Savita Kumari of Rasulpur village of Pindra Block of Varanasi District of Uttar Pradesh was blessed to be born in a lower middle class Other Backward Caste family. She is studying in 9th standard in the village high school. Since the family is engaged in agriculture and milk sale, she has enough to eat and carry on her studies. During the last 6 months, that is, from the time COVID-19 and the lockdown unleashed hardships of all kinds, she was able to do some studies since there is a smart phone at home. Also her brother is doing his college studies and he is able to teach her too. Thus, her studies are not that badly affected. But even then, she feels that her studies are badly affected and it would need another six months to pick up the threads.
Manoj Kumar of the same village and school is not that fortunate. He is studying in seventh standard. He also comes from the Other Backward Caste but since his family does not own land they are economically affected. There is a mobile phone at home. But that is taken by his father when he goes to work out side the village to earn a living. So he has no chance of attending any online classes. But what is more depressing is that since the school was closed due to COVID-19 on March 24th, 2020, he has been forced into do lots of work at home. He was bemoaning of the fact that in the pre-COVID period, he would do limited work at home since he had to come to school. But now his working hours have increased and study hours have decreased. Since he comes from a poor family, his labour is needed to take care of some of the economic needs of the family.
Ms. Reena Singh, one of the teachers of the school was fortunate since her family comes from the lower middle class background. They have cultivable land and produce good crop to take care of most of their needs. Moreover, she gets paid well as teacher of the high school and during the pandemic too she was paid her salary and that was a double advantage for her. There are two mobile phones at home. She leaves the smart phone so that her son can attend all the classes while she brings the other one to school for her communication. Thus, her family is not affected at all. Even without doing much of teaching she gets paid.
All the children present in the meeting with social workers reported that since the school was closed for more than six months, their education has suffered a lot. In a village school already the teaching learning is below average due to which they are not able to do well in studies and in life. In the pandemic period, their studies have suffered a lot and is irrepairable. Those from economically poor families suffered multiple disadvantage. Their working hours increased since they did not go to school, they were asked or forced to do lots of work at home. When in the school, they would run around and play games. But this is also not possible now. Above all, they are not getting the midday meal which often was the only substantial meal for many of them.
If this is the case of deprivation of the children from poor family background in a village which is just 20 kilo meters from the Varanasi town what would be the case of much more rural, tribal and dalit children. Varanasi is also the constituency of the Prime Minister of India where development is supposed to take place. Instead of the situation improving for the poor and the vulnerable in the pandemic period, it has worsened and they have no way of coping up with unemployment, under employment, no wages, resulting in starvation and ultimately death. Thus, it is not by the deadly virus these people are facing death but by lack of employment and wages and above all unequal distribution of resources.
Escalating Poverty and the Extermination of the Poor
In the second week of April 2020, UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) claimed that about 400 million workers from India’s informal sector are likely to be pushed deeper into poverty due to Covid-19. There is no dispute that poverty in the country will worsen, but the question is, by how much? The Government of India has categorically stated that it does not have the necessary data about poverty or about the migrants. What this statement implies is that in the absence of ‘reliable data’ nothing can be done or nothing has been done.
Shweta Saini writing in Financial Express on 30th April, 2020 had argued that COVID-19 may double poverty in India. She went on to argue that even a 25% fall in their incomes due to the lockdown will make 354 million more people poor. Based on the data provided by the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) and Planning Commission of India, if one estimates the monthly per capita consumption expenditure (MPCE) of households in the country, the number in the last six months would have gone up.
Shweta Saini illustrates her argument by taking the example of Uttar Pradesh. In 2011-12, poverty threshold levels for the state (per person per month) were Rs 768 and Rs 941 for rural and urban areas, respectively. Based on this, the state’s poverty ratio was estimated to be 29.4%. If we introduce an income shock of 25%, then, measuring against the same poverty threshold levels, UP’s poverty ratio comes to be 57.7%. Upon applying this new ratio to UP’s 2019-20 population estimate, we find that about 71 million more poor people would be impoverished in the state.
Uttar Pradesh had a population of 199.8 million as per 2011 census. If we take the national average of those below poverty line, that is, 21.9% then there were around 43.7 million poor in Uttar Pradesh. If we add 71 million who are estimated to be pushed below poverty line from the time the pandemic and the lockdown were imposed, then there are an estimated 114.7 million are poor and are on the verge of starvation. If this is the case of Uttar Pradesh, the number of the poor driven to poverty mounts to hundreds of million in this country.
