I won’t die of corona. Before that, I will surely die of hunger”. I heard this lament more than a dozen times from different people as I joined a group of young friends trying to feed a thousand homeless people in Old Delhi in our small, almost helpless gesture of solidarity with them. “Demonetisation was nothing compared to what we are going through”, said another. “We don’t know if and how we will survive this time”.
An hour later, I read with bemusement and despair the relief package Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced. Her objective, she declared, was to shield the poor from the economic impact of the coronavirus shutdown. “No one will go hungry”, she promised.
Did she really believe that five extra kg of wheat or rice and 1 kg of pulses for a family, Rs 1,000 for the aged, disabled and widows, Rs 1,500 over three months for women with Jan Dhan accounts, free gas cylinder connections, and a Rs 2,000 cash transfer to farmers under an on-going scheme, would ensure this?
Neither she, nor Prime Minister Modi in his three addresses to the nation on measures to fight the lethal spread of COVID-19, has acknowledged even a fraction of the potentially catastrophic impact of these measures on hundreds of millions of India’s informal workers, farmworkers and destitute people.
Modi tersely mentioned the poor and suggested that civil society should mitigate their distress. Sitharaman, at least, dwelt on the poor, but seemed to believe that cobbling together a token set of one-time tiny food and cash infusions into poor households will be enough defence for them from the tsunami that they face.
There are, also, implementation barriers for each of these. How, for instance, will they draw money from their accounts during the lockdown? And the most food-vulnerable people, such as street children, homeless and disabled persons, and remote and nomadic tribes don’t have either accounts or cards.
More significantly, neither acknowledged the devastating economic impact of a national lockdown on an economy of mostly informal workers which was already grinding down. Economist Jayati Ghosh in a recent interview estimated that the damage of the first two days of lockdown was greater than the full impact of demonetisation, and that the economy, which was on a sharp downslide, stood in danger of slipping into an abyss. It does not require formal economic training to recognise the veracity of her grim assessment.
Who will harvest, and who will buy the harvest? Small and medium enterprises have shut down, and construction, even informal workplaces like eateries and tailoring units, have closed. A homeless man told me, “I have grown up on the streets. I have no family. I learned to make tandoori roti and earned Rs 500 a day. Today, I am holding out my hands for two rotis from you”. My eyes were downcast in shame.
In places where we were offering food, there were several thousand homeless people waiting in line. Many said they had sat six hours for someone to come with food. Most said they had not eaten more than a couple of meals in the last three days. And the portions they got in charity were so meagre that they barely filled their stomachs.
If a rumour arose that some kind person is distributing food in a corner, a near-stampede would break out. The disabled, the aged, women and children are left behind. The food is elementary, insufficient, and most of all, destructive of their dignity. They want work, not pity. If work is taken away from them by state action, their survival should not be a question of private charity but of the highest public duty. And there are at least three more weeks of this for them to endure, as hunger will mount menacingly.
Many said that since there was no food and work for them in the city, their best chances for survival and emotional well-being was to return to their villages. But within brief hours of the Prime Minister’s announcement of the lockdown, trains and buses were abruptly cancelled. The Indian government found it fit to charter planes with medical staff to fly in migrants from other countries. But it felt no responsibility at all to the millions of migrants stranded without work and food in every corner of the country. If they try to walk to the state borders, they are beaten by the police. Those who persevere or cross by stealth are being compelled to trudge or cycle, sometimes thousands of kilometres, to reach their villages, dodging hunger and the police along the way. Truck drivers are trapped on highways across the country, in a purgatory from which they have no escape or succour.
Except for the announcement of a small financial package to improve health services, there is nothing to assure us that the poor will have access to a health system that works for them when the virus hits them. Where will they test, will they have to pay, and where will there be hospital beds and ventilators for them? We need to learn from Spain and New Zealand and nationalise the private health services at least for the duration of the pandemic. Otherwise the poor seem doomed to die not just of hunger but also of the virus when it catches up with them.
There have been many calls for bipartisan support to the Prime Minister as he leads the country out of this unprecedented crisis. P Chidambaram has declared that the PM is his commander-in-chief in this war. Many chief ministers concur. But I am afraid that I am unable to support this shockingly anti-poor lockdown. India could learn well from countries like South Korea and Taiwan which combatted the virus without national lockdowns. We must consider a roll-back.
The state is bereft of public compassion, the capacity and the will to stand equally with us all, rich and poor. There is no better time to recall the talisman Mahatma Gandhi left for us. When in doubt and confusion, he counselled, think of the most vulnerable person you know, and ask if the measures will improve her life and freedom. I met some of these “last persons” today. The measures the state has opted for may possibly protect you and me, but for her, they will only destroy her possibilities of dignified and hopeful survival.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 27, 2020 under the title ‘Lockdown and the poor’. Mander is a human rights worker and writer.
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