April 05, 2020

One Week of the Lockdown

Brinda karat

THE country has experienced one week of the lockdown and a few things can be noted. The first is that citizens of India have been  responsible, by and large,  following government instructions. In spite of great hardship caused by the sudden announcement of lockdown, people have united to play their role in taking the required steps to prevent India from going into the third stage, which is that of community transmission. Across the country, in every state, people have rallied round. We must continue to behave responsibly and make sure that our actions do not endanger the health and lives of others.

For us another encouraging experience is that throughout India in whatever way possible, CPI(M) volunteers and those of trade unions and other mass organisations are doing everything  possible to stand by the people in their hour of need and distress. Our comrades are distributing rations, running food kitchens, helping people in distress. The red flag must always and is always a symbol in the service of the people.  Whatever we do to help people must be within the rules and regulations being formulated in each state, and taking necessary precautions and maintaining the required physical distance. It is good that some other NGOs and social movement volunteers are also doing relief work in some places including in Delhi.

But the negative experience of this last week has also shown clearly that unlike our citizens, the central government has not fulfilled its responsibilities.  Other countries too have declared a lockdown. But respecting the rights of citizens to prepare for the difficulties ahead, most of the countries gave notice of between one to three days before imposing a lockdown. In India, a country of 130 crore people,  the government gave just four hours notice. Why? This is not a decision like demonetisation which needed to be kept secret. On the contrary, a national lockdown requires total public cooperation. The only explanation is that this government is so committed to an authoritarian model of governance that it cannot conceive that taking people into confidence is in the national interest.

The other aspect is that the central government failed to assure people that they will be helped through the crisis created by the lockdown. Even governments of leading capitalist countries announced a package for their people before they announced the lockdown to prevent panic. Most of these packages, it is true, were designed for a so-called economic stimulus, a euphemism to help business but nevertheless they included direct cash transfers for their populations. The UK and Germany announced that government would pay between 70 to 80 per cent of wages of workers in the private sector to prevent retrenchments and layoffs. But the government of India did not announce a single step to help people before the lockdown.

Is the Modi government so clueless about the socio economic reality of crores of Indians that it thought it could just declare a lockdown, implement it in four hours and people would be in a position to stay within the lakshman rekha drawn by the prime minister outside every home?  What is home? For lakhs of migrant workers in Delhi, it is sharing small rooms with fellow migrants as tenants in slums across the capital or at construction work sites or in the premises of the small dhabas            (eateries) where they work or even within shuttered shops. Once all these places of work were shut, these thousands of workers had no alternative, driven by the real fear of hunger, to step across the PM’s lakshman rekha to start the trek home.

The Economic Survey of Delhi puts the numbers of migrant workers at around 1.2 million, but no one knows for sure, since there are no proper household surveys done in the recent past. It could be much higher. Even the census does not have proper assessments of the numbers of migrant workers. If one takes the entire National Capital Region the numbers would go up by another million. In Mumbai, there are an even greater number of migrant workers. All across India, they got just one message, they needed to get home. And so they started trekking home. Within two days, national highways saw thousands of workers, men women and small children trying to get to safety in their home villages in the absence of any assurances by the central government and in the national broadcasts of the prime minister. Not a single word that his government would protect their wellbeing. In all BJP ruled states, the cruelty towards migrant workers was brought to every home through the horrifying images on national TV.

Spraying chemicals on migrant workers to sanitize them as in Uttar Pradesh; weeping workers locked up in a shed as in Bihar; opening temporary jails for them as in Haryana; herding them into ill equipped quarantine centers across national highways; a home ministry circular invoking the penal provisions of the Disaster Management Act to imprison such defaulters -- India  shamed itself in its utterly inhuman treatment of migrant workers, jobless, hungry, without shelter trying to get home to deal with the wreckage of their lives caused by an abrupt lockdown. As one of the workers, exhausted after a long trek from Haryana said, “Why don’t they shoot us, that’s all that’s left.”

These policies and approaches affect not just the lakhs of workers who are being treated as though they are criminals, but equally the dangers of the coronavirus spreading because of lack of precautionary measures. Given the inhuman treatment they have been subjected to, it is more than likely that the workers would be too scared to make a report if they are suffering from a fever or any other symptoms. The dismally low figures of testing and the government approach of low testing means that it may not even be known until it is too late.