It is becoming clear like day light that poverty is deadlier than the coronavirus. The plight of India’s migrant workers has drawn global attention, with thousands forced to walk miles to reach home since the lockdown began, many aid workers said the millions of homeless in India face a bigger risk. Most of the estimated four million plus homeless people in India have had no way of making a living since the lockdown began on March, 24th 2020. With streets deserted, they now even have no place for begging. This scene can be seen near the Ravidas Gate in Varanasi town. This is the case in all the other cities of India.
Right from the beginning of the onslaught of COVID-19, health experts have been warning that the homeless are at greater risk from the virus as many already suffer from illnesses such as tuberculosis, and their morbidity rates are higher than for the general population. It is this segment of the population which has lost the livelihood they had and now do not have any income. Lack of regular income denies them the possibility of having food which would enable them to fight sickness. Procuring medicine is a far cry, even having the purchasing power to buy food has become impossible for millions of Indians.
The government announcements to the public from March 24th onwards has been, “Follow Social Distance, Wear Mask, and Stay at Home”. The Prime Minister of the country, kept on demanding from the people to follow the restrictions imposed on them ‘for the sake of the country’. But the same Prime Minister had no answer for the question, how can a family 5 members living in one single room rented house can maintain social distance. Similarly, he had no response when asked how can a daily wage earner remain at home without going to earn a living. Only a handful of the elite can ‘work from home’ enjoying all the benefits.
It is reported that Dr. Zarir Udwadia, an infectious diseases specialist in Mumbai, who has been treating coronavirus patients stated, “How does one quarantine someone who has no home, or someone who lives cheek to jowl with 10 others in a small room? Poverty and overcrowding like ours are likely catalysts for the COVID-19 explosion we anticipate with trepidation”. While individuals like this have been showing greater sensitivity to the poor and the vulnerable and addressing their needs, the ruling elite of this country has been involved in petty politics.
The Indian mind set, its attitude and behaviour in terms of treating labour and labourers stand exposed at this time. It was observed that during the lockdown, apartments and residential townships did not allow domestic workers into their premises saying, “These are staying in slums and shanty towns and they would be transmitting the virus”. Many families chose not to pay their domestic workers their monthly salaries. Already, they were paying pittance and now they refused to pay.
Now, with no signs of the pandemic abating, they have flung their gates open, but few are trickling in. WhatsApp groups of gated communities are flooded with messages seeking domestic workers. This was reported from Bangalore, “Our domestic help was from West Bengal and has returned home. There is no guarantee she will return. The search for a new help has been unsuccessful till now”. In a country where labour in the name of menial labour has been considered lower and not paying even minimum wages is not considered to be illegal, the poor labourers are the ones who suffer the most.
Endemic Poverty and Health Hazards
Mike Ryan, the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Head of Emergencies as early as March 23rd, 2020 had predicted, “The future of this pandemic will be determined by what happens to densely-populated countries. It’s important that India takes aggressive action at the public health level, and at the level of society to control and suppress this disease”. This prediction should have been taken by the government as a warning. But that was not the case. While India seems to have done well in controlling the number of confirmed cases compared to other countries in the early phase of the pandemic, scientists warned that the country is critically missing a key component in this assessment, that is, the number of truly affected cases.
Let us make a comparison of the size of the population, people affected by COVID-19 and the number of tests undertaken in few countries. According to Worldometer, an international organisation, among all the countries, the United States of America has the highest number of persons affected by this virus, that is, over 7.8 million. Around 2 lakh people have died of this virus so far there. In a total population of 33.1 million population, over 11.6 million population has been tested. This amounts to 35.15% of the population have been tested for being positive or negative to the virus.
People wearing protective gear attend a protest demanding better treatment for people infected with COVID-19
India is closely following at the heals of the USA in highest number of cases. There are over 6.9 million Corona Virus positive cases in India. Over 1.07 lakh Indians have died due to this virus. But these numbers only inform us of the cases reported as being affected or dead. There are unconfirmed reports that there are many more positive cases and deaths than this figure that is reported. Similarly, out of the 1,383 million population of the country at present, only 85.7 million citizens have been tested. That is, only 6.2% of the total population tested. There are state governments who are not doing testing and reporting numbers but claiming to have controlled the spread of virus. Lie and falsehood has become our way of life.
