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Lockdown Blues

Lockdown Blues

Anyone who has seen the picture of a child tugging at the cloth that covered his mother’s head would have been shocked, for the child did not know that she was dead. She and her family had reached Muzaffarpur from Gujarat by train and they were on their way to Katihar in North Bihar.

The railways have protested against reports saying that she died of starvation. They argue that she was not well when the mother who was in her early-twenties boarded the train. They did not say whether she and her family had access to food and water during the journey. 

Her story is not an isolated one. In fact, she represents the typical “migrant worker” whom some call the “guest worker”. What happened to her can be traced to one political speech Prime Minister Narendra Modi made in March declaring nationwide lockdown from the midnight that day.

Modi ordered everyone to stay wherever he or she was at that time. In an instant, life came to a standstill with buses, trains, metros and planes remaining grounded. A lady from Delhi had gone to Thiruvanthapuram for a check-up at the Regional Cancer Centre there. She was stuck there, while her family remained in Delhi. 

What’s more, she needed some costly medicines which were at her home in Delhi. Finally, the medicine was sent to Kerala after the first stage of lockdown was over through a Kerala-bound vehicle. She is a middle-class person whose suffering was different from that of the Bihari worker who died in the train.

The government has no count of how many migrant workers are there, while it wants to identify every single “infiltrator” or “termite” living anywhere in the country so that he can eventually be sent to a detention centre like the ones coming up fast in Assam.

When Modi announced the lockdown, no thought was given to the needs of the migrant workers. They were asked to stay on wherever they were. Many of them were at their workplace, i.e., construction sites or factories or similar establishments. Suddenly, they found that they did not have work as all work was stopped.

Many of them had their families hundreds of miles away. Even where they stayed together, they did not have access to food, electricity and potable water. How were they supposed to maintain social-distancing when they lived in shanties and had to collect water from public hydrants far away from their living area?

And to cap it all, they were under pressure from their “landlords” to vacate their rented premises as they could not pay rent. True, in a state like Delhi, the government issued an advisory against landlords collecting rent during the lockdown period. 

If problems could be solved so easily, there would have been no problems in the country! They all yearned to go back to their villages where, they thought, at least they would have some self-supporting systems in place.

That is why millions of them with wives and children in tow set on foot to reach their villages hundreds of miles away. As a heavy user of the social media for both news and views, I have come across people pontificating on all issues calling those workers who were run over by a train as “stupid”, “idiotic” etc.

How did the accident happen? It happened because they were not allowed to walk on the road by the police, asked to enforce the lockdown. The area around was marshy and they feared snakes and other reptiles. So they walked on the rail track which, incidentally, is not at all comfortable for the pedestrian. And when they felt tired, they slept on the track as train services were also suspended.

How could they have imagined that suddenly a goods train would come unannounced and run over them? It was the most devastating incident that occurred during the lockdown. Except for tweeting their sympathies, those in power did nothing for them. 

Yes, some compensation was announced but how can they be expected to avail of such benefits when they do not have any record to prove that those killed were their kith and kin? Bureaucracy does not distinguish between X and Y, especially when they belong to the poorest of the poor.

It can verily be said that more people died of lockdown than of Covid-19 in India, though statistics are simply not available. One of the most horrendous stories of the lockdown was about a group of 12 persons who began walking from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh. On the way, one of them had labour pain and delivered a healthy baby. After a few hours of rest, they began their trek again.

The tragedy was comparable to the mass migration that happened between India and East and West Pakistan just before and soon after Independence in 1947. At that time, they had at least trains, buses and bullock carts to carry themselves and their luggage across the border. 

While the Partition-induced migration was witnessed only across the India-Pakistan border, the migration this time was all across the country. What did Modi do to mitigate the sufferings of the people, caused in the main by the unplanned lockdown he imposed? 

True, he asked the people to come on balconies — how many of the 1.3 billion people have balconies? — and cling their vessels to express solidarity with the health workers struggling to save the lives of people affected by Coronavirus. On another day, he also asked people to switch off all electric lights and light diyas and candles for nine minutes, based on some superstitious belief.

Authorities of electric supply in the country had to make special arrangements to ensure that the sudden drop in electric use did not affect the transformers and other systems in use. Modi did not know that electricity could not be conserved once it is produced. 

Not to lag behind, the defence forces came up with the tamasha of a sound-and-light show on Navy ships and showering of flower petals on hospitals by the Indian Air Force aircraft. How did the wasting of resources benefit the migrant workers or the millions who have lost their jobs? 

