The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has forced us to discover something that was always there but we didn’t want to see- the millions of poor people in the crevices of our vast urban sprawls, clinging on to their sub-human habitations to desperately eke out a living.
When the first nationwide lockdown was announced in late March, these poor came out of their “invisible” burrows like swarms of locusts descending on to a paddy field. They did so because they had suddenly become homeless, jobless and penniless. Their only desire was to go home to their villages and small towns across the country, where their survival could perhaps be possible. But they were told that they could not do so. All means of public transport had been closed. Then they began to walk, hundreds and thousands of kilometers.
This led to the largest migration of people in India since the Partition of 1947.
The images of this suffering mass of destitute humanity walking home, somehow lugging their meagre belongings, hungry, weary, harassed and mostly barefoot, with children precariously balanced on heads and shoulders, will remain the most disturbing and haunting visual of the coronavirus lockdown.
The question that must be asked is whether this immense human tragedy could have been averted, or better planned for, even if the lockdown had to be imposed.
I find it inexplicable that a mass-based party like the BJP, with the organised cadre of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh supplementing its work, did not anticipate the impact such a lockdown would have on the urban poor.
If the government did not anticipate such a consequence, then it must be accused of unpardonable incompetence. If it did, then it must be asked why it did not plan better for it. It is true that the virus signalled an unparalleled national crisis. It is in such moments that governments are often faced with very difficult choices. Yet, the unavoidable inference is that the government botched up in over-estimating the advantages of the kind of lockdown it imposed, and under-estimating the enormity of the human toll it would take on the most vulnerable sections of our population.
The first phase of the lockdown was useful in yielding three primary dividends -- it slowed the transmission rate of the disease, dramatically sensitised people to the importance of social distancing, and provided some breathing time to upgrade India’s sorry health infrastructure, including PPEs, ventilators, hospital beds, and testing and quarantine facilities. But the same objectives could have been better ensured if, prior to the lockdown, a window of a few days had been given to allow guest workers to return to their rural homes, especially because at this time the infection rate and the spread of the disease was much lower. Instead, through the many extensions of the lockdown, we were witness to millions of the poor breaking the lockdown in order to survive, and in this attempt, making a mockery of the self-isolation and social distancing that the lockdown was purported to achieve.
It took several weeks for the government to understand the magnitude of the human crisis unfolding before its eyes. Only then were some attempts made to run special trains to facilitate the movement of the migrants. But this was really too little, too late. Lakhs of migrants were by then on the roads, highways and railway tracks, walking home. Many state governments had arbitrarily closed their borders. For a great many to reach the railway station was next to impossible, and even if they did, they did not have the money to pay for the tickets and the preceding health formalities. If trains could run, why weren’t buses allowed? And, why couldn’t the Central government make a public announcement that all travel would be free, rather than announce a complicated scheme by which the migrants would first have to pay and then seek reimbursement from the state governments?
In hindsight, the sequencing of this operation was all wrong. What should have been done was to allow the urban poor to reach their homes if they so wished prior to the lockdown. Then, when the lockdown was to be lifted, and the industries and enterprises needed workers to restart, an organised arrangement of trains and buses should have been made to get them back. The much belated move to run the Shramik trains also revealed an attempt to pass on the burden of the evacuation to the state governments. This was tantamount to abdication of responsibility by the Central government. The announcement of the lockdown, with just four hours as notice, was a unilateral decision taken by the Centre without consulting the states. But when it came to dealing with the consequences of this lockdown, the Central government found it convenient to pass the buck to the state governments. No doubt, the state governments would have to make arrangement to receive those returning home, carry out health checks, and arrange for adequate and safe quarantining. But in the view of many observers, the Central government’s role in this entire exercise needed to be much more proactive, especially when it was fully aware that the state governments were on the verge of bankruptcy, with almost no internally generated revenues, and huge unpaid dues accruing from the Centre.
Ultimately, what has happened during the coronavirus crisis compels us to confront a fundamental question -- are we a caring, considerate, compassionate and sensitive society? The imposition of the world’s most stringent lockdown -- whose effectiveness was always suspect given that roughly half our cities are slums where neither self-isolation nor social distancing is possible -- should have had a human face, befitting our pride in being the world’s largest democracy, where the welfare of every citizen counts.