In contrast to this, let us examine the state of affairs in Spain. Spain has a population of only 46.7 million population, which is about 29 times less than India. Out of these, 13.6 million population has been tested to check if they are infected by the virus. That is, over 29.28% of the population has been tested. Spain was one of the countries that was affected by COVID-19 in the month of April, 2020. But the government there proactively responded to the situation and brought the virus under control. Due to this the citizens cooperated with their government and this resulted in less positive cases of the virus and also much less deaths. Further, Spain announced as early as April relief and growth measures in favour of the citizens, especially those who need these badly.
Indian rulers keep claiming that under their regime, India is poised to become Vishwaguru, that is, world leader and teacher. But its performance has been abysmally lower than any of the countries in the world. It is an utter shame that a country that boasts of ‘Make in India’ and wants to be the first one to reach other planets cannot even undertake testing of its population to save them from COVID-19.
As early as in April 2020, a COVID-19 study group composed of an interdisciplinary team of researchers said in a report that it is common knowledge that the number of truly affected cases depends on the extent of testing, the accuracy of the test results, and the frequency and scale of testing of people who may have been exposed, but do not show symptoms. Lacking testing kits and protective gear for medical workers, India’s testing rate is abysmally low.
“So far, the number of people tested in India has been relatively small. In the absence of widespread testing, it is impossible to quantify the magnitude of ‘community transmission’, in other words, estimate how many are infected outside hospitals and health care facilities,” the scientists wrote in the report. This situation has though improved a bit but the testing is not up to the level it should be done. There are also unconfirmed reports that in Bihar for example due to the impending elections, testing is not done and even if it is done the persons who undergo the test are told that they are negative. This leaves lots of doubts in the minds of the people about the validity of the tests and the results.
With the festival season approaching and winter setting in what would be the state of affairs with regard to the spread or control of the virus is a worrying factor for all the citizens. Luckily, the government announced that there would not be too much of public display during the festivals. But who will enforce it and how will it be enforced. Now all of a sudden, the government is restricting the use of roads for the installation of statues or organising music shows. But these have become part of the lives and celebrations of people over the years. Now all of a sudden to stop these practices would need collective sense from the citizens and strong political will from the rulers.
Medical experts have been warning that the positive cases of Corona virus would peak in October, 2020 in India. This warning should be taken seriously by all the citizens of the country so as to thwart any escalation of the virus. But even if this is done, there is the other worrying factor. That is the overstretched health care system of the country. With the number of confirmed cases mounting crossing over 7 million , concerns are growing with the capacity of India’s fragile health care system in handling the potential threat.
According to the government, India has about one doctor per 1,500 citizens. The WHO recommends one doctor per 1,000. In rural areas, where two-thirds of Indians live, the ratio is one doctor to more than 10,000 people. It is in the rural areas that the country’s most poverty stricken, marginalised, vulnerable and high risk persons and families live. They do not have the facilities and economic power to adhere to the restrictions imposed by the government like, “Stay at Home, Maintain Social Distance, Wear Mask, Wash your Hands”, etc. From the government announcements it is becoming clear that the people are now asked to fend for themselves. As stated in Hindi well, “Bhagwan Bharose”, that is, “Only God can Save”.
Downtrodden Driven to Despair
The omission and commission of the government of India has flung the country into irreparable loss. It would take a long time for the citizens and the country to return to pre-COVID-19 state which itself was deplorable. While this is the case of the citizens in general, the despair of the poor and the downtrodden is even more frustrating. Among these, women headed households, widows, single women households, orphans, dependent children, people with disabilities, adolescent girls, domestic workers, daily wage earners, migrant labourers, etc. are facing huge crisis to survive. Starvation and death are starring at them. In the absence of any substantial relief measures for food, alternative employment, wage availability and cash for work or cash for survival from the government, many are at the verge of committing suicide.
Jose Maria Vera, The Executive Director of Oxfam International writing on the lessons from the pandemic argued that there is the need to tackle inequality. He goes on to state that to avert more death, hunger and destitution, governments around the world should commit to reducing inequality. Like many others who are concerned about the debilitating inequality and the need to address this serious issue he argues, “It is time to ask: just how ready were each of our governments for this crisis? And what could they be doing to avert more death, hunger and destitution? How can they rise out of this pandemic stronger?” After 6 months, the government should be better placed to make positive and proactive response.
Development Finance International and Oxfam recently published “Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index”, which ranks 158 countries on labour rights, taxation, and spending on health, education and social protection, provide the data one needs to answer these crucial questions scientifically. The headlines of the report presents this worrying picture:
The report goes on to argue that it is increasingly hard to find a leader who does not say they care about inequality. Yet, the data show that such concern is not translating into policies and programs. With notable exceptions, inaction on inequality has left most countries catastrophically unprepared to weather the pandemic. That is, millions of people have died, and hundreds of millions are falling into poverty, unnecessarily.