Instead of taking the responsibility, the central government is making a scapegoat of some officers of the Delhi government and wrongly punishing them, including the additional secretary in the transport department, for the large number of workers who had gathered at the terminal. The officer reportedly had organised buses for sending them across the border to UP where they were headed. What else should she have done? The UP government too had organised some buses to take them onwards. Will the UP chief minister be sacked?

The central government notification to seal all borders after this tragedy unfolded, also states that no tenants will have to pay rent and that all salaries will be paid by the employers for a month. If the government was serious about this, surely it should have been announced before the exodus started.  Who will ensure its implementation? Under the so-called labour reforms pushed through by the government, the machinery for implementing payment of wages has been more or less destroyed. When landlords do not even sign papers allowing their tenants to give the address for making ration cards, which workers can believe that they will not have to pay rent to the landlord for a month? Clearly it is the government, if it wants to instill confidence in the workers that they will be looked after, which will have to cover the amount as is being done in several other countries. The earlier so-called package for the poor announced by the finance minister did not inspire confidence among those for whom it was supposedly intended for. The Rs 1.7 lakh crore announced is more notional than real.

At around Rs 35,000 crores, the direct cash transfer is the lowest in the world. The large number of unorganised sector workers, including migrant workers have been excluded. Their long march home was a no-confidence vote in this package offered by the government. Clearly the government needs to add many more dimensions including a less selective cash transfer of a minimum of Rs 5000 each through Jan Dhan and MNREGA accounts to cover the three weeks of the lockdown as a first installment.

The other aspect of sealing all borders is how it will affect the movement of essential goods inter-state. Although the central government has expanded its list of essential goods, in fact the sealing of borders has led to a large pileup of trucks on the national highways. Every state is dependent on the other for one or other essential supplies. Sealing of borders should not lead to a crisis in this transportation. Already prices of essential commodities are hitting the roof. Central government should ensure these blocks of supplies are removed.

In this context, the central government needs to do much more to strengthen the good initiatives taken by state governments, some much better than the central government has taken. This requires grants to the states. The Disaster Management Act which is being used for punitive measures of imprisoning workers also has a clause for fund transfers to state governments.  The central government must strengthen the capacity of the states by helping them with fund transfers as mandated by the Act.

The LDF government of Kerala under the leadership of  Pinarayi Vijayan has proved to be an inspiring example of people centered initiatives to deal with the coronavirus crisis. Apart from the package it announced long before the lockdown, it formulated a policy for migrant workers for the provision of shelter and food. Its efforts have been recognised and lauded even by the Supreme Court of India. The Kerala government has repeatedly asked the central government to permit it to increase the limits of the market borrowing waiving the conditions of the FRBM Act. But it has not received central sanction. Now the central government has set up a trust in the name of the prime minister. Why such a trust should be required when there is already the PMs relief fund available is highly questionable.  Moreover it will centralise all such “donations” with no provisions to share the funds with the states. Also, the ministry of corporate affairs has notified that CSR funds can be used in activities to fight the coronavirus.  The notification should include a clause that companies can also contribute to efforts being made by state governments in this area. The centre needs to develop a mechanism of more consultation with the states which will also help states to learn from each other’s experience.

This week has also shown that the government is far behind in the requirements in the health sector for meeting the challenge. Medical personnel do not have the required PPE, the personal protective equipment so essential to protect doctors, nurses and caregivers who are in the frontline to help those affected by the virus. In the rural areas, the government has totally neglected the training of the lakhs of ASHA workers leave alone increasing their allowances. These are the health workers who are expected to monitor all cases in the villages under their jurisdiction. India is still following a policy of low rates of testing because of lack of proper testing kits.  Almost all public health experts consider this harmful as it can lead to a dangerous situation of undetected cases spreading the infection. In this period of lockdown, the government must fill the gaps in a mission mode. For this it requires to allocate sufficient funds. The Rs 15,000 crores announced is totally inadequate.

At a time of a health emergency it is all the more necessary to use the Indian constitution as a reference in all the actions taken. Federalism and the constitutional provisions for states to have a fair share in national revenue is one such issue. The other is democracy and equal status of all citizens. India’s unity so crucial in the battle to save India’s people from this coronavirus will be strengthened if the government of India would keep the democratic and federal character of the constitutional framework  in mind when taking decisions which affect the whole country.