Migrant workers pile on lorries to get back to their villages
The coronavirus pandemic has been global in its reach. But its impact has varied widely. Approaches to its containment have also varied from country to country. Given the varying conditions, each country has had to or will have to, fashion its approach to suit its peculiar conditions so that the spread of the virus is contained while ensuring that the measures taken do not themselves exacerbate the situation.
India is 41 st in the list of affected countries. But this is no reason for it to rest on its oars. Dr Ramanan Laxminarayan, an epidemiologist at Princeton University told the BBC that Indians are sitting on a beach which could be struck by a tsunami any moment. Preventive steps have to be taken and taken fast, he said.
But as events showed, the State should take steps to stem the viral onslaught and not exacerbate the situation through thoughtless actions.
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nation-wide lockdown on March 24 to an unsuspecting population of 1.33 billion, India has had 75 to 100 new cases a day.
The death toll till March 29 was 1024. India is still only 41st in the global severity list, but the size of the population (the second highest after China), the urban population density, high degree of internal migration and great deficiencies in the public health sector, combine to raise the possibility of a rapid spread of infection.
India is said to have over 100 million migrant labourers spread over the length and breadth of the country, especially in the economic growth centres of Delhi, Mumbai, Punjab, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
A significant section of these is believed to have fled their worksites and temporary homes in the cities to the imagined safety of their native villages thousands of kilometres away in the under-developed States of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
The problem of mass migration is compounded by the fact that India’s States or provinces are putting up barriers to the entry of outsiders in order to stem the import of the deadly virus.
The State should take steps to stem the viral onslaught and not exacerbate the situation through thoughtless actions
Although India’s first case of COVID-19 infection was reported on January 30, it took a long time for the government and the political system to wake up to it.
The government and the people were busy fightings over the import of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Population Register (NPR). Then came the political crisis in Madhya Pradesh, India’ largest province, in which the elected Congress government was toppled by the Bharathiya Janatha Party (BJP) by engineering defections in the State Legislature.
In the midst of all the unrest and confrontations between the government and the people, the viral invasion was on, spreading its tentacles without being noticed and acted upon. Then, suddenly on March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared an immediate 21-day national lockdown. But, instead of solving the problem, the lightning lockdown created more problems, especially the poor.
Shops, factories, and business establishments were shut, and construction work came to a halt all of a sudden. All transport services were suspended. People across the class-divide had been caught with too little to eat. Thrown out of jobs, the poor had no cash either. This triggered a massive migration of poor workers from the cities to the villages. But to their dismay, those on the road under the hot sun for hours and days found their way blocked by provincial police, who said that the borders had been sealed.
Writing in The Atlantic Vidya Krishnan said that the government had put the responsibility for containing the outbreak on citizens, instead of instituting a robust official support system.
“It is needlessly punishing for the most vulnerable in society,” she said.
According to Krishnan, it is the “World’s harshest lockdown with police brutality, a lack of transparency, and a shortage of compassion.”
She pointed out that Modi made his speech at 8 p.m. on March 24, saying the restrictions would come into force just after midnight and be in place for three weeks. But by the time he spoke, shops had closed for the day, catching people off-guard.
This is in sharp contrast to worst-affected countries in Europe, she pointed out.
“Elsewhere, such as in Britain, France, and Italy, grocery stores and pharmacies have remained open to provide essential services, but here, they are closed. While most wealthy and middle-class Indians will make it through these three weeks unscathed, able to hunker down, work from home, and access some modicum of entertainment, the country’s poor and its huge number of transient migrant workers (there are no official figures, but the most often cited number is 100 million) will struggle to survive.”
The government has announced relief, but this meagre according to Krishnan.
“TheUS$22 billion earmarked is a pitiful amount compared with what governments elsewhere have provided. Whereas governments in Britain, Spain, and Germany have offered stimulus plans of up to 20 per cent of GDP, India’s amounts to less than 1 per cent of its GDP. It provides no help for day labourers or other workers in similar unorganised sectors. It contains no measures for migrant workers. The actual amounts of support five kilograms of rice or wheat, and one kilogram of legumes, per person for the next three months, coupled with cash transfers, in some cases of 500 rupees, or US$7, a month have infuriated voters.”
The police have been heatless in the BJP-controlled States like Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka.
“In one heartbreaking video that went viral, police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh force young boys to perform frog jumps as punishment for violating the curfew. Another video shows police waiting outside a mosque in the southern state of Karnataka, beating worshippers with a stick as they leave. Similar cases of police brutality have been reported around the country, and social media have filled with messages of people running out of food yet afraid to leave their dwellings, fearful of the police.”
India’s health-care infrastructure is weak.
“Whereas the WHO recommends a ratio of one doctor for every 1,000 patients, India has one government doctor for every 10,000, according to the 2019 National Health Profile. A 2016 Reuters report noted that India needed more than 50,000 critical-care specialists, but has just 8,350,” Krishnan pointed out.
The death toll till March 29 was 1024. India is still only 41st in the global severity list, but the size of the population (the second highest after China), the urban population density, high degree of internal migration and great deficiencies in the public health sector, combine to raise the possibility of a rapid spread of infection
On March 29, Prime Minister Modi apologized to the nation for the “hard decision” which especially affected “the poor” as the nation entered the fifth day of the three-week lockdown.
“People must be wondering what kind of Prime Minister I am ... But lockdown is the only solution in front of us,” Modi said on his monthly radio address “Mann Ki Baat”.
“I apologise for taking these harsh steps which have caused difficulties in your lives, especially the poor people. I know some of you would be angry with me also. But these tough measures were needed to win this battle,” he added.
Rahul’s Call For Indigenous Approach
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has written to the Prime Minister to say that the rush of urban youth back to their villages would endanger the lives of the elderly population there.
“It is critical for us to understand that India’s conditions are unique. We will be required to take different steps than other large countries who are following a total lockdown strategy. The number of poor people in India who are dependent on a daily income is simply too large for us to unilaterally shut down all economic activity. The consequences of a complete economic shut down will disastrously amplify the death toll arising from the virus,” Mr Gandhi said.
“Millions of India’s elderly live in villages. A complete lockdown and the resulting shut down of our economic engine will almost certainly ensure that millions of unemployed youth rush back to their villages, increasing the risk of infecting their parents and the elderly population living there. This will result in a catastrophic loss of life,” Gandhi said.
Fortunately, the Central government said on Monday that it has no plans to extend the lockdown beyond 21 days.