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Lives & Livelihoods: India between the Devil and the Deep Sea! (English only)

By Secretary General, Association for Democratic socialism, India, Prof. D.K. Giri

The first case of covid-19 was detected on 30 January in Kerala, the southern state of India. The carrier was a person travelling from China. The impression in the media and the political circle then was it is a foreign virus, originating in Wuhan it could spread by those coming from abroad. If returnees from abroad are quarantined and treated, the virus could be contained.

The newspapers and private agencies were reporting the presence of covid-positive people in different cities. Twenty Italians were reported to be corona positive. Two thousand plus Chinese expats in India were spreading the virus, untested and undetected. However, the cases in public domain were too small in number to press the panic button, or to take any drastic action. In the meanwhile petrifying news was pouring in from across the world, mainly China, Italy, the United States and the United Kingdom, about the rapid spread of the virus. The GOI-Government of India sensed the imminent danger of the epidemic gripping India. The best medical advice circulating at that time was the focus on prevention, as the mitigation with treatment was uncertain. Preventive actions consisted of three step- wearing a mask, physical distancing, and frequent hand-washing. Physical distancing could not be enforced without lockdown of societies, more so in India which has the densest population in India, the population concentration in India is 448 persons per sq km, whereas in China it is 160per sq km.

At 8 pm on 21st march, the Prime Minister of announced a 14-hour voluntary people’s curfew, next day, i.e. the Sunday from 7 am to 9 am. This was to exercise and practice isolation which may be the ‘norm’ in coming times, the PM urged. With the rehearsal done, the Prime Minister announced a complete lockdown of 1.3 billion people for 21 days. The slogan was “we are in; corona is out (of the house).” The lockdown was extended by weeks, 5 times, and each time relaxing some curbs.

Intriguingly, when the first lockdown was imposed, there were about 5000 +ve cases, at this writing, there are 208 thousand +ve cases across the country. The two big cities Mumbai (Bombay) and Delhi are the worst hit. More than 1/3 of total cases are in one state, Maharashtra, and more than 1/2 of the cases in that state are located in its capital city Bombay. There is a debate raging on whether the lockdown was effective in containing the spread and reducing the deaths. There are five estimates which give out different figures on prevention and deaths averted. To mention two that somewhat match the figures; Boston Consulting Group found that 3.6 to 7 million cases and 0.2 to 0.21 million deaths were averted by the lockdown. The corresponding figures put out by the Ministry of Statistics, GOI, and the Indian statistical Institute are 1.4 to 2.9 million cases and 37000-78000 deaths averted. Other experts contend that estimates “cover a wide range, but we know next to nothing about how they were obtained.”

At any rate, from my personal experience in Delhi as I cycled around a lot to see and do things as a part of voluntary charity work; the physical distancing and mask-wearing were not maintained, the people still huddled, and washing of hands could not be seen as it is done inside the house. The tangible and measurable impact of the lockdown could be seen in the disruption of livelihoods, forced and painful dislocation of people, and crippling of the economy, especially in small and medium sector. We talk of the social, political and economic response to the pandemic and its impact, a bit later.

Looking at the spread and medical consequence of the disease, India seems to have done better in comparative terms, the cases are 0.208 million, and deaths are 5800, the fatality rate is 2.8%, whereas global death rate is 6.13 per cent. The figures may have prompted Michael Ryan, the chief Executive Director of WHO to commend India’s prompt action (lockdown) in containing the spread of the virus. Even the Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Team, having surveyed 73 countries found GOI taking adequate and appropriate measures, stringent lockdown etc, to combat the disease.

In terms of social response and impact, India experienced mixed results. Indians are tactile by habit; love to socialize in verbal interactions. The social distancing was an unprecedented restriction. People found it hard to follow; police and paramilitary had to be called in to enforce this new practice. At the same time, Indians, not in the habit of holidays, were forced to go on leave from work to their respective homes. This was a new and novel experience for the whole country. Yet, after one month, people were restless to go out regardless of health consequences; the curbs were lifted by the people themselves except where they are enforced, like in the red zones. Quite a few religious groups, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and Hindus came out on the street to help out the people in need.