This report presents the instance of India. “Consider India, which currently has the fastest growing coronavirus caseload of any country in the world. India’s leaders would do well to read the index carefully. The country is among the world’s worst performing countries in tackling inequality. Only half of India’s people have access to the most basic health services, with its health spending proportionally the world’s fourth lowest. Rather than strengthen policies during the pandemic, several states in India have used COVID-19 as a pretext to increase daily working hours and suspend minimum pay legislation”.
What is even worst is that at this crucial and critical time, the government of India instead of formulating and implementing pro-citizens and pro-poor policies and programs have taken to regressive policies and programs. For instance, in a hurried manner it has come out with ‘National Education Policy 2020’. There was not much discussion and deliberations but it simply enforced its autocratic stand and have made all the state governments to implement this policy. For more than 6 months, there has not been any teaching and learning, especially for the rural, dalit, tribal, Muslim and other deprived communities. The so-called private schools have done some online teaching, which both the students and teachers consider extremely inadequate.
The government of India has framed 3 farm bills claiming that it wants to change the manner in which the agricultural produce is marketed, sold and stored across the country. This was initially issued in the form of ordinances in June. They were then passed by voice-vote in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha during the delayed monsoon session. Protests have erupted in Punjab, Haryana and other parts of India. Even if these are progressive bills, what is the need of rushing through with the promulgation of these into acts. Without agriculture being on the right track all of us will starve to death. Hence, the government should have taken into consideration many aspects before embarking on this move.
The Economic Times reported on 25th September, 2020, “Parliament passes Labour Bills, making it easier for employers to hire and fire”. The three bills 1) Code on Occupational Safety, 2) Health and Working Conditions, Industrial Relations Code, 3) Social Security Code, were passed. The Minister of Labour, Government of India claimed that ‘the purpose of labour reforms is to provide a transparent system to suit the changed business environment’. However, as reported, all trade unions, including the RSS affiliated Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), have objected to sweeping powers given under the Codes to bureaucrats to make changes. The BMS also said it is an overt attempt to monopolise single union and eliminate all other unions.
What is even more deplorable is that the government of India did not even spare the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) from its autocratic, undemocratic attitude and behaviour. It brought out sweeping amendments in the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act 2020 (FCRA), denying the poor the benefit of the welfare, relief and rehabilitation works so well undertaken by the NGOs at normal and during disasters.
The Indian Express on its 9th June edition reported, “NGOs deserve all appreciation for helping migrants during COVID-19 pandemic: Supreme Court”. The Supreme Court went on to declare, “Although it is the responsibility and duty of the States and Union Territories to take care of all the needs of migrant labourers but in this difficult time non-governmental organisations and individuals have also contributed and played an important role in extending helping hand to the migrants”. But now the NGOs and voluntary sector cutting across religion, region and area of focus are not sure as to how to proceed and what to do. Instead of working out with the people alternative livelihood they are busy getting legal and financial opinions from experts to understand these amendments and respond.
India’s Rich Prosper while the Poor Perish
Bansari Kamdar, writing in The Diplomat on 10th September, 2020 stated that on August 8, 2020, Mukesh Ambani became the fourth richest man in the world. The same day, a labourer in Madhya Pradesh who had lost his job after the coronavirus-induced lockdown killed himself and his three daughters by tying the girls to his waist and jumping into a well. This is a tale of two Indias and the broadening economic inequality between them. In the last two decades, inequality in India has grown faster than in any other country except Russia.
Bansari further stated that Oxfam’s 2019 “Time to Care” report found that the richest 1% of Indians held more than four times the wealth held by the bottom 70% of the country, that is, four times the wealth of 953 million people. In the last five months during the coronavirus pandemic, Mukesh Ambani, Asia’s richest man and the chairman of the Reliance group, amassed over $48 billion (more than 288 crore rupees) in net worth, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. His net worth has doubled to over $80 billion (more than 480 crore rupees) in just the past year. Naturally a fundamental question arises how come Reliance company earn crores of rupees while the vast segment of Indian population is forced to misery and poverty.
The Business Standard in its 19th August, 2020 edition quoting, the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) stated that the number of salaried people losing their jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic has surged to 18.9 million since April, with around 5 million jobs lost last month. The report further stated that while salaried jobs are not lost easily, once lost, they are also far more difficult to retrieve. Therefore, their ballooning numbers are a source of worry. This is the case of gainfully employed and monthly salaried workers.
