been stranded in worksites across India, unable to return home, desperate to survive with no rations, cash and access to medical facilities. What adds agony to the distress is the use of force by the police in many states to control and quell people in the name of enforcing the lockdown and also the attempt to silence voices questioning failures in roll out of relief schemes. 

PUCL points out that the central thrust of all Central and state Governments policies and schemes to tackle the Corona pandemic should be  `People centric’ meaning thereby that all schemes should be viewed from the prism of how it benefits the poorest, most marginalised and voiceless people in India to regain normalcy at the earliest. We are constrained to point out that the economic stimulus programmes so far discussed in the public domain, are largely industry centric, economic revival programmes addressing the needs of big industry. Without minimising the importance of revival of the industrial sector, we would like to point out that the bulk of the working age workforce in India is largely constituted of over 90% in the informal, unorganised sector whose survival needs require immediate attention, which is not the situation currently. 

We would like to point out to the Government of India that India’s current food grains stock is reportedly over 87.19 Million metric tonnes of Cereals (rice and wheat), 3 Million tonnes of Pulses, 1.1 Million tonnes of Oil seeds and 4 Million Tonnes of Sugar[1], all sufficient to meet the needs of the entire Indian population for over a year. Additionally wheat harvests in north India currently underway, will add to the granary.

We therefore urge the Government of India, the following:

(a) Launch UNIVERSAL PDS System: Reformulate the current targetted ration distribution system into a Universal PDS system that supports both ration card holders as also those who do not own ration cards (i.e. both NFSA and non-NFSA beneficiaries) with 10kgs of grain, 1.5 kg of Dal and 800 gms of edible oil per person per month, for the next six months (i.e. until September) at the very least.

(b) Universal coverage without insisting on ration cards: In every state there exist thousands of people who are without ration cards yet. There is also the issue of migrant labourers who do not have ration cards in the states where they have come to seek work. Hence we urge the government to provide universal coverage to any person or family which seeks ration, irrespective of their status. The social, economic and psychological benefits of ensuring feeding the hungry to stave starvation and distress, is far more than the expenses that may be  incurred due to double drawing.

(c) The GoI should immediately releases funds to help states expand and widen the scope of current employment generation programs like NREGA, not just in rural areas, but also for urban poor.

(d) The number of days of employment under NREGA per family should be increased from the current maximum of 100 days to between 180 to 200 days to be in vogue till March, 2021. This wil ensure employment and income covering the loss suffered during the COVID lockdown.

(e)  The income support programme like the PM Jan Kalyan Yojana should be increased from Rs. 1500 to Rs. 2500/- per person.

(f)  In NREGA sites, social distancing should be fully enforced, The government should provide masks and soaps to ensure personal safety and washing hands in work site.

(g) Urgently roll out `Public Canteens’ not just in cities but also in towns, where hot cooked nutritious food is made available for people until such time as people are able to resume normal life.

The Indian Supreme Court has in the starvation death case (PUCL vs Union of India, 2001) held that right to food involves addressing 3 issues: (i) Food Security (quantity of food), (ii) Nutritional Security (adequate nutrition to all with special emphasis on pregnant women, elders, children, physically handicapped) and (iii) Livelihood Security (recognising employment ensures both economic autonomy and also dignity of individuals; therefore ensuring every able bodied Indian gets a job, the basis for NREGA scheme).

We need to recognise that with the sudden lock down, economic insecurity is stalking not just the extremely poor but also farmers, small shop owners, local businesses and small entrepreneurs like artisans, mechanic workshops and so on. We stress the following:

(a)   Considering that the next agricultural season is just 2 months away, the GoI should ensure Roll out a scheme for `Direct Cash Transfer’ to the bank accounts of farmers so that they can purchase seeds, fertilisers and other inputs to resume agricultural operations.

(b)  A similar cash transfer scheme should be rolled out to shop keepers, artisans and others, who may already be enrolled in some government scheme or the other, so that they can immediately re-launch their economic operations. 

(c)   Denial of Workers right wrt overtime and create sweatshops: PUCL expresses its serious concerns over announcements about resumption of work with the condition that workers should work 12 hours in a day consisting of 8 hours of regular work and 4 hours of Overtime. Some governments like Gujarat have reportedly announced that the 4 hours of OT will not be based on current law but based on piecework, which goes against hard won worker’s rights. PUCL demands that working OT should be made voluntary and OT wages should be paid at twice the rate of wages with a cap on number of OT hours that workers can work daily and cumulatively in a week as stipulated in the Factories Act. The approach should not be to extract more work from workers but to employ more workers so as to ensure livelihood support for larger numbers of working class people.   

