coronavirus migration

COVID-19 has left India’s population under lockdown and curfew. Once more India has had to cope with Narendra Modi’s ‘shock and awe’ policy of short-notice announcements. These proclamations are issued rather callously and with total disregard for the welfare of people and an absence of disaster preparedness and management stratagem.

Chaos followed as shops closed down, markets were emptied of food, vegetables and other necessities. Human essentials were blocked off in just a blinker. While people were told to stay home and dare not step out, most had no choice but to venture out to buy and store the bare minimum. But that did not apply to the poor. Even the low-paying jobs they received were snatched from them and they were relegated to the streets. Not a roof over their heads, and a rupee to buy bare minimums. Once again, Narendra Modi showed the country that, by now, he had indeed entirely mastered the art of ‘Disaster Unpreparedness.”  Meanwhile, government at State level in their desperation to keep the streets clear, unleashed police personnel on anyone venturing out to feed their families or buy urgent medical supplies. The police had a field day showing eagerness to beat up normally law abiding citizens rather than encouraging them to return to the safety of their homes.

The Corona Virus was no shock happening. The first case was reported on January 29th, 2020. Forewarnings of an impending global pandemic had been sounded and reports to this effect were dribbling in. Narendra Modi seemed to care two hoots. He had his own list of priorities to be ticked off. There were big-ticket events he had planned. Public relations (PR) gave way to Public Welfare. “Doland’ Trump (not a slip of the tongue) came to town – and by now ‘town’ is always a place in Gujarat. Of course, it was amusement and distraction for Indians who were treated to various hilarities. Over 100 crores were spent on the Trump extravaganza. Security-related costs alone, including deployment of 12,000 police personnel was another expenditure borne by the Gujarat exchequer.

In a phase of less than six years, India had suffered tremor after tremor on several fronts – both social and natural. The ‘Modi era’ promised paradigmatic change. There would be ‘Vikas’, ‘Ache Din’, corruption would be eradicated, and black money returned to the people. Every Indian was promised a remittance into his/her bank account of an amount of Rs 15 lakhs. ‘Vikas’ and ‘Ache Din’ were dumped and, in their place came punishing policies for the poor – rural and urban- and working classes. India blinked and stuttered into disaster. Jobs blew away in the wind, farmers committed suicide in record numbers, the poor moved rapidly from being poor to becoming totally deprived, homeless, hungry, diseased, and seeped in malnutrition. Middle classism began to evaporate.

It has been scarcely a year since the BJP returned to power. Political chaos has followed. Public institutions have collapsed. The Supreme Court is stuttering and the Election Commission has no public confidence. The media has been requisitioned and acquired and is only there to convey a narrative that is largely exaggerated. Intelligent people know more view the ‘idiot box’. There are alternative sources right there on your mobile- if you are lucky to have a smart phone. The bureaucracy, in the meantime, has chosen to obscure itself with doses of political opium which allows them to blank out their consciences. The few with a conscience have quit in disgust refusing to be complicit.

All this makes it a surprise why COVID-19 left India flat footed. In a jiffy, India was first ordered to observe a self-imposed curfew. And in just a few days after, 24th March to be precise, India was locked down. To be fair, we were not the only ones; most of the world’s populations were also under lockdown and curfew. India was added to the spaces of lockdown with a meager 4-hour notice. In quick time, 1.4 billion were literally jailed. Sure enough, the threat of the Corona Virus was real and the pandemic could mercilessly take away lives and leave an entire nation devastated unless drastic steps were taken. In a somewhat cynical scrutiny, an analyst observed: “I now understand what the people of Kashmir must have felt on August 5th, 2019”.

But then you ask: How did the government prepare itself for this disaster?  “Nil” is the only answer. Not only did it choose denial. It indulged in international fanfare- hosting the “Namaste Trump” charade; took punitive measures against those protesting anti-constitutional measures such as CAA, NRC, and NPR. The government also unleashed vicious communal propaganda and unleashed terror on Muslim minorities with senior BJP leaders prompting and promoting hate.  At a rough estimate, some thousand Muslims, at a minimum, still languish in police lock ups for no crime whatsoever except for the reason that they are Muslims. The Sangh Parivar, of which the BJP is the political expression, is bitten by the Islamaphobia bug which has assumed chronic dimensions. Until now, no courts, or police source has reported on the number of arrests and cases with any degree of transparency. Meanwhile, instead of crafting preparedness, the BJP was busying itself buying much-need political defectors and indulging in government toppling.

