Millions of migrant workers, and other vulnerable groups, have lost their livelihoods, income security, and sense of dignity in three short weeks. They knew that they were vulnerable to the virus, but for them, the cure of an extended lockdown is already worse than the disease.
While extolling the value of every individual, the Prime Minister asked for another 18 days of discipline and sacrifice. It has become a tactic to sugar coat stringent orders as a sacrifice for the country. But like other policymakers, he was only taking into account calculations of the spread of disease. There was no mention of the spread of hunger and basic insecurity that the lockdown has unleashed. No concrete measure emerged from his speech for the lakhs of men, women and children, particularly migrant workers, who have lost their livelihood, and who have been locked into cramped accommodation, across the country.
The Prime Minister instructed us to honour a seven-point formula. First, he said, take special care of the elderly. For over six years in office, the Prime Minister has refused to listen to the pleas of the elderly. The social security pension provided by the central government for a third of the country’s elderly is a cruel Rs 200 per month! This amount has remained frozen since 2007. The Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana has given social security pensioners a one-time additional payment of Rs 1,000 to be disbursed over two months. The elderly, are expected to face this challenge with an additional fund of Rs 5,00 per month, for two months, while a larger number of other “senior citizens” divided by a hairs breadth, will remain completely hungry and destitute unless supported by state funds.
Second, Prime Minister Modi asked for strict adherence to the “Lakshman Rekha” of the lockdown and observe the social distancing norms. For the urban poor, the “Lakshman Rekha” of “social distance” is a cruel joke. They have abysmal living conditions and are packed together with no physical space. In the face of lost jobs and no access to money for meeting basic sustenance, they are demanding passage home where they can at least try and survive with an element of dignity.
Third, towards boosting immunity, the PM urged the people to follow the protocol issued by the Ayush Ministry. The PM barely touched upon important updates on the government’s strategy regarding testing or health protocols to address the spread of the pandemic. Instead, he led us to the AYUSH Ministry protocol. For those who can, it is worth accessing the protocol prepared by 16 eminent vaidyas, which urges a dinacharya (daily regime) and ritucharya (seasonal regime) to enhance immunity. The 11-point protocol includes the regular use of various herbs and spices, that most of India’s vulnerable would rarely see, let alone be able to consume. There is a recommendation to drink warm water throughout the day, and do daily practice of yogasana, pranayama, and meditation for half an hour. The Ministry of Ayush quite rightly ends with an apt disclaimer that sums it up: The advisory does not claim to be treatment for COVID-19.
Fourth, the Prime Minister recommended everyone download and use the Arogya Setu mobile app to stay safe and secure from coronavirus. How many of the rural or urban poor have smart phones? How will they understand, how this app will keep them safe from COVID-19? Besides, there are many privacy and safety questions that have been raised about this app, which reportedly needs approximately 50 per cent of the Indian population to download it, for it to be effective.
Fifth, the Prime Minister wants people to be compassionate towards those who work with them. Do not sack them or cut their wages, he said. While the Ministry of Labour issued a directive to employers not to sack employees and pay full wages during the lockdown, the government as the largest employer through MGNREGA refused to give their workers wages for the period from March 24 till April 20, when MGNREGA was not exempt from the lockdown. While the beleaguered private sector seems to be following the directive only in pockets, it has a better record than the government has with MGNREGA workers.
Sixth, the Prime Minister asked to “help the poor and the needy as they are the ones who are the most affected by the stringent measures put in place to tackle the coronavirus situation”. This almost biblical edict would have been the most relevant and reassuring if the government had acted on it. Unfortunately, it has only paid lip service to it. The rapid spread of hunger, starvation, pauperisation, and destitution, need urgent and decisive counter measures from the government. There are notable examples of pro-active measures taken by certain state governments and district administrations. But the government of India has failed to show any real commitment to workers and vulnerable groups even while viable options are available to it. The government has godowns overflowing with excess grain, even before procurement is to begin. Yet, for inexplicable reasons, the government is unwilling to universalise the PDS at a time when it is most needed to fight hunger and food insecurity. MGNREGA options are removed when workers’ livelihoods are most threatened. A powerful sermon becomes weak with betrayal.
Seventh, the Prime Minister asked people to respect the efforts of corona warriors, including doctors. The poor would worship doctors and nurses, if they could have easy access to them. Never has the implication of the breakdown of our public health facilities been more obvious. Despite sterling efforts being put in by health functionaries at the frontline, major initiatives are needed to assure citizens that there will be equal access to health for all. Health professionals and citizens groups have been clamouring for urgent measures to increase public investment and build capacities of the healthcare establishment. Instead, the Prime Minister and his government seem to believe that the immediate need is to create public events to honour and clap for an obviously overstretched public health establishment.
Statesmanship requires dealing with a pandemic by taking people along and responding with concrete measures and empathy to everyone’s distress and needs. When basic food, healthcare, and livelihood security is denied, hope dies.
This crisis calls for imaginative and ambitious state-citizen partnerships. There is an opportunity that must be seized to ensure that certain basic rights will be guaranteed to all citizens — the right to food, the right to work at minimum wages, and equal access to healthcare. These entitlements can be provided to our citizens, to help flatten the poverty curve and enable them to respond to the pandemic with greater confidence and planned cooperation. Food grain and pulses can be assured through an expanded and universalised National Food Security Act. Basic livelihood security can be assured through an expanded and reoriented Employment Guarantee Act. Equal healthcare can be assured as a right though a much-needed pooling of all our health resources — private or public.
On Ambedkar Jayanti, the Prime Minister invoked “we, the people of India”, drawing upon the Preamble and the Constitution at a time our democratic fabric is severely stretched. We have to choose between an autocratic, paternalistic state, and a democratic one that uses the values of liberty, equality and fraternity to make people equal participants. We will only secure a true sense of unity, when we ensure the dignity of every individual. That is the concept of fraternity articulated in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution. We must use these founding principles in our moment of greatest challenge.
This article first appeared in the print edition under the title ‘Unseeing the people’. Dey and Roy are social activists working with The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS).
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