Amidst Lockdown, Socio-economic Implications on India’s Poor

Co-Written by Badre Alam Khan & Dastgir Khan

coronavirus india lockdown

 Currently, most of the countries are passing through the critical phase because we are confronting huge risks and challenges from the lethal disease coronavirus (medically known as Covid-19, which initially started from China, city of Wuhan), has now spread out at the global level. As a result, several thousand people have died so far, and death tolls are rising across the world. Moreover, several lakhs of people have got affected by this deeply pernicious virus world-wide. In this respect, India is also confronting massive risks and challenges. So far, our country has witnessed more than 30 deaths, as reported till now and more than 1000 hundred cases have been found who are affected by a coronavirus.

As a member of responsible civil society, we strongly appeal that it is our collective social responsibility to co-operate and fight together against this ‘National disaster’, irrespective of caste, class, ethnicity, and nation, etc., for the sake of humanity at large. To understand the actual causes behind an unprecedented expansion of coronavirus, numerous articles have been written by the medical professionals, scientists and economists who suggested some preventive measures (like social distancing, washing hand and wearing masks while visiting outside for taking essential services and keep themselves in isolation from large gatherings) to fight against this ‘global pandemic’. In this respect, a section of scholars has stressed that we have to develop ‘Scientific Temper’ among masses and must follow the evidence-based scientifically oriented solutions rather than rely on superstitions and unscientific methods to address this ongoing pandemic.

Before coming to this, let us begin with a little caveat. As social anthropologists have reminded us that whenever man-made crisis took place in the history of mankind; which followed by dividing the people on the lines of caste, class, ethnicity, and religion, etc. Take, for instance, India’s partitions that followed by communal riots can be cited as cases in point; which have divided our diverse and plural society on communal lines. However, when the natural crises happened in cases of plague and famines etc., which had occurred in the history of our country too, often united the people across religious and social lines.

Unlike communal fissures, the fact cannot be denied that in the case of the recent ongoing threat of Covid-19, people across religious, caste and class lines are now coming together unitedly and donating a huge amount of money for the larger cause of humanity in general and poor people of our country in particular. Keeping corporate social responsibility in mind, a section of industrial classes have now come forward and donated a huge amount of money to fight against the spread of said lethal virus. However, some scholars have reminded that India state should not only rely on methods of doing charity but, must take strong welfare measures to address the problems of migrant workers and poor masses amidst Covid-19, as pointed out by French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot and Utsav Shah (See, ‘A shrunken welfare state’, Indian Express, dated March 30, 2020, p-8). In other words, our  government must consider every citizen of our country, ( irrespective of caste, religion, gender, and region), as a right bearers citizen for the sake of common good and addressing concerns of  the larger Indian masses( including the threat of spreading virus) rather than looking them simply as consumers.

When our Prime Minister has announced a national lockdown on 23rd March 2020 at midnight, debates have been started among scholars whether his decision (like in the case of demonetization) is a timely and welcome step, as far as addressing the threat of Covid-19 is concerned. In this respect, some scholars have expressed their concern that given the huge problems of migrant workers and homeless people who are living  metropolitan cities (for instance, Delhi, Mumbai, Gujarat and other cities) are now moving towards their own villages; the very purpose of national lockdown and method of social distancing to contain the virus will be defeated.

However, for other scholars, this step undertaken by current ruling dispensation should not be compared to the demonetization (this step was taken by the government to curb the corruption and push the economic development at the right direction in 2016)which had created unemployment and followed by loss of jobs mainly in the informal sectors. In other words, PM Modi’s decision is the need of the hour and crucial for containing the spread of the pernicious virus. Because the large section of the poor cannot avail of medical facilities and quarantine (keeping affected people in isolation) as methods are difficult for them mainly in the village community. There is also the argument that the step taken by the government is necessary to contain the spread of virus and transmission at the community level. Conversely, a section of scholars who are uncomfortable with this step have said that without chalking out concrete ‘national strategy’; it is not possible to address the problems of poor/vulnerable including their medical issues (health infrastructure like, to provide ventilators and testing kits) to contain the virus, as underlined by Pratab Bhanu Mehta (See, ‘After the lockdown’, Indian Express, dated March 28, 2020, p-8). For economists, in India, most of the migrant lobourers who earlier migrated to big cities in search of jobs from rural India (mainly from Hindi heartland) who mostly work in informal sectors of our economy and dependent on daily wages to sustain their everyday lives in cities. The fact must be underlined that most of the migrant workers are homeless and compel to live their lives in slums. Since the announcement of national lockdown by PM Modi, these migrants have no option but to leave the cities and move towards their respective villages. Amidst this crisis, they are stuck at bus stations and some of them have started moving towards their respective villages at barefoot.

Keeping these sad situations in mind, some scholars are raising their concerns and try to put forward the idea that given the lack of medical facilities and the concrete national strategy, the social distancing methods would not be going to yield an expected outcome, to contain the spread of the virus. While commenting on allocations of 15,000 crores by our Finance Minister, the economists said that given the large scale of problems, this is a very meager amount and hence, not sufficient to fulfill the basics needs of the poor and migrant labourers. That is why the government must adopt strong welfare measures, not in the form of charity, as argued by a section of scholars. In this respect, Christopher Jafferelot and others have commented that the government must take appropriate welfare measures rather than rely on the charity mainly given by the civil society and NGOs, to address the huge threat which is currently created by the Covid-19.

In short, given the scale of huge migrant worker’s plight towards their respective villages, if the government will not take strong welfare measures (such as cash transfers and providing essential services, as stated above on a regular basis), as suggested by economists, the problems will further engender and may be transmitted at the community level. While commenting on the national lockdown, for an activist like Harsh Mander who has said that if people would not die from menace of coronavirus, will definitely die from hunger. While indicating the lack of seriousness on part of the government vis-a-vis poor people, Mander writes,

“Neither she [current finance minister] nor Prime Minister Modi in his three address to the nation on measures to fight the lethal spread of Coivid-19, has acknowledged  even fraction of potentially catastrophic impact of these measures on hundred of million India’s informal workers, farmers and destitute people’’ ( See ‘Lockdown and the poor’ Indian Express, dated March 27, 2020, p-10).

As of now, in our country, infections of coronavirus is still limited to the large urban space and not transmitted at community level. However, some economists have anticipated that if migrant workers and poor will move at their respective villages, said the lethal virus may permeate at the community level and hence, it will be uncontrolled situations. Because like developed countries such as China, the USA, and Italy, our country has not having medical facilities like ventilators and testing kits to contain the spread of viruses mainly in rural areas. Having said that let us conclude with a positive note. The need of the hour is to work together irrespective of caste, community, region, nation (search ethical based global governance) to deal with this lethal coronavirus for the cause of the larger humanity in general and poor masses in particular.

 Badre Alam Khan is a research scholar at University of Delhi. Dastgir Khan (a former student of Jamia Millia Islamia and social worker).  I am grateful to Afzal Khan (who is a currently staff at at Jamia) for reading this draft.



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