The ‘Corona lockdown’, if you could call it that, has had disastrous impacts for millions who, as it is, live a hand-to-mouth existence. Everything is virtually closed off including schools, markets, small eateries, cafes, shops, and everything else that keeps this shaky and fragile economy going. Those who were dependent on daily wages find themselves outside the workforce, no more informal contracts; unskilled workers have no more street jobs, or construction sites to work at. Nor do they see any semblance of  hope being reinstated. With nil in the form of back-up savings, even their hand-to-mouth existence has vanished.  Many are starving and dying.

But all this suffering is not really needed. Jean Dreze, the Belgian-born Indian economist, social scientist and activist sums it up: “Everyone knows that the country has large food stocks, and that some of this could be used to protect people from hunger during the coronavirus crisis. The enormity of the situation, however, has escaped many observers”. He probingly asks: “How would you feel if a family was to let its weakest members starve, even as the house’s granary is full to the brim? That is what is happening in India today?” He asserts that releasing food is a critical and pressing imperative because the slow-to-move wheels of the bureaucracy have cruel confines and can hardly provide the relief that must be rushed to people before hunger deaths overtake corona deaths. As if to worsen conditions, India abandoned an export ban on a drug US President Donald Trump demanded India export or face harsh consequences. The result? India, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of Hydroxychloroquine, an essential drug to fight Corona, urgently packaged and shipped off to the USA sufficient quantities of the drug despite qualms expressed by medical experts. Trump won a major, though petty, victory. India lost two essential aspects of India’s autonomy as a nation: India’s political integrity was sold out and with that our foreign policy backbone. After bullying India out of essential drugs, Trump had the gumption to actually call the trade off a “game changer”. (More hugs to follow, but that’s for later!) Until the 24th March, just the day before Modi called for a lockdown, he was busy selling off essential drugs, testing kits, and hiding information from the public. In a better democracy, they would deem such obfuscation criminal.

Daily updates from television stations ask people to keep clean and safe. This is bizarre when people don’t have a roof over their heads or safe water to drink. To such people sanitation is neither a possibility nor a priority. The struggle to eat at least one square meal is.

The slums of India are now full of people many of whom may be carriers of the virus. Migrants who were turned out of jobs had to return undertaking arduous journeys home especially after public transport, trains and buses, became in-operational. But governments found it possible to fly tourists back to their homes as if that were the priority. They had nothing to say for the workers in the tourism sector who were trudging back home walking distances of even a thousand kilometers or more. We have no real count of how many died.

Narendra Modi launched the “PM CARES” fund last month to provide relief to those affected by the coronavirus pandemic. With 8,671 and the death toll at 289, the fund is officially designed to help millions of day laborers. The problem is with the numbers. It is not sheer coincidence that figures for BJP-ruled States show optimistic outlooks as against the rest of the country. If, the BJP is obfuscating the truth, that could spell further doom for the rest of the country.

Worse, inefficiency is the bane of government services in India. Government initiated projects, and corruption in political and bureaucratic quarters leaves wide open the likelihood that the new, high-profile fund will divert resources away from grassroots humanitarian efforts. This has already proven to be a PR game played out by Bollywood actors, cricketers, corporates and prominent businessmen.

In the midst of these premium media-hyped government actions, ordinary citizens, SME collectives in industrial zones have initiated ‘citizen-care’ enterprises by delivering food to the most vulnerable and offering shelter to the poor wherever they can. The corporate media is too busy pleasing Modi and his government to even know what happens in the real world. Reuters reports growing resentment at the government’s way of raising crisis funds. There is neither accountability nor transparency.

A shocking report details how the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), was promised a donation of about $66,000 from a state-run defence company for scarce protective health gear which was diverted to PM CARES. This is a clear case of Narendra Modi playing politics with humanitarian aid. In overt and covert ways, the Modi government is shifting the paradigms of humanitarian aid from important volunteer-oriented grassroots methods into compulsory services. He is oblivious to the fact that real social action is based in the grassroots. Bureaucracies simply do not know the villages and slums and the streets.

The government must do what it is elected to do – offer efficient and honest governance. Leave NGOs, civil society, and SME’s with a conscience to do what they can voluntarily. Allow funds that government has to be shared with the above sectors. Disaster is not the time to score brownie political points in the relief agenda.

These are three elements of a post-Corona era that must be merged in appropriate measures to bring long term change. First, the biggest focus must be on building local economies, not recovery of large enterprises and financial sector which the government would be tempted to do.  Second, we must learn that the capitalistic model has failed the world at large. Democratic socialism must substitute the ideology of capitalistic greed and exploitation. A ‘peoples’ state must now evolve. ‘Vikas’, with people taking centre stage in planning and implementation, must advance. If we cannot see the urgent need for a paradigm shift, then the Corona Virus will not just come to bite us. It will simply wipe us away.

Ranjan Solomon is a social activist and human rights defender


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