Battling Covid-19 Across India’s Uneven Landscape

Those who guide the destiny of our nation must open their eyes to the uneven landscape of the India we live in. One layer of Indians spread across our cities and the landowning privileged few in rural India, live in the comfort of their homes. They are the ones who have, without exception, welcomed the lockdown. They have also joined in the clarion call to observe social distancing. Those in the higher echelons of the bureaucracy, the decision-makers, who have the ears of our politicians, fall in the same category. But there is a world beyond this elite lot who have neither the luxury of managing the lockdown nor the space for social distancing.

Millions of the less privileged live cheek by jowl in the narrow lanes of densely populated conglomerations. Others in shared rented shelters search for work every morning. They return to their shelters at dusk hoping to find work the next day. Often such shelters are a room accommodating 10-12 or even more persons. 40 percent of our population in major cities and perhaps a sizeable percentage in others across India live in slums. They too do not have the luxury of space. Millions, discriminated, are ghettoised for reasons of personal security; deprived of the freedom to live outside their ghettos. Then, there are street vendors, who earn during the day and return to their homes at night. Rickshaw-pullers, those driving three-wheelers, taxis, trucks, and buses need to earn during the day to feed their families. In villages spread across the country, people live in close proximity. For all these categories of people, social distancing is not an option. For them, lockdown is also not an option. Even if they were not to move out of the spaces where they reside, it is not possible for them to be locked in. They will have to go out and access the basic necessities of life to survive. In the process, they cannot maintain social distancing.

We have, in recent days, learned of people packed like sardines in trucks hoping to reach home. The images, seen on social media networks, of migrant labour and those rendered jobless, in utter desperation, walking hundreds of kilometres without food or water, are heart-rending. Death stalks them along the way. But they have no choice. States neither have the machinery nor the resources to take care of them. Others, in lakhs, are languishing on highways waiting for help.

Migrant labour is also stranded in cities without shelter or any means of transportation to their respective destinations. In Delhi alone, we witnessed, ever since the capital was shut down, thousands of migrant labour sitting by the Yamuna Pushta, near Nigambodh Ghat throughout the day. They have no food as they sit in packed lines without work or income. There are not enough shelter homes to accommodate them. Every night, about three thousand people are on the footpath. The only silver lining is the Sheesh Ganj Gurudwara, which offers them one roti every morning at 7:00 am after which, they wait hoping to be fed by some charitable organisations who care. Government outreach is almost non-existent. People will be sitting ducks if the virus spreads.

The announcement of a nationwide lockdown was a thoughtless knee-jerk policy prescription. The government has displayed the complete absence of a vision in the way it wishes to handle this pandemic. It has exposed itself to the charge that it is ignorant of its constitutional responsibilities and clueless about the manner in which it seeks to discharge them. This policy prescription is lauded by those who are already protected. It has no relevance for the unprotected. A nationwide lockdown is per se unreasonable, without advance planning and preparation, to adequately and effectively handle the consequent dislocation in the lives of those likely to be adversely impacted. The restrictions on individual freedom are unreasonable. The lockdown has the immediate consequence of destroying lives. The government, of course, has the right to enforce its policy but there is a countervailing duty that it is obligated to perform. That duty is to ensure that the policy does not, in its operation, violate the fundamental rights of people. The right to earn a livelihood is a fundamental right. This government deprived millions of that right. That deprivation should have been compensated by helping people to maintain themselves. The government has not put in place any mechanism to reach out to the vulnerable and the marginalised. Instead of protecting livelihoods, such a harsh and insensitive measure has jeopardised lives.

When making the announcement, our Prime Minister chose not to explain to the people the consequences of this 21-day lockdown. In fact, he gave people only four hours to adjust to the lockdown in contrast to a four day notice period when seeking the cooperation of people to make the “Janata curfew“ successful. He also did not, in his pubic address, explain what the government would do after 21 days. Indeed, he made us believe that with this lockdown and social distancing, the worst will be over. In fact, the worst is yet to come. Both the Finance Minister’s package, as well as the announcement made by the RBI Governor, will in no way resolve the issues confronted by our countrymen. In all this, of course, the Home Minister, who is otherwise always leading from the front, often articulating with intent to laud and conquer, is conspicuously absent in this moment of national emergency.

While we attempt to deal with the coronavirus and the possible havoc it might cause, India’s policy establishment needs to re-think its strategy, now that we are not adequately prepared to handle the crisis. We must provide solutions for people and ensure that the remedy is not worse than the disease. India’s poor millions are the hapless victims of a government that seeks to care but knows not how!