This post comes out as an outburst of anguish. The lock down in India has been in effect for four days now. Schools and colleges have been closed, all exams postponed or cancelled. Companies and establishments of commerce and trade have asked their employees to work from home. All construction work has been halted and people working in factory shops have been asked not to report to work. The poor and daily wagers being the immediate casualties.
Different state governments had already asked for social distancing practices and had started sealing their state borders days before the national announcement. States at their level were doing a good job of tracking and retracing steps of those who’ve arrived from different countries. Some states had announced relief for the poor and arrangements of free food and shelter. The body blow came when the Prime Minister got on TV and put the whole nation in a lock down at 4 hours notice.
I had uninstalled my WhatApp to avert the flooding of Corona related memes, jokes and fake news. I was hoping to experience the bliss of ignorance, too bad there’s real reality to contend with.
A TV News show on Friday evening made me feel miserable. The news was about thousands of daily wave workers and laborers leaving the big cities and heading towards their hometowns on foot. Taking to the feet is such a state of helplessness. Imagine someone so helpless and out of options to decide to take to a journey of over 1000 Km on foot! Without money or food or water, and with kids in tow! The news piece really made me sad, not just sad, sick of sadness.
Why did happen? I asked myself. The only answer I got was that the lock down was not the right decision taken to prevent the spread of Corona virus. Before we try to debate on whether the lock down was a bad option, lets look at a few things in light of the lock down.
The census of 2011 says there are about 450 million people in India who migrate to find work. This is more than the population of USA. Out of these 450 Million, 90% if not more at unskilled or hold a blue collar job. Many of them earn their day’s meal on the same day. These people were left in the lurch which less than 4 hours notice.
The jobs they did would be closed for atleast 3 weeks, they have no means on earning, and the places they ate will no longer be open. There is no food, no money and No way of making either. Although the government in its few interactions with the nation said that landlords be kind to their tenants, employers not fire their workers and banks and other financial institutions to give borrowers a repayment leave, none of these seemed to have any effect on the lives of these poorest of the poor. So they had but one option, leave the hopeless city and head to their far off village.
In the last 2 days thousands of daily wage earners and laborers have been seen on highways walking to destinations as far as a thousand kilometers! Many have hitched rides on trucks where they’ve been bundled in as sheep – as many as 300 in the back of a single truck! No takers for social distancing or physical isolation.
The conduct of the police has been most abhorrent in this whole episode. When me and my family wanted to step out of the house for hospital visits or to get groceries, we are told beware of the cops! there are news reports that the cops are thrashing anyone who strays the streets. There have been multiple reports of police brutality. Stopping and harassing people moving about in the streets to thrashing vehicles, and beating up the public has been the general demeanor of the Police.
The Police personnel are not entirely to be blamed in this. It is perhaps the fault of the governments, both center and at the state for having sent the wrong message. The PM on his part used the word Curfew quite loose and liberally, and the state governments took it one step further by imposing the colonial section 144 through entire states. What’s wrong in imposing 144 you ask? The 144 is a criminal procedure code imposed to prevent the Law and Order situation getting out of hands. By using 144 and calling it a curfew, our leadership has tuned the minds of the civil servants and the police to treat the medical emergency as a law and order situation – which is why the beatings and brutality has surfaced.
The poor and the police are just pawns, they don’t have an option to take their own decisions. They are just reacting to what comes from the top. Why is it that the police are issuing helpline numbers and monitoring overseas travelers in one state; and beating up curfew breakers and making the poor migrants crawl on their fours in another? Its simply because of the politicians and policies of different governments.
Different state governments have done tremendous work, our central government has also started work by announcing financial aid, food security and availability of cooking fuel to the poor. The RBI has also scripted a monetary policy to meet the government half way and ensure the economy doesn’t fall flat on its back. Experts and critics however say that the government needs to spend more. By estimates given in a working paper by the Institute for Human Development, a private think tank, the govt of India needs to spend atleast 3% of of GDP to get out of this pandemic, that’s about 6 lakh cores. We have made plans to spend 1.8 Lakh cores, that’s less than a 3rd of what’s required.
Coming to the point
Do we really need a lock out? Yes. Yes, we do. There is no cure for the CoViD 19 and the only way we can be safe is by not getting it. The lockdown is what China did, its what Italy and the rest of Europe is doing and that’s what we need to do. However there are a few questions.
How did people get food in China? Groceries? Milk, fruits and vegetables? How were the garbage cleared? There is more than 1 answer to this. Alibaba did not stop deliveries in China. Groceries and perishables were delivered to homes, China set up a hospital in 6 days, banned all PPE, medicines and Ventilators and raw materials within weeks, and hired millions to work as public servants to do the deliveries.
Even socialist countries of Europe also kept the ecommerce shopping sites like Amazon working. That’s where we had our first failing. Big Basket and Grofers, two of the largest grocery delivery Apps stopped deliveries from 20th March. Amazon and Flipkart also closed down their delivery services. All restaurants and kitchens were closed and hence no food delivery was possible.
The close down announced by the PM was intended to stop people from moving about, but the resulting shut down meant there was no food, no delivery and no commerce. If this was the plight of the urban middle class, then needless to say what the poor had to go through, now can we blame them for wanting to flee to their hometowns?
India is an aspiring Socialist nation, but we are not in a position yet to provide social security to all. This inability of the government to provide social security and sustenance is made up by the emotional and social structure of my family – and this is the reason behind the exodus of millions of migrants from the cities to the villages in the time of crisis. This is not the helplessness of the poor, but an indication of our system’s failure.
We don’t need a fail proof system, we need a system that keeps working even when it takes the hits. For now, the civilized, socialistic and democratically set up system has failed, but the belief in the system of family bonds and village camaraderie is what’s keep the hopes alive for the millions on the roads.