Migrant workers crowd up outside a bus station as they wait to board buses to return to their villages on March 28, 2020.
The state of affairs of the labourers of informal sector who do not have regular salaried jobs and often have to search for work is pathetic. The Economic Times quoting the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that nearly 400 million, that is, 40 crore workers in India’s informal economy are at risk of falling deeper into poverty. This is more than half of the working population of the country. This also means that 40 crores of families are subject to lack of income resulting in hunger, starvation and death.
On August 31st the Indian government reported that the economy has contracted by 23.9% in the first quarter, marking the beginning of a deep recession. Defying its long-term accelerating trend, the economy was already slowing in India, a situation exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Real GDP growth in India had fallen from 7.0% in 2017-18 to 6.1% in 2018-19 and 4.2% in 2019-20. But what the government does not state is that the cumulative wealth of just 63 rich people in India was greater than the entire Union government budget for 2018-2019.
Unplanned, abrupt and brutal lockdown restrictions to curtail the spread of the coronavirus in March and April led to countless job losses. Not just unplanned and abrupt but cruel decision to force the distress migrant labourers to return back to their villages without any transport facilities and food provisions to an unprecedented internal migration crisis. But this is only one side of the story. Only the poor and the marginalised were victimised by this unplanned and abrupt lockdown. But the business houses which were millionaires and billionaires already made huge amount of profit. The only ‘charity’ work they undertook was to deposit some money in the ‘Prime Minister Cares Fund”.
Lessons from Other Countries
First, the government of India has to refrain from making false statements about testing and number of the COVID-19 affected population and realistically address the impact of this virus. In the month of February and March, it was understandable that not having proper information about the virus the government was unprepared and unplanned. In a knee jerk reaction, the government imposed lockdown. Now there are sufficient information and data based on which proper response can be planed and implanted.
Secondly, the government needs to address the issue of inequality. We saw in the foregoing pages how the poor are becoming extremely vulnerable and the rich multiplying their wealth. The government needs to garner enough political will to address the issue of inequality by formulating policies and programs that address those below the poverty line and those just above the poverty line. Knowing well that the lower middle class to the upper class will manage their lives with their resources, the government needs to tackle the starvation situation of the poor. Indian government should consider the example of South Korea, which responded to the pandemic by instituting universal emergency relief payments for 22 million households. It needs to get the support of all political parties to engage in this most important response.
Thirdly, the government has to put its acts together to provide health care for the poorest of the poor for general ailments and COVID-19 related illness. But just lip service will not do any good. Indian government can learn from Thailand, where the official COVID-19 death toll remains very low. The country provides universal healthcare. It also does so by spending only $277 per capita on health. The US, in comparison, spends $11,000 per capita on its famously privatised system but millions of its citizens are affected. This is due to total governance irresponsibility. Indian government should accept this painful fact that the Indian health care system was extremely inadequate and insufficient and now plan to provide health care.
Fourthly, the government of India need to address the issue of education of the marginalised and rural population. Though there is still time for the reopening of schools, it is important that the government should engage in preparedness with all the stakeholders of education. This is not the luxury of the so-called private schools only but especially of the government schools in which over 90% of the rural and poor children study. The Indian government should have the humility to learn from Sierra Leone, a poor nation which has taken bold reform steps to make secondary education free and clamp down on tax evasion by mining companies. For this the government has to have the political will which also means that it has to go against the interests of Ambanis and Adanis.
Fifthly, instead of destroying the country by anti-citizen and anti-poor policies and programs it is high time the government should work out progressive and proactive policies and programs for the high risk persons and families. New Zealand, another success story in handling the pandemic, has centred its entire budget on “wellbeing” to tackle issues like child poverty, challenging the old and stubborn obsession with the gross domestic product (GDP). Vietnam another poor country is considering reducing inequality core to its upcoming 10-year plan.
Further, in a country where women have been historically subjected to the rank of second class citizens and are exploited, Indian government has failed to respond to this. Now the pandemic has further heightened gender inequality. Women headed households, single women households, widows and households where the husband is a drunkard etc., force women to suffer the most. The government of India needs to urgently formulate gender-sensitive policies and programs so as to address the issues of exclusion and exploitation of women.
Finally, instead of pretending to be Vishwaguru and making the country a laughing stock at the international level, the government of India has to put its act together and engage in governance. As time is running out, it is urgent that the government of India plan and implement pro-citizen and pro-poor policies and programs.
Dr Prakash Louis is a researcher, writer, activist and coordinator of Catholic Church Covid Response Team, Varanasi.