The Modi-led BJP government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been marred by shortcomings, especially an ill-executed national lockdown that caused widespread hardship amongst migrant workers. TNL analyses this response and questions where the ultimate responsibility lies.
In September, India remained the fastest-growing coronavirus outbreak epicentre in the world and accounted for 18% of all confirmed cases. The stark chasms between urban, rural, and income strata have made the impact of the pandemic uneven across the country. However, in totality, the economic and humanitarian fallout from India’s coronavirus crisis remains unprecedented for the country. Its 1.3 billion people share access to a constrained healthcare system. Large populations have no access to sanitised living conditions or specialised medical resources, there are widespread immunosuppressed diseases, and lack of social distancing abilities. These factors have compounded to make India ripe ground for infectious diseases.
Given these challenges, there have been positives in how the nation has responded to the pandemic. The World Health Organisation (WHO) praised the initial lockdown, and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) adopted innovative measures such as pooled testing relatively quickly. The country has also leveraged its large vaccine manufacturing infrastructure to get the first-mover advantage. There are domestic vaccine candidates in phase trials, and private players such as the Serum Institute of India have prepared production capacities for internationally developed vaccine candidates.
Nonetheless, difficulties remain. The implementation of the national lockdown has been largely flawed and spasmodic; creating long-term economic, social, and political complications. The following financial package, branded as historical, has been lacking and misleading. Migrant workers who form the backbone of India’s construction and agriculture outputs are hesitant to return to larger cities, fearing a repeat of job and food insecurity. Emerging from these negative repercussions will take time; recovery will be gradual, and substantial policy injections would be required to kickstart the economy.
Myopic Decision Making
“In 21 days, we will overcome the coronavirus” declared Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24th. A national lockdown followed; which has been credited with halting a struggling economy and spreading the virus to all parts of India. The PM’s announcement has been termed impulsive and criticised as myopic by different factions, including the medical community, stating the timing was suspect.
A critical aspect of adopting an economically disruptive measure would be stakeholder analysis. At the minimum, it warrants cross-party and state-level discussions owing to India’s federal structure. Yet, the government did not consider these before the announcement. Furthermore, scientific evidence supporting the PM’s decision on why India needed a sudden lockdown is lacking. The infections were narrowly concentrated, and creating national containment zones could have isolated the spread in worst-hit districts. Since the initial urge was recorded in metropolitans – Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai – the local authorities would have been better equipped to quarantine the positive cases. This would have allowed for judicious resource utilisation and contact tracing.
Instead, critics have argued “big dramatic action” fits Modi’s style of dealing with problems and was the motivating factor behind this decision. As a result, 1.3 billion were effectively put under house arrest by one of the most severe lockdowns implemented worldwide.
Modi’s rationale was to break the transmission chain to flatten the curve, as has been successful through lockdowns in New Zealand, Italy, Spain. However, India remains the only outlier to this basic principle. Six months into the coronavirus’ relentless spread, the country has recorded over six-million cases and almost hundred-thousand deaths. The GDP has witnessed a staggering downturn of nearly 24% in a single quarter, the worst amongst all major economies. Unemployment levels are at a 45-year high. One hundred twenty million people have been rendered jobless. Two hundred million are bracing to fall below the poverty line.
Despite this, the Prime Minister and Home Minister have failed to hold a single press conference during this period. Modi’s occasional pre-recorded addresses have struggled to lay out a viable socio-economic plan, a coherent national medical strategy, or acknowledge the humanitarian distress across the country.
Are Lockdowns Enough?
Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist and professor at Harvard University’s TH Chan School of Public Health, offered an analogy that lockdowns are akin to getting on a “life raft” — they save lives temporarily. However, the bigger problem remains: how to get to shore? He argues, “We cannot have the same one-size-fits-all lockdown measure. The difference is often in how the lockdown is enforced—as a public health measure or as a law and order issue. And countries that approached this as a public health measure have done well.”
Therefore, the likelihood of a lockdown singularly curbing the spread of coronavirus is very low. An efficient overarching strategy consists of lockdowns plus other means. To respond to the pandemic as a public health crisis, the Indian government would have had to develop parallel measures. This approach includes apprising the population, strengthening supply chains, bolstering healthcare infrastructure, increasing testing, and funding contact tracing. Yet, all of these measures have been deficient. Example, there have been no concentrated, insistent campaigns, especially in rural India, to promote mask-wearing – even after it has proven to reduce the spread of coronavirus.
BJP members contend Modi followed the guiding rationale of developed countries. However, there are no matching indices to suggest that India would suit this strategy. A lockdown provides temporary social distancing; a scenario that in itself remains highly unlikely given India’s population density. Instead, the government treated this period as a law and order exercise rather than a public health emergency. There was an increase in police excess and violence during the lockdown. In the initial five weeks, twelve people had died after being beaten up in public for “violating” regulations, that have often been arbitrary. There has been more emphasis on policing people and movement rather than using this time to form a cohesive national medical policy. Dr John, former head of virology and microbiology, CMC (Vellore), argued “The lockdown instilled fear and when the lockdown was lifted the fear [was] gone, and the virus is hitting everybody. It’s the crying wolf story. When the wolf really came, nobody cared.”
