State apathy against the poor is enormously visible during COVID times, says Harsh Mander in his new book

Amir Ullah Khan and Raju Bhupathiraju

This week Harsh Mander is in Hyderabad. Harsh Mander is a former IAS officer, teacher, human rights activist, advisor to many development organisations and an author. His latest book that he wrote almost coming back from being dead because of COVID-19 is on the pandemic and how it has hurt the poor. Harsh Mander became a patient of COVID-19 and chose to be admitted to the general ward of a premier Delhi Government hospital, where he experienced memory loss, extensive brain damage and internal bleeding and the worst of all, the apathy of our health care system.

The book starts with this quote “I won’t die of Corona, before that I will die of hunger”. Throughout the lockdown, Mr Mander’s involvement with the poor’s service, his understandings and data he collected and verified are the contents of this book. He describes the chasm between the strengths of the India’s affluent/urban and that of the frail, belligerent and underprivileged citizens from its shanties and villages, brought upon by the draconian COVID-19 lockdown. The book laments state apathy on one hand and on the other celebrates the love and kindness among ordinary people which helped cared for the destitute.

Lack of planning

India’s COVID-19 Lockdown is the largest, most extensive lockdown in the history of mankind, and it was imposed in less than 4 hours. China, where the virus originated locked down only 5% of its population. India, which is one of the least affected (in percentage terms of population) locked down 100% of its population. Adding insult to injury, the lockdown’s economic stimulus package announced by the Government Of India is possibly the lowest in the world by any comparable measure.

There has been no wage compensation to the poor and the underprivileged for the period of the lockdown. Neither has there been any rent/business/operational cost compensations given by the government. Thus making it, the most cruelly comprehensive and mindless lockdown in the history of humanity. What makes matters worse is the lack of data leading up the decision to lockdown, and further the lack of data on human suffering and costs borne by the economy. 

Countries with lesser resources like Bangladesh, Vietnam and even Pakistan performed much better than India in dealing with COVID-19. These countries could estimate the human cost of their vulnerable population better than India. Imran Khan, the PM of Pakistan, refused a complete lockdown due to his vulnerable population’s food security, and data suggests that Pakistan has done much better than India in dealing with the pandemic. Vietnam, which has relied on extensive testing and contact tracing as South Korea, has also performed relatively much better than India.

Pandemic of hunger

The pandemic of hunger wrecked by this thoughtless lockdown is easily the most intense of the artificially created famine in the history of the Indian Nation. Record levels of Urban-Hunger were noted during this lockdown. “We will die from hunger, and not corona”, “Modi asked us to stay home, but do we break walls and eat?” were a few questions which were heard by the author and his team of volunteers. Metropolitan hunger like never seen before has happened because of the Lockdown; Industrial wage workers went hungry. SME Factory owners and small-&-marginal landlords of people were equally effected. People who depended on rental income for their livelihood lost rents, as businesses shut down and workers weren’t paid.   The apathy of the government towards the most vulnerable and its appetite for optics came out when it asked people to get into balconies and bang empty vessels. Through all of this, the prime minister change of seven different sets of clothes to feeding peackocks was another sign of absolute apathy.

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Justification of lockdown

‘Time required to prepare for the pandemic’ was how this government justified the lockdown. However, the facts present an opposite picture. Eighty percent of India’s healthcare is catered to by the private sector. Many ward boys and nurses refused to attend their duties, and alternative employment to untrained-personnel was given to compensate for the labour needed to serve the patients. Out of job personnel from small and medium hotels were appointed attenders in Hospitals. These temporary attendants had absolutely no training. Even today, more than nine months since the lockdown, there is no significant change in the equipment of the government hospitals than where things started. An example of this apathy was where cancer patients were put under flyovers in temporary beds to create wards for COVID-19 beds

With respect to healthcare, what could have been done? 

The private health sector could have been temporarily nationalised until the end of the pandemic. Testing is relatively tough, unreliable and costs are still astronomical compared to the rest of the world. A private test costs a few thousand rupees; government test results are not reliable. And the wide availability of tests like in Vietnam and South Korea at almost every street end and in every neighbourhood for anyone to walk-in and get freely tested is still a far dream.  Quick and free testing in addition to reliable contact in tracing is still very illusionary even after nine months into the pandemic in most of the country.

The fragile migrant made a refugee in his own country

Daily passenger capacity of the Indian railways is 23 million people. The total estimated migration of labour as a result of the lockdown is about 30 million journeys. A plan to have left the trains free for migrants to reach home, with all of their information noted down would have allowed the poor to reach home without having to travel foodless and shelter-less. The crowding to reach home in itself contributed to the spread more than of the stay and transport of the migrant.

The capacity of the government to stir up a narrative of hate: 

A number of ruling party leaders created a narrative of hate and hyperbole. While MLAs were being bought off in Madhya Pradesh, the Muslims (Tableeghi Jamaat people ) were vilified as if their sole purpose of the congregation was to spread COVID-19 as a form of jihad (They have since been absolved by the courts with strictures against the police). Muslims were vilified, and hate against them was spread through the media campaigns about bigotry of the Muslim religiosity. Absurdities mounted on Muslims like– ‘Muslims spitting on vegetables’, ‘COVID is another Islamic Jihad against Hindus’, Saffron flags to be put on vegetable vendors wares to be able to identify them as safe non-Muslim sellers’; Muslims not being released from quarantine centres;  Foreigner Tableeghis put in Jail…and many more. 

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Stealthily ushering in a new labour regime 

During the pandemic, the government has abolished the already scanty labour protections that there are in India and thrown the labour to the wolves. There-by ushering in a strange labour regime. Between 2004 and 2010, data shows that 57-58 million people entered the workforce and that the corresponding employment has hardly grown by 2-3 million jobs.  During the lockdown, data shows that upwards of 20 million salaried jobs were lost. How the government wishes to get these jobs back is a plan it doesn’t talk about. The jobs that now have come back are low-grade uncertain jobs. The new labour regimes ushered in during the lockdown in MP, Gujrat, Assam, UP now allow for 12-hour workdays.

Education has taken a Hit

For the vast majority of the working class and migrant labour with school children, both technology and connectivity are not a norm. With the classrooms shut since the end of March, the ones at the losing end of the bargain of online transition have been the poor. The government has no plans to include them by planning to provide these children with any technology or connectivity as compensation for how classroom education was lost due to this draconian lockdown. The midday meal programme has taken a hit. Hunger and malnutrition now haunt these kids. Kids are now going into child labour, both to support themselves and their families.

India’s first recession & Ushering in of crony capitalism

In the light of the hardships faced by the poor and vulnerable, the middle-class person and the reasonably comfortable upper-middle-class were hardly affected. Their apathy is shown in not questioning the government on facts or data and by supporting mindless rhetoric like banging plates and lighting lamps. Never before has the Indian economy shrunk into a contraction like this. Amidst all of this, the government has gone on a disinvestment spree and started selling off crown jewels and leading the country where the vulnerable are left to fend for themselves. Certain business houses seem to be reaping the benefits of most of these reforms.

Amir Ullah Khan and Raju Bhupathiraju are researchers at Centre for Development Policy and Practice

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