One of the most traumatised and victimised groups affected by the arbitrary and unplanned announcement of the nation-wide lockdown by the Prime minister on 24th March, were the millions of migrant labourers who found themselves stranded all across the country. Though precise estimates aren’t available, according to the 2011 census the number of inter and intra state migrants in India numbered about 139 million people or 13.9 crore Indians. In effect, overnight, about 13+ crore people found themselves stranded in other states / areas. With meagre earnings and still less savings, without getting their monthly wages (due to announcement on 24th March) hundreds of thousands of migrants and their families panicked, staring at an economic collapse, outsiders in other states, with almost none or little economic or social security programmes. Most of the migrants to north India from Bihar, UP, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal found that they were not permitted to cross state boundaries. Thus effectively, lakhs of migrant workers were stranded in localities which were closed down. Lacking safety in existing labour laws regarding minimum wages, safety, working hours and other social protection labour laws, these migrants are both voiceless and marginalised, and alien in other states, thereby always living in a twilight zone, useful only for their work and lacking any social recognition or legal protection.

PUCL demands that the government sheds its indifferent approach to the situation of migrant labourer’s problems. PUCL also deprecates the policy focus which favours deterring return of migrant labourers to their own states thereby helping retain migrant labour ostensibly to be useful when industries resume operation after lock down.

(a)   The immediate focus of all policy efforts should be to facilitate immediate return of migrant labourers and their families, stranded in different states, to their states of origin. Since this involves inter-state movement, this programme should be facilitated by the Central Government.

(b)  Adequate precaution should be undertaken to medically screen all those migrant labourers who desire to return and to provide free medical facilities with full food security to those who may be found Corona positive.

(c)   All transport back home should be provided free of cost and should adhere to the norms prescribed by the Health Ministry in this behalf including social distancing, use of masks and other protocols.

(d)  As regards migrant workers in industrial clusters or zones where MSME units thrive and who have so far tested negative for COVID and who desire to continue working, the governments should facilitate the opening and resumption of these industries immediately, of course, following prescribed medical protocols. As illustration we may refer to migrant labour concentrations in cities like Surat in Gujarat, associated with the textile, diamond and other industries who can be assisted to open operations, helping both the entrepreneurs and also labourers.

(e)   Such migrant workers should be provided with at least 10 days of ration per person to be immediately provided without insistence on providing proof of ration card in the state of their origin.

(f)    Additionally, all the migrant workers should be immediately registered by the Government and a helpline set up to respond to their issues, both in terms of their food survival rations as also other needs.

One of the most condemnable aspect of the corona pandemic spread, has been the attempt by members of the majoritarian, right wing groups to deliberately target members of the minority groups as being responsible for the origin and spread of the virus. Aided by an openly biased mainstream media, blatant attempts were made to communally attack members of the Muslim organisation called the `Tablighi Jamaat’ who held meeting in Delhi in the 2nd week of March, 2020 as being the cause of the spread of Corona fanning the already simmering communal situation riven by hate politics in India. Numerous incidents can be highlighted from all parts of the country to deliberately communalise and polarise news by spreading fake news somehow implicating Islamic or Christian based groups indulged in by a variety of Hindutva based political groups. PUCL strongly condemns such targetted ostracism and communalisation of Covid 19 news. In this regard PUCL demands:

(a)  It is of utmost importance that none less than the Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, himself should publicly condemn the attempt to communalise the Covid pandemic issue and gives a televised call unamibuously and clearly asking people not to communalise incidents, stigmatising minorities and give calls to ostracise or boycott Muslims or other minorities.

(b)   All the state governments should put down any attempt to sow communal divisions or hatred through any means whatsoever by first giving warnings and thereafter launching prosecutions, following the laws of the land.

PUC considers it most unfortunate that lockdown measures had to be enforced by using police power and prosecuting people for breaking the curfew-like conditions imposed on people. The entire country witnessed sights of policemen brutally assaulting and beating people found out on roads and streets PUCL demands that enquiry should be launched on all such policemen and suitable departmental and criminal action taken for breach of powers and abuse of law.

