Lockdown: Poor lives at a toss

Kakali Das

Since the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak in India at the beginning of March, there has been extreme chaos and mayhem in the country. As the cases surged, imposing a lockdown on 1.3 billion people just hours before the lockdown was due to start, caused an exodus among the working class. The lockdown worked like a chemical experiment that suddenly illuminated hidden things. As shops, restaurants, factories and the construction industry shut down, as the wealthy and the middle classes enclosed themselves in gated colonies, our towns and megacities began to extrude their working-class citizens- their migrant workers-like so much of unwanted accrual.

As the wealthy quaff wine in comfort, India’s poor are thrown to the wolves. Many driven out by their employers and landlords, millions of impoverished, hungry, thirsty people, young and old, men, women, children, sick people, blind people, disabled with nowhere else to go, with no public transport in sight, began a long march home to their villages. They walked for days, towards Badaun, Agra, Azamgarh, Aligarh, Lucknow, Gorakhpur- hundreds of them marched on food feeling deserted and dejected- some died on the streets. They walked, apprehensive, towards a gloomy future of inevitable poverty- with the least awareness that they might be carrying the virus with them to their families, yet in-search of familiarity, acceptance and satisfaction.

Locked down we are. Many health professional and epidemiologists have applauded this move. Perhaps they are right in theory. But surely none of them can support the calamitous lack of planning or preparedness that turned the world’s biggest, most punitive lockdown into the exact opposite of what it was meant to achieve.

Our honourable Prime Minister said that he was taking that decision not just as prime minister, but as our family member. Who else can decide, without consulting the state governments that would have to deal with the fallout of this decision, that a nation of 1.38 billion people should be locked down with zero preparation and with four hours’ notice? His methods definitely give the expression that Indian prime minister thinks of citizens as a hostile force that needs to be ambushed, taken by surprise but never trusted.

Niru Pehi (aunty), a neighbour of mine, her husband, a worker at a tea stall for years proudly supported Prime Minister Modi and his promises to usher in “good days” for millions of impoverished workers or labourers. After the announcement of the three-weeks-lockdown on 24th March, the family hardly had time to manage their expenses and now after 10 days of lockdown they were on the verge of starvation with not a single penny in their pockets until everyone in the locality reached out to the family for help in various kinds.                                                      

“I voted for Modi in every election, but now I’m very sure that he works only for the big people and not for a man like me”, Niru’s husband said.

It’s strongly evident how the shutdown was haphazardly planned and the authorities are now scrambling to contain its fallout instead of focusing on the coronavirus.

On Thursday, the director-general of the World Health Organisation said the lockdown to limit the COVID-19 transmission had “unintended consequences for the poorest” and “most vulnerable”.

The United Nations’ 2019 Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), a more holistic measure of poverty that looks at deprivation through the lens of nutrition, health indicators, schooling, sanitation and access to essential amenities puts the number of poor in India at 369 million.

What makes the situation more grim is that at least 380 million people in India- more than the population of the United States – are employed in the informal sector, according to an analysis of the data gleaned from the International Labour Organisation and the Indian government.

Social inequality has always been extreme here. For people like us, under lockdown, the existential questions that punctuate our daily lives are: what new cuisines to try at night; what to watch next, Netflix or Hotstar? For millions of rich and middle-class people in India, the lockdown is almost an enforced period of recreation or a chance for self-improvement. Time to enrol for an online art appreciation course, learn the intricacies of exotic cooking, take up gardening, learn a language, take up the guitar, go for a detox by eating healthy food. The differences in the attitudes have become rampant in our society even in this time of crisis.

What the lockdown has done, just two days in, is to magnify a hundredfold the social inequality in India until we feel as though it is screaming at us, wild-eyed and with bare teeth. The lives of millions of poverty-stricken Indians are being shattered by the lockdown to an unimaginable degree and the contrast between their suffering and those who can comfortably ride out this storm is so sharp that it provokes an intake of breath. In Europe and the US, the societies are more egalitarian, the lockdown experience is not marked by the same sharp disparities as in India. Casual workers, here, are paid by the day. If they don’t work for a day, their pockets are empty.

Gov. Aids- The food distribution scheme is frequently interrupted in the country. After not receiving any ration for four months, they were resumed in March when the Modi government announced a $22.50 billion relief package to help the poor cope with the loss of income during the lockdown.

However, many analysts question whether these supplies can be distributed in time.

PM-CARES- a relief fund was created side-lining a decade-old traditional Prime Minister National Relief Fund, or PMNRF. It is indeed a good initiative, but question arises as to whether there was even a need to start a separate fund at this time when there’s already one similar to that. All the donations that the government employees, army personnel from their salaries, public companies, private donors such as Adani, Ambani, and the film stars have made could have been done using the PMNRF fund, but it wasn’t, raising doubts on the intentions of the government in the usage of it- hence termed it as a “Black Hole”.

“Why the self-aggrandizing name, PM-CARES? Must a colossal national tragedy also be (mis)used to enhance the cult of personality?” historian Ramachandra Guha, a critic, wrote on Twitter

However, it’s time that will unveil all.

Nevertheless, the lockdown is necessary, no doubt, but it’s a catastrophe for the poor Indians and with such fallout in the strategies and executions, it’s calamitous to the people at large.

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