India has a vibrant civil society network, which has been choked by the present government. But in this pandemic, the government needed the CSOs to reach out to people, the Sikh temples which feed people in normal times every day at no cost, cooked for 0.2 million people every day in Delhi. The government distributed dry food stuff- rice and lentils and other items, and served cooked food too in public places. A good many charity organizations also distributed food. The social response to the pandemic has been encouraging. During the lock-downs, the Prime Minister did three symbolic gestures to generate emotional unity among people. These acts became topics for TV debates and cause for criticisms. But, in a democracy every idea triggers a counter-idea and criticisms. The first act inspired by the PM was to bang a kitchen plate (a silver or brass) at a given time, by all 1.3 billion Indians. The second time, we were all asked to light one candle each at a specified time-period, and the third was to shower flowers by the army helicopters on the hospitals, and other health institutions in recognition of frontline health workers.

The economic consequence has been debilitating. The disrupting and damaging economic impact has instigated the formulation of the title of my India-report. Indian economy was suffering from a paradoxical experience preceding the pandemic- the economic slowdown on the one hand and the talk of a 5-trillion economy by 1924 on the other. However, GOI released a 23.6 billion stimulus package to revive the economy in the wake of the pandemic. The informal, small and medium sector of the economy was to tottering without capital. This sector called MSME- Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise which contributed quarter of the 2.9 trillion Indian GDP and employs 500 million workers became the worst hit. GOI has offered a stimulus package of 13 billion in bank loan, working capital needs, tax exemption, hiking threshold and another 2.3 billion in tax exemptions. GOI is still talking of achieving $ 5 trillion GDP by 2024. The Prime Minister and his team ironically sniff the scope now as China is being isolated, companies are relocating outside China, and 1000 American companies from China are in negotiation with GOI.

Under the lockdown, the migrant workers were the worst sufferers. Out of 450 million migrant workers as per the last census in 2011, 100 million are in circulation. The abrupt lockdown did not give them a chance to return home. Without buses and trains running, they trudged hundreds and thousands of kilometers. There were heart-wrenching stories of a nine month pregnant woman walking a hundred kilometers to her village; a 15 year old girl cycling 1200 kms with her injured father ridding on the pillion; 16 workers run over by a goods train as they slept on the tracks, tired and helpless. They had not anticipated trains coming due to the lockdown. By the time, the government woke up to the blood-chilling reality concerning the migrant workers; it was a bit late in the day. Then, GOI ran 4155 Shramik (labourer) trains to ferry 0.57 million in 33 days.

The political challenges thrown by the present pandemic are unprecedented. They not only dare political parties to reposition themselves, but they are driving the political change. The parties will have to revisit their strategies, policies and inter-party cooperation or, in fact, lack of it. They will have to reflect on the party conflicts of the past, as the crisis, unarguably, demands cooperation. They will also have to address a different set of political issues, namely, health care and economic policies.

Unlike in the developed countries, both our lives and livelihoods are at a stake. The Central government has launched certain humanitarian measures for sustenance, and is fire-fighting the fallouts on the economy. Should they fail to do so; the economic crisis will erupt like never before. Economy has not been a determining electoral issue so far; but the likes of Wuhan have also not been experienced by the world since the human history was recorded.

The ruling party and the opposition have not been in healthy terms in recent times. That ought to change. There are certain junctures in the life of a country which mandate parties for seeking cooperation and consensus on select issues; for instance, diplomatic or military face-off with another country. In this case, the enemy is invisible, but the impact of the attack cuts across political spectrums, therefore, the response has to be concerted. The age-old maxim rings loud, ‘united we survive, divided we may perish”. Hence, a new politics of cooperation must ensue from this national disaster.

The government should reach out to the Opposition, which could make constructive criticism. But, sadly, such interaction has been missing. On the issue of migrant labourers, the Congress party made some faint noises about paying for the travel of the migrant workers or arranging separate buses for them, but it did not break the political ice. The opposition is fragmented, ruling in a few states. The ruling party has its own narratives, before and during the pandemic. Opposition has no alternative to offer. Indian politics calls for a people’s movement, like it has, many times in the past, to throw up new ideas and new politics.