How have governments fared in fighting Coronavirus? A view from below

migrant workers coronavirus

The country-wide lockdown was announced on March 24. Within the four hours of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcing the lockdown, it was to be put in place. A well-known newspaper aptly calls the measure “the most severe step taken anywhere in the war against the coronavirus”.

Most of the people had no clue what was going to happen. They were told to be inside their room for 21 days. A friend of mine advised me to buy rice, dal, potato, and onion. In addition to that, he told me that I must keep some pockets of salt as well. When I arrived at the shops, I saw people were already buying several pockets of salt. The scene reflected the panic. The bad omen was visible. The fear grew inside me. I told myself that things were indeed going to turn horrible.

Since then things have indeed been turning more and more horrible and ugly. Not to talk of migrant labourers and daily wagers, even the youth studying at “prestigious universities” are reeling under the lockdown.

As a tenant, I, too, feel a severe crisis of water. The claim of the Delhi government to supply 20 KL free water every month fails to give relief to the tenants. The well-advertised “free” electricity and water (bijli, pani) are made for those who own houses in Delhi. For those who have no home of their own are forced to pay extra money for electricity and water.

A large number of tenants remain helpless in the lockdown. They have to buy bottled water for drinking. For a week after the lockdown, I had to struggle hard to identify shops selling a jar of water. From a long distance, I had to carry a water jar to my room on my shoulder. The crisis was due to the break of the supply chain.

The water crisis was nothing before the torture of landlords. Several tenants living in Delhi alleged that the landlords had threatened them to lock up their room if they did not pay the rent.

See the irony. Several landlords in Delhi are associated with the Aam Aadmi Party. But they have shown no regard for the instruction of their leader and Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. In the last week of March, he told the landlords, “Don’t harass tenants, Delhi government will pay the rent if they fail”. But the practice of extracting profit continues unabated and Kejriwal’s words did not seem to have convinced his landlord-cum party members.

As a result, the tenants have got no relief. Even those who have gone home before the lockdown have been threatened by the landlords over the phone to pay the rent. Some have been able to send money, while others have not. Those who gave the assurance that they would pay the rent after the lockdown were not heard and the locks of their rooms were broken. The belongings kept inside were thrown out.

A few days back a Ph.D. from JNU who lives as a tenant in my locality telephoned me, “Go to my building. The landlord had taken my almirah out of my room and perhaps put it near the stairs. Kindly see to it that my certificates are kept safe”.

The food crisis is not less worrisome. A friend of mine told me that he was struggling to get food at a public school which was arranged by the Delhi government. But the arrangement was far less in proportion to the actual requirement.

In my area, I have noticed the number of women begging at grocery shops has increased several times. Poverty, destitution, crisis, and suffering are all over the place.

But the biggest sufferers in the lockdown are the migrant workers, labourers and the poor. So far, the government has not made plans for them. If they have had food is not the concerns of the elite sitting at the top. The crisis is being managed by the brute force.

The police and the self-appointed ‘guardians’ of the society–if we don’t want to call them militias backed up by the establishment—have been raining batons to maintain discipline.

With the stone-hearted policymakers sitting on public exchequer like the proverbial “poisonous snake”, the workers and labourers had no option but to go back home. They continue to face untold suffering. They continue to march hundreds of miles. In some cases, pregnant women had to walk for days and weeks. The situation is as heart-breaking as the Partition.

But the elites, the pliant media, and sycophant policymakers are busy with singing hymns in praise of the rulers of the country.

Look at the contradiction: when the workers’ crisis surfaces, the ruling elites go underground. When they should work for providing the needy with water, food, medicine, they resort to communalize the issue. Unfortunately, they blame a particular community for all ills. Nowhere in the world has the religion of deadly coronavirus been identified as done in India.

When the crisis grips the country, they resort to an easy solution of spreading anti-Muslim discourse. The propaganda of Tablighi Muslims ‘spreading’ coronavirus and ‘failing’ the government’s efforts to control the pandemic is one such example.

The anti-minority discourse is spread in such a way so that it eclipses all other issues in the public debate.

The planning of the government has also been an utter failure. For example, when the cases of coronavirus were a few hundreds, the train services were stopped. But when the cases have gone more than seventy thousands, the trains are going to run.

When the labourers cried for the train facilities, the administration turned deaf. Once the sixteen migrant labourers were crushed by a goods train in Aurangabad district (Maharashtra), their bodies have now been brought to Jabalpur by a special train.

See the irony. The affluent class can get air services. But the most vulnerable cannot board the train. Before boarding the train, they were asked to pay the huge amount.

The previous governments, too, were exploiters of the workers and they worked for the rich. But the current regime seems to have surpassed all of them in sucking the blood of the workers and the poor. In 1991 the then V.P. Singh government at the centre did not charge the Indians stranded in Kuwait but the current regime has not shown such a big heart.

While the cost of train tickets remains high, the court, under the pressure from the executive, is not entertaining the PIL. Several PILs have been filed, seeking reliefs to people. Sadly, the court has allowed the hospitals to charge the fees for testing from the majority of Indians. Only those who fall under  BPL are given exemption.

While the poor are suffering, the government has announced several special packages. Earlier a package of Rs 15 thousand crores was announced. A few days back, the Prime Minister  announced Rs. 20 lakh crores. Even the PM Care Fund has also received a huge amount of money in a donation. But the governments are not willing to spend money on people’s welfare.

Amid all this, the workers and the poor would like to ask the governments where they are spending the money. What could be more urgent than providing food, shelter, medical check-up, and a train ticket? This is the question from the below.

Until now these questions remain unanswered. So far, the Modi government as well as most of the state governments have miserably failed. The labourers who have built everything that we see around are today going back home robbed and betrayed. For days, they remained thirsty and hungry. Among them, those belonging to Adivasi and Dalit communities have been the worst hit.

But the experts continue to paint a rosy picture. An acquainted doctor told me at the beginning of the lockdown that it was a must to break the chain of the spread of the virus. Now I doubt what he said.

If the lockdown was needed to break the chain, how could policymakers be blind to the social reality of India? The experts never raised the issues if the government had done all essential arrangements before announcing lockdown.

Contrary to the ground reality, the ruling classes, the Hindu nationalist forces, and the pliant media have been praising the leadership of the prime minister. A leader of the ruling BJP went on to compare Prime Minister Modi with the USA President Franklin D Roosevelt, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi has to lead India into that world after the pandemic. Modi described the situation as “World War-like”. That has catalysed the building of a narrative around World War II. Comparisons are being drawn between Modi and Franklin D Roosevelt, who led America into WWII.”.

The reason why the view from the top has failed to evaluate the governments’ performance in fighting coronavirus is their social and economic location. They look at things from the top.

But the things from below are not as rosy as they claim. The reality does not change amid the cacophony of propaganda. Millions of Indians are struggling to eat food twice a day.

Going by what has happened so far, the poor do not have much hope from the recent package of the Prime Minister. A phrase in my village in Bihar better captures the feeling. “If bael (Aegle marmelos) has ripened, there is no reason for a crow to be filled with joy”.

(Abhay Kumar is a Ph.D. scholar from JNU. Minority and Social Justice are the broad themes he is interested in. You may write to him at [email protected])




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