“Testing causes more hype.”
The World Health Organisation urged countries, including India, that testing would be the key to containing coronavirus since it is impossible to “fight a fire blindfolded”. They further stressed isolating and contract tracing are the “backbones” of any planned response. However, Indian officials argued that the WHO’s recommendations were premature. According to Dr Bhargava, head of ICMR, increased testing would “create more fear, more paranoia and more hype.”
At the beginning of the lockdown, only 90 of the daily 8000 available tests per were used. For weeks to come, tests conducted per million remained amongst the lowest in the world. The criteria for getting a test was overly restrictive — where those who had travelled from affected countries or came in contact with a confirmed case and showed symptoms after two weeks of quarantine were allowed to get a test.
Consequently, India had 6.4 million cases in early May when the official number was 180,00 according to the ICMR Sero Survey. 82-130 infections went undetected for each confirmed positive case. This data highlights that the initial take on testing was problematic since the possibility of community transmission in India was extremely likely, almost inevitable, given the population density. Four hundred million people live in the cities, out of which 20% live in slums without access to clean water, sanitisation, or the ability to socially distance. Therefore, the lack of testing remains an inexplicable policy decision. The low testing and abandoned contact tracing allowed cases to gallop.
Furthermore, fears of being stranded in squalid public hospitals or quarantine centres deterred patients from coming forward. Dr Srinivas explained, “Covid-19 disease suffers from social stigma and the mental trauma of quarantine. There is much fear of the disease and also fear of what will be done to you in quarantine. Too much of misinformation is floating around. People are scared.” This quandary highlights that efficient information channels were lacking. The central government could have mobilised numerous grassroots organisations to better explain quarantine measures and details about the virus, especially in rural areas, but it did not.
Migrants in Crisis
There are 139 million migrant workers in India. A severe shortcoming in the government’s sudden lockdown announcement was the lack of awareness or responsibility towards them. Migrant workers in India have minimal, if any, access to labour laws. The inter-state nature of their work makes them ineligible to vote at the place of employment; making them invisible in political initiatives – both to where they are and where they come from natively. The seasonal and mobile nature of work further eliminates them from trade union concerns. Owing to this, they have no legal or social framework for protection living in urban areas.
Their nature of employment is unorganised, precarious and most often in construction, transportation, textile, manufacturing. Migrants depend on daily wages without which they face food insecurity and homelessness. There are little to no savings that would enable access to permanent shelter in the city. Accommodations are small rooms, co-shared by many workers, which leaves no scope to practice social distancing. Many went hungry for days since a significant portion of migrants do not have ration cards, and those who did were not allow access to food in places other than where state governments registered them.
Therefore, the sudden shock of the economy shutting down vaporised their incomes. A restriction on transportation further eliminated their means of getting home.
Modi rolled out the decision without taking into account the most impoverished factions and highlighting that their concerns are missing from national-level decision-making. Inefficient state capacity has blunted the reality of this sizeable underserved population in India. Moreover, this treatment is in sharp contrast to the efforts made to bring back citizens stranded abroad.
There is a case to be made that the strategy of containment zones as compared to a sudden, ill-planned lockdown would have reduced the burden of food and job insecurity on migrants. Almost 400 million workers in the informal economy will be pushed deeper into poverty owing to this measure.
Hungry, homeless, and hopeless; millions of migrants faced police brutality and state apathy while walking home. It was the most massive migration witnessed in independent India.
Coronavirus Panic: Where Do The Homeless Go?
Millions resorted to walking hundreds of kilometres, paid smugglers to get them across state borders. Some crossed forests and rivers to go undetected. Thousands died in road accidents, committed suicide, or died of malnourishment and exhaustion, including in Modi’s constituency of Varanasi, where journalists photographed hungry children eating grass. A country that positions itself as the next global economic powerhouse should have a lot to answer for when citizens are dying of starvation.
A resident of Bihar, Rampukar Pandit, became the face of the tragedy when his picture weeping over the phone went viral. He was stranded in Delhi during the lockdown, unable to return home after his infant son died. Pandit was beaten by the police while trying to walk back and asked, “will your son become alive if you go back?” He argues, “we labourers don’t belong to any country.” This sentiment was prevalent. Other migrants claimed, “In the cities, they treat us like stray dogs. Why would they treat us any better now?”
TNL interviewed migrants trying to get back to their villages in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Their statements said they would rather die making the journey home than die of hunger while stuck in alien cities without work or relations. Manu Singh from Bihar questioned, if he died in Delhi, who would inform his family, or bury his body? How would his family ever find his remains?