Misuse of sec. 144 CrPC and rising arrests: Another concern is the repeated promulgation of sec. 144 CrPC prohibitory orders as a means of enforcing the lockdown. Not only are the orders in violation of the norms regarding the need to promulgate such orders, but they have tended to result in the police using brute power in a completely unaccountable manner, in most states in India.

To illustrate the latest statistics from Rajasthan show that there have been 8,162 preventive arrests with 1152 FIRs being registered during the lockdown period. Over 2,000 people have been arrested and over Rs. 2.7 crores has been collected as fines under the Motor Vehicles Act. 

Stifling free speech and right to question state policy and programme: Most state administrations have used the context of the Covid pandemic and crisis to warn citizens, and especially medical personnel, from criticising state policy or questioning claimed progress in the spread of Corona virus or questions of plight of medical personnel fighting the Corona virus pandemic with poor PPEs and other facilities provided to the doctors and other medical personnel.

PUCL strongly condemns all such actions to stifle questions seeking accountability or information from the government services. It is important to stress the rights of citizens to ask questions, differ from state policy and criticise programmes and in short to the right to dissent and differ from the Government’s views.

Setting up a Surveillance State via the Aarogya Setu: PUCL strongly denounces the attempt to make the Aarogya Setu app compulsory for all Indians, especially those seeking medical support in government hospitals. The attempt is much more than helping to track the patients’ medical treatment but enables the use by the government of the app as a surveillance tool of each individual who is registered with the app. The app is a dangerous tool, in the future, enabling state agencies to snoop on the life and activities of citizens, thereby violating fundamental right to privacy.  The usage of the app should be voluntary and all data should be stored locally on people’s devices and not left in a centralised server. Government should recognise that all information right from location information to proximity confirmation to health status, to whether they have been placed in isolation js sensitive personal information and should be used only strictly with individual consent.  Even if the collected data needs to be used, it should be permitted only on comprehensive evidence based justification every step of the way.  

PUCL also condemns the arrest of numerous activists of different groups who had played an active role in the anti-CAA protests in Delhi and in north India between December 2019 and March 2020.

Ramp up Corona Testing: PUCL demands that the Government ensure adequate testing of all citizens for COVID virus infection. While acknowledging that the lockdown may have been one factor in arresting sharp growth of the corona virus infection in India, it nevertheless has to be pointed out that the ratio of testing to population at large is amongst the lowest globally. One factor for this is the paucity of testing kits. Experts have clearly warned that we cannot remain complacent and there is a possibility of resurgence of Corona virus infections between May to July, 2020. The Government of India urgently requires to equip itself with adequate Corona testing kits.

Make Corona Tests Free: PUCL demands that all Corona tests should be offered free for all citizens, irrespective of their status.

Requisition Private Hospitals and Resources: What is most critical is to see the Corona virus as a common virus for which all of society should be involved. This involves requisitioning the resources from private, corporate hospitals including their beds, ICU facilities and other resources so as to tackle the growth of the virus over the next 6 months, at a minimum.

Supply Adequate number of Good quality PPEs: The medical fraternity – doctors, nurses and other medical personnel – have uniformly across India been pointing out to the inadequate and poor quality of PPEs (Personal protective equipment) provided to them while treating with seriously and critically ill Corona patients. Given the acutely infectious nature of the disease it’s a shame and a disservice to condemn the `Frontline Warriors’ in the fight against corona to wage the war with inadequate and poorly made PPEs.

Even while the governments want the citizens to follow and respect the law, PUCL would like to point out that the governments, both Central and State, are the biggest violators of the law relating to declaring an area epidemic hit as prescribed by the Disaster Management Act, 2006. The Disaster Management Act actually provides for detailed procedure to be followed when declaring an area prohibited zone due to epidemics. It is ironic that the government itself has been the biggest violator of the Disaster Management protocols to be followed during times of epidemics.

In conclusion PUCL demands that a more considerate and humanitarian approach be taken in the context of decongesting the prisons by releasing more number of prisoners. It is a fact that many governments and courts too have taken a more proactive role in being liberal while granting bails to people lodged in prison. The jails even after this are filled to capacity posing a major health challenge. While demanding that more progressive steps be taken to release more prisoners from custody, we also call upon the Governments to also release all political prisoners and those arrested for their political beliefs.

Mr. Ravi Kiran Jain, President, PUCL Dr. V. Suresh, Gen, Secy, PUCL

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