COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in India

On 24 March 2020, the Government of India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a nationwide lockdown, limiting movement of the entire 1.3 billion population of India as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 pandemic in India.


  • Preferably, the government should have anticipated that after it unilaterally declared a complete lockdown (first phase), millions of informal workers would suddenly lose every way of earning their livelihoods and would be rendered penniless. This would inevitably trigger a mass exodus among the poor informal sector workers, forcing almost one-third of the 1.3 billion people who are living a hand-to-mouth existence, to gather on the streets and trek back home with their belongings. The state also took two days to announce a paltry sum of Rs. 1.7 lakh crores as economic relief to the informal workers who have been turned refugees overnight. This is only 0.5% of the national income if existing budgetary allocations are taken into account. This is an insidious form of assault on the well-being and physical and mental security of the poor population of India, especially so when they are already outside the social security net because they do not fall within the organized sector.
  • No doubt, extending the lockdown was necessary, but so was making transportation and other arrangements for the poor. [...] The COVID–19 episode in India has proved that, to date, the voices of the poor are unheard in the decision-making and policies that affect them the most. Further, data and evidence regarding them are least likely to be considered by the government when framing policies.
  • Irrespective of whether you are a freelance humanitarian or a freelance patriot, a fact that is beyond dispute is that the country treats its poor very badly. Across India, in the name of fighting a pandemic, India has beaten up its poor, denied them their livelihood, made them run behind trucks for food, and forced thousands of families to walk hundreds of kilometres to their villages, letting some people die on the way. A few days ago, more than a dozen men travelled inside a cement mixer to escape detection.
  • At the same time, given India’s population density, the cramped and squalid conditions in which tens of millions people live, not only will social distancing have limited effectiveness (household members of every infected person will be at high risk), but the loss of livelihoods and access to basic necessities will impose significant human costs. The short-term tradeoff between lives and livelihoods is manifest and nobody really knows where the precise balance lies. Too limited a lockout period risks the lives of potentially hundreds of thousands of people; too restrictive a lockout could result in the eruption of serious social unrest.
  • The lockdown and its humanitarian consequences have begun to fundamentally challenge the mind-set and modalities of India’s welfare architecture. We can no longer afford to live with or simply look away from the exclusion ‘errors’ of the past. Many of the most painful and humiliating effects of the lockdown are likely to remain simply unacknowledged, let alone adequately accounted for or compensated. But, ensuring that people have enough food and cash to survive the crisis should remain non-negotiable. [...] The lesson we are learning now is that for India to actually release the grain to citizens, she requires the entire system to go against the grain of deeply entrenched state beliefs and practices. After decades of distrust, it’s time to cultivate some moral fibre.
  • The 40-day lockdown was further extended at a time of sporadic expressions of resistance and anger by migrant workers in a few cities. Extreme precarity doesn’t have a singular expression. While some are responding with anger, others are responding with resignation. The severe distress among migrant workers in India is not entirely by chance. It has been marinating for a while but the epic new scale has been manufactured due to the unplanned and unilateral decision of a lockdown taken by the prime minister. The arbitrariness and unpreparedness are evident from the confusing messages from the central government concerning transport for migrants. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued an order on April 29 permitting inter-state travel for workers who want to return home and instructed the states to appoint nodal officers to develop Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). Thereafter the MHA issued another order on May 1 stating that “passenger movement by trains, except for security purposes or for purposes as permitted by MHA” was to be prohibited. This was followed by another order on May 3, which stated: “it is clarified that the MHA orders are meant to facilitate movement of stranded persons who had moved from their native places/ workplaces, just before the lockdown period…” Through these orders, the MHA has taken refuge in obfuscation. Notwithstanding the confusing orders, the constant shuffling of travel modes and costs further expose the central government’s lack of empathy, thought and planning. We present a highly generous estimate for the total travel cost by trains. If all of 6.5 crore inter-state migrants (Ravi Srivastava’s estimate of the number of migrants) were to return, and assuming an average ticket fare of Rs 650, the total travel cost comes to around Rs 4,200 crore. To put this number in perspective, the cost of the Statue of Unity in Gujarat is reportedly Rs 3,000 crore. The PM-Cares as per news reports from early April had Rs 6,500 crore.