To be fair to Modi, he made an appeal to the people to pay wages to their employees, even if they could not work during the lockdown. Of course, he also announced a payment of Rs 500 per person. In all, the government transferred Rs 36,659 crore to 16 crore people during  the lockdown. This is peanuts for an economy worth Rs 200 lakh crore! 

How many of them would have been able to collect the money to buy provisions? Did the government consider the possibility of the banks appropriating the whole amount, either to maintain minimum balance in the accounts or as fines for not maintaining such a balance. Even if all of them received the money, how would it have impacted their lives?

How good is Rs 500 for a family of, say, six people? Can they manage to have food for even two days with this kind of money? In Delhi, the government announced that cooked meals would be served to the needy. Food is something which a person needs at least twice a day and every day of the year. How many meals were served in Delhi? Why single out Delhi? 

I attended a meeting the Haryana government organised to discuss the role of NGOs to contain Covid-19. A senior government official gave statistics of the cooked meals supplied to the needy in the state. What’s was interesting was that a major share of the meals supplied came from the NGOs.

Again, it can be said with confidence that the NGOs, whether they are large or small like gurdwaras and housing societies supplied more food than state governments, except, perhaps, the Kerala Government which foolishly supplied dry ration to everyone, including the super-rich who move about in BMWs and Mercs.

Every time Modi made an announcement — be it to make sound or to shift to traditional lights — his bhakts praised him to the skies for the thoughtful decisions he took. Their enthusiasm reached orgasmic levels when he announced a package worth Rs 20 lakh crore to tide over the economic crisis. He made it a point to mention that the amount was about 10 per cent of the GDP.

He left the job of announcing the details to his Finance Minister. For five days she held the centerstage like magician Muthukad would have if he was given an opportunity. She unveiled slice after slice of measures, carefully designed to add up to Modi’s magic, almost mythical, 20 lakh crore.

Although analysts expect the extra spending to push the budget deficits of the Centre and the states to about 12 per cent of the GDP, and raise the country’s overall debt-to-GDP ratio to a wobbly 80 per cent, many doubt that the measures will work. “What we needed was large tranches of money to go into circulation without ado,” said an editorial in Mint. 

"But instead of a demand-side boost, and in particular urgent cash support for the poorest, what Mr Modi delivered was a hotchpotch of supply-side inducements and prods such as credit guarantees, along with reforms whose impact will only be felt in the medium term, at the earliest. 

"Most of the stimulus was made up either of previously announced measures, or central bank moves to spur lending. Estimates of the actual new fiscal commitment by the Modi government range from a puny 0.7 per cent of the GDP to 1.3 per cent, a far cry from the touted 10 per cent”, said the Economist.

The feisty finance minister even found time to attack Rahul Gandhi for the audacity he had to talk to some migrants about their problems. She called it dramatics. How far removed the minister is from the realities of India was evident when she said, "we wish to give  middle income groups - referring to the lowest strata of the  middle class (incomes between Rs 6 and Rs 18 lakh only) a scheme for subsidised housing”. 

That raises the question, who are the lower middle class people? They are people like janitors, who keep housing societies clean and security guards who keep luxury cars parked on footpaths protected from vandalism. How much do they earn? If they get Rs 10,000 a month, they should consider themselves lucky. 

If they make Rs 6-18 lakh, they do not need any support from the government to manage themselves. This is her level of understanding of the human problem. Two of India’s Nobel laureates, the economists Amartya Sen and Abhijit Banerjee, had suggested that monthly emergency payments of up to Rs 7000 could help tide over many families. That is what Give India distributed among the few thousand poor people, identified and suggested by its partner NGOs for direct money transfer.

Even for the 60 per cent of Indians who survive on less than $3.20 a day, the World Bank’s poverty line for lower middle-income countries, Modi’s direct money transfers are a farce and they will not stimulate the demand needed to generate jobs.

When Modi announced the lockdown in March, the number of confirmed Corona cases was 500 with eight deaths. Today, two months after the lockdown, the number of confirmed Corona cases is 1.74 lakh with 4971 deaths. 

Covid-19 is a reality and no one can shy away from it. Lockdown has been found to be ineffective in controlling it, given the socio-economic condition of the people and the large size of the population. For the poor the choice is very clear. Either they can contract Covid or die of starvation. 

For the government, the lockdown provided yet another opportunity to hand over public sector to the private sector and allow multinational companies to own majority stake even in ordnance factories. Small wonder that the poor migrant worker became expendable, though it is they who sustain the economy. That is why they die in trains and under trains!


(Published on 1th June 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 23)