The Bhartiya Janata Party led government in India has a penchant for doing things in a ‘surgical strike’ manner, a much publicised military operation they carried out against Pakistan.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi carried out demonetisation in November 2016 at a few hours notice leaving the common citizens stranded with Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes which had suddenly become illegal. Tourists were evacuated in Indian Air Force planes, the last one carrying just one passenger, from Jammu and Kashmir, before autonomy of the state was taken away on 5 August, 2019.
Similarly, coronavirus lockdown was implemented without giving adequate time to citizens to be prepared to face it. Lakhs of daily wage or contract workers, who live in sub-human conditions, were stuck in their places of work with all transportation to their homes abruptly coming to stand still. Narendra Modi even invoked memories of how the country faced war situation in the past to deal with the current crisis.
When the writer met a group of eleven workers walking in Lucknow, capital city of state of Uttar Pradesh, 500 kilometer east of Delhi, on the evening of 28 March, 2020, he was informed by them that they had been walking since 22 March, the day Narendra Modi had given a call for one day ‘people’s curfew,’ implying they were walking almost 70 km per day, and they still had a good 150 km to go before they would reach their homes in Bahraich.
(The writer has organised several peace marches and from experience can say that it is difficult to walk more than 20-30 km per day for an ordinary person.) Workers have walked more than a thousand kilometers to reach state of Bihar from Delhi. These walks were eerie as all eating and even tea joints were closed en-route courtesy lockdown.
Later the government took a decision to make buses available but a group of 14 ‘dholak’, an Indian percussion instrument, makers, stuck in Agra found it difficult to pay Rs. 800 per adult and Rs. 500 per child that they were asked to pay to reach their homes in Barabanki and Fatehpur, and hence had no choice but to de-board the bus.
Rush to reach home made a mockery of the directive to maintain social distance as it was virtually impossible for people scrambling to get into buses to observe what appeared to be a luxury that only rich society could afford. In any case, the poor in India, most of whom would also belong to a lower caste, have always been subjected to ‘social’ distancing or untouchability by the upper caste elite who would never dine with them or even allow them to sit near them at the same level.
Waking up late, in an attempt to prevent mass migration, the government has now stopped people from moving, setting up relief and quarantine camps under strict police vigils. There is strict check at state and district borders.
Police put 15 men who had returned from outside in a quarantine camp established on 4 April, 2020 in a public school in Village Chandpur Faridpur in Rampur Mathura Block of Sitapur District, which appears more as an exercise to complete the formality to please the demanding Chief Minister of UP, Yogi Adityanath. 4 of these 15 had returned to the village during 23-28 March with their families but their wives and children have been saved the inconvenience of quarantine and remaining returned during 22-28 March had been living with their families for at least 8 days before they were quarantined.
Only a mattress has been provided to them by the elected head of village in the name of support from state. They have not even been given masks as a precautionary measure. Their families are supposed to arrange food for them. The concept of quarantine has gone for a toss here.
The government has declared that free food grains would be provided to people holding a particular category of card called ‘Antyodaya’ under the Public Distribution System, which offers 35 kg of subsidised food grains every month even under normal conditions or people with job cards issued as part of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
However, because of widespread corruption in government system some of the deserving are left out of these schemes meant for the poor. Not being registered under any of the abovementioned schemes would make one ineligible to receive any free food grains. 20 villagers from Chandpur Faridpur were found to be in such a situation. 122 villagers from village Hardoiya Deviganj in Gosainganj Block of Lucknow District possessed the other category of card called ‘Priority’ under the PDS, using which they could procure 5 kg food grains per member of the family at the rate of Rs. 2 per kg for wheat and Rs. 3 per kg for rice, but they didn’t have enough cash, when all means of income generation have dried up for the past two weeks, to buy grains at subsidised rates mentioned above.
Another 13 such card holders from Chandpur Faridpur found names of some of their family members struck off, reducing the quantity of grains entitled to them.
The Fair Price Shop owner in Village Aseni of Barabanki district did not give up the habit of corruption even during coronavirus crisis and charged Rs. 20 to Rs. 100 to give grains to Antyodaya card holders, which they were supposed to get free, and charged double the amout from Priority card holders, also cheating on the weight on food grains.
The lockdown because of coronavirus threat has hit the daily wage earners the hardest who were dependent on their daily incomes to feed their families. With only selling vegetables on carts being allowed, about 50% new people who were earlier engaged in some other occupation like operating battery rickshaws or other forms of daliy wage earning have now entered this vocation. If they didn’t make this adjustment their families would be doomed.
This man made tragedy is further compounded by the insensitive administrations and governments. The most glaring example is from Bareilly, a city 300 km east of Delhi, where migrant workers returning home were given Sodium Hypochlorite disinfectant bath by local officials, which created health problems for some. An enquiry has been ordered by the District Magistrate in this incident.
In another untoward and unexpected incident when a Dalit social activist Abhishek gave a list of 41 names, 20 of them from Scheduled Caste and remaining belonging to Other Backward Classes, all poor, from his village Mataria in Unnao district to the Commissioner of Lucknow so that relief could be provided to them in time of lockdown crisis, the elected village head Jai Bind Yadav took it as an insult, for negligence of duty on his part, and verbally abused Abhishek. When Abhishek escaped to Lucknow, Yadav caught hold of his uncle Santu and beat him up mercilessly. From trying to provide relief to hapless co-villagers now Abhishek’s family is living in terror of the village head. With Commissioner’s help a police case has been registered against Yadav under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
The government is imitating decisions of the developed countries failing to realise that work from home, social (physical) distancing, wearing masks or using sanitisers every now and then is not possible for the vast majority of poor in India. Their lives will be devastated because of lockdown and government is not doing enough to alleviate the hardships faced by them.
From what started out as a ‘people’s curfew,’ it has now started resembling a police state with all human rights suspended and people totally at the mercy of government. The government is unaccountable and people cannot dissent. There couldn’t have been better situation for an autocratic Prime Minister of a right wing government. It appears that Narendra Modi is fighting a war against his own people and there will be casualties of various kinds at the end of it.
By Sandeep Pandey
Note: Writer is Vice President of Socialist Party (India).