  • The migrant worker distress has also exposed the inherent fractures of the “one nation” narrative that is one of the unique selling propositions of the BJP government. While it goes against the grain of the idea of India that has a rich tradition of pluralism, it is also meaningless from a governance standpoint. Migrant workers don’t carry their ration cards and so haven’t been able to avail of government rations in the states where they are stranded. The employers, contractors mostly, have largely abandoned them without paying them wages. Consequently, they are left to scrounge for food and are left without money. In many cases, they are stranded without knowing the local language. In this situation, it is the poorer state governments of Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, etc. that have attempted to seek out “their people” stranded in richer states such as Maharashtra or Haryana and make cash transfers to their account. The economies of these richer states have benefited from the labour of migrants from the poorer states. However, the richer states have neither extended any financial support nor forced employers to pay wages to the workers. Worse still, on May 5, Chief Minister of Karnataka, B S Yediyurappa, cancelled trains for migrant workers from Bengaluru to their home states. The decision was taken after a meeting between the chief minister and the Confederation of Real Estate Developers Associations of India (CREDAI). Neither migrant workers nor trade unions representing them were consulted. This was not only insensitive but a violation of the right to live with dignity (Article 21), right to freedom of movement (Article 19) and prohibition of forced labour (Article 23). The government decided to restore the train services only after protests.
  • Barring examples from Kerala and Telangana, most host states have demonstrated disregard for migrant workers. It behooves the host states to care about the migrant workers not only from a humanitarian standpoint but also from the perspective of the health of the economy. On its part, the central government has maintained a calibrated silence regarding this. Monopolising decisions and socialising losses are not what federalism is supposed to mean. Therefore, it is time that the poorer states realise that the unilateral lockdown is not just an assault on the dignity of the poor, but also an economic assault on the poorer state governments. Further, there has been a concerted effort by the central government and some host states to hold the labour captive in the richer states by making transportation procedures unreasonable.
  • This is as much a socio-economic inequality issue as much as a public health dilemma. After the dust settles and restrictions are relaxed, the win-alls as well as others lying towards the more privileged end of the means spectrum should be able to hop straight back to their routines with their health, wealth and job security intact. The lose-alls and those proximate to that extreme will be more susceptible to illnesses, loss of income and job insecurity – and quite likely all three together. The latter group is trapped in an adverse equilibrium with the unjust choices of risking their health if they go to work, risking their income if they don’t go to work, and risking their employment if the COVID-19 lockdown continues.
  • Migrant workers, dismissed by employers, enjoying no protection from their governments, often thrown out of their accommodation by their landlords, in urgent need of food, transport and money, driven by desperation to walk home. It is a scene many have described as reminiscent of the migration at Partition. This is the outcome of the largest and one of the strictest lockdowns in the world enforced during the coronavirus disease crisis — a lockdown that has been widely applauded internationally. Why has the outcry against this suffering inflicted on men and women who are more than 90% of India’s workforce been so muted? It is, I believe, in part at least, because those in a position to raise their voices have not identified themselves with those who are suffering.
  • Today, the poor are bearing most of the burden of India’s lockdown, one of the harshest in the world. The policies are made or influenced by a class of people who pay little attention to the consequences for the underprivileged. Just think, for instance, of how all sorts of basic services have been shut down without batting an eyelid: outpatient health services, child immunisation, school meals, MNREGA worksites, the lot. For good measure, the policies are often enforced in an authoritarian manner. Ideally, people should be empowered to face this crisis together, instead of being treated like sheep. Here in Jharkhand, I have been struck by so many people’s readiness to help in one way or another. But this good will is not being tapped. This mirrors India’s long-standing failure to foster and mobilise human resources for development. Kerala is one exception, and sure enough, it is handling this crisis in an inspiring manner.

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