Five weeks into the lockdown, the Modi government allowed migrants to travel home by running trains. However, this decision was devoid of responsibility too as they left it to individual states to coordinate. The result was political fights between host and home states since they both had to agree on the number of trains and passengers allowed.
First, why were the railways not asked to create an interstate commission? Second, why were workers subject to over 50 days of anguish when this decision was to be taken ultimately? The situation on the ground was the same and cases had only risen. Third, how were migrants expected to comply with the myriad rules of getting on board? They were expected to pay for medical certificates (when they were unable to pay for food), submit registration forms online (which assumes they had access to internet and smartphones) and then report to their local police stations to obtain travel passes. Fourth, 97 people died on these special Shramik trains yet railways minister claims there was no negligence, and till date, no compensation has been provided to families of the deceased. It is imperative to ask, who is responsible?
Finally, why did the Modi government lie about paying 85% ticket fares for every passenger when the destitute had to make the payments? The PM-Cares Fund had over a billion dollars in donations at the time. Furthermore, figures suggest the cost of faring 65 million migrants would amount to Rs, 4,200 crores for the government. To put into perspective, it cost Rs. 3,000 crores to build a statue in Gujarat.
This breakdown in economic and social systems was the reality of 80 million Indians who moved cross-country mostly on foot, cycles and borrowed transport.
Ravaging Rural India
Furthermore, this move from urban to rural areas is a significant cause for the spike in cases in the subaltern regions. Migrants moved home in packed buses and trains. It remains highly unlikely that coronavirus would be able to be contained in these rural setting, given the non-existent testing capacities and healthcare resources. Besides, the stress on the local economy to support this enormous surge of migrants will create more complications. The lack of jobs would force poor migrants into debt-traps with predatory interest rates, while they try to support themselves on daily subsistence farming.
While being interviewed by TNL, many workers considered coronavirus the “disease of the rich” since those travelling abroad were the one who got the infection home. This is a valid consideration since the initial surge was restricted to urban areas. There was sufficient time to bolster measures that would safeguard the rural regions since a spike in cases there would make it a runaway virus. Again, given the divide between urban and rural planning, the government must be asked why it did not choose a more measured approach like national containment zones?
This developing situation holds the potential to trap decades of inter-generational workers into wage-less labour and rural occupation. The inability to move out to urban areas would force families to pull children out of schools and send them to cities in search of work. It is further compounding cycles of low-skilled labour and scope. High levels of co-morbidity, soaring under-nutrition rates and inadequate health infrastructure create grounds for increased mortality. Also, droughts have become more prevalent, and farming is not a secure occupation for many, with over 10,000 farmer suicides annually.
Modi’s Relief for Migrants: Too little, too late
Often quoted by the Prime Minister as the backbone of the country’s development, this massive demographic of migrants remains missing in the state’s aid or policies. The exodus witnessed during the coronavirus pandemic is perhaps India’s worst humanitarian crisis on record. Migrants were first ignored in decision-making, then asked to stay put wherever they were. In desperation, when millions took to the streets, they were lathi-charged by the police and blamed for their plight. Host states fumbled to put together resources, while home states (predominantly more backward on the development scale) refused to accept responsibility of taking back workers.
The Modi government could have minimised the suffering of millions if they had only taken states on board and established protocols of shelter, food, and movement registrations. As discussed above, there was no medical urgency in implementing the lockdown, making the lack of planning criminal negligence.
The government announced a doubling of food rations for those enrolled in the public distribution system (PDS) without taking into account that most migrant workers do not have ration cards. Fifty days later, they decided 80 million citizens not covered under the PDS will receive food grains. However, there are significant delays in the disbursement. In a survey of 11,000 migrants, 96% had not received any rations from the government, and 89% had not been paid by their employers. This highlights the dire nature of their situation.
When the Finance Minister announced the $227 billion relief package, it provided benefits to those already recognised in the system – farmers, rural women. By relying on these established welfare schemes, those missing from the system – that is, migrant workers – did not get access to benefits. It remains evident that a system cannot protect those it was designed to exclude.
It can be argued that the lockdown was imposed without planning, warning, consultations, or indeed scientific evidence. The Modi government decided without considering the strain it would put on resources. They were myopic in only considering short-term action while taking decisions that have severe long-term consequences. Moreover, there has been a blatant denial of all responsibility from myriad sections within the government. When asked how many migrants died during this period, the government claimed in parliament that no data was available—the same for information concerning doctors and businesses. The next instalment of this series decodes how ‘No Data Available’ has become the blanket answer of the Modi administration to stonewall the inconvenient truths of a failed endeavour. It will cover who is responsible, the role of the Supreme Court, the curious case of the PM’s billion-dollar fund, and India’s economic health.