The outbreak of the COVID-19 has caused havoc globally and different countries have taken different measures to curb the spread, and to treat the infected people. The deadly virus in a way has revealed the gory truth about the governments’ priorities and the extents to which they can go to meet these priorities.
India has the world’s largest diaspora so it is always vulnerable to communicable diseases which may originate in other parts of the world. The COVID-19 is one of such threats.
COVID-19 was first reported in India at the end of January 2020 and since then the number is increasing, the situation on 26th Mar 2020 afternoon looks like this:
Source: www.covid19india.org (accessed at 4pm on 27 Mar 2020)
The virus caught the attention of the nation when PM Modi appealed the country to observe the so called Janata Curfew for 14 hrs on 22nd Mar 2020. Apart from this he also appealed to people to clap and beat thalis as a sign of thanks for the frontline health care personnel who are fighting against this virus and the rest is history.
There was a mixed response to the Janata Curfew, but stupidity also popped up in different parts of the country. The so called Mini Mumbai, Indore, witnessed a bizarre procession where people came out beating thalis and clapping as PM urged. Similar incidences were reported in other parts of the country and their effects on the spread of virus can only be seen in the coming days.
Next, on 24th Mar 2020, the PM announced a total lockdown of 21 days starting from the midnight of 24-25 Mar 2020. This was something people were not expecting at all. For a country of 1.3 billion people such a lockdown is not less than a nightmare. As soon as PM announced the lockdown, there was a rush for buying groceries and essential products for the times to come. One of my friends called me up and asked if I could buy some potatoes for him. I said-yes, why not. I went out and boom, the potatoes are gone. Whoever prepared PM’s speech missed the seriousness of the issue and lacked a basic understanding of the country’s population. How could he not tell the people that the essential services such as hospitals, telecom, pharmacies, provision stores and banks would be available even during the lockdown? It was clarified later that these services would be accessible but for a limited duration.
Since then, every day something or the other comes up which raises a new question about the policy making of the ruling class of the country. I will try to touch upon the socio-economic aspects of some of the decisions that were taken to control COVID-19 the country.
Despite being one of the fastest growing economies of the world, the country remains one of the toppers in the category of social and economic inequalities. It is infested with the caste virus which inherently contains the seeds of social and economic inequalities. These socioeconomic inequalities cause numerous disabilities in the marginalized oppressed communities, which are witnessed in the form of various caste atrocities daily. The lockdown too is not an exception. Worst hit among all are those who are employed in the unorganized sector which constitutes almost 93 percent of Indian workforce1 and bahujans make largest part of it. It is important here to note that among 79 per cent of the informal or unorganized workers, 88 per cent of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, 80 per cent of the OBC population and 84 per cent of the Muslims belong to the poor and vulnerable group. They have remained poor at a bare subsistence level without any job or social security, working in the most miserable, unhygienic and unliveable conditions2.
So far, during the lockdown, there are horrible instances which have come to the light from the different parts of the country. As the declaration of lockdown came as a surprise to all, the people could not arrange for alternative arrangements to live. The scene of a crying boy at a bus stop in Delhi, who works as a construction worker in Delhi, is heartbreaking. He couldn’t find a place to live and he didn’t have any means to go back to his village in Bihar3. Similar heart-wrenching incidents showed up when the migrant workers had to walk on foot to their native villages for tens of kilometers because they won’t survive the lockdown in the city4. On the top of this cruelty, the police, in one instance, made them frog jump as a punishment on the road because they were out in the lockdown5. These workers had their infants and teenagers with them. And there are thousands and thousands of such destitute people in the cities who are helpless in this situation. These incidences show how badly the people from the unorganized sector are hit by this lockdown. It is just the beginning, we don’t know how horrific it would turn out till the recovery.
While some state governments had taken a few measures to tackle the pandemic, the union government also came to their senses a little later and announced a package of 1.7 lakh crore rupees to fight this outbreak. This package of union government shows that a large chunk of the population of the country is living at the mercy of the state. If state feels you should live, it will give you the bare minimum necessary; else it will leave you to die. The package mentions that safai karmacharis would be covered under Special Insurance Scheme. This is the mother of irony because there has not been a single conviction under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 since its inception. It is an official statement of the government of India6. The deaths in the septic tanks are such a rampant reality in the country that more people die because of this than the number of soldiers who die fighting terrorists in Kashmir7. Here in India it takes a Corona to bring an insurance for safai karmacharis–and we call ourselves a democratic socialist republic, really?
Two preventive measures that were highlighted in every advisory released by the government for the protection from the Coronavirus are the regular precautions on washing hands and social distancing (what they meant was physical distancing). Public Policy scholar Mr Tanoj Meshram, in his Facebook post8 – Corona and Sociology of Washing Hands, highlights how difficult or nearly impossible it is for have-nots in the country to follow this practice of handwash because of lack of water or lack of habit. He suggests that focusing on improving the “willingness to wash” won’t work so there should be efforts to build the “capacity to wash”. And the first step for this is to provide clean portable water to every household in the country.
And as far as maintaining physical distance with family members is concerned, it again is a challenging task for the majority of the marginalized castes because of the prevalence of homelessness or small sized accommodations. A study across 15 cities and 5 states clearly revealed that the SCs, STs and OBCs have large representation in the category of homeless people9.
This shows that the most vulnerable, that is marginalized sections of the society, are hardly in a situation to take any preventive measures against COVID-19, either it be maintaining distance or maintaining a ‘hygienic’ lifestyle or affording medical services. Such institutional failure is also visible in these times of crisis in particular and always in general. For example, the constitutional bodies like Scheduled Castes, Schedule Tribes and Backward Classes Commissions should have approached the governments to highlight these concerns of the respective categories but it is no surprise that they didn’t.
This brings us back to the opening paragraph of this article which says that this deadly virus has revealed the governments’ priorities and the extents to which they can go to meet these priorities. Here the priority was the protection of lives and interests of upper castes-upper class and the governments can go to any extent to meet these goals as they have been doing since Vedic era. Every citizen is equal but some are more equals than others: this is still a blatant truth in the country. This kind of crisis is an indication that a lot is to be done to ensure the safety and security of the citizens who come from the oppressed castes.
Bahujans must understand that the governments don’t bother about their existence. Their only place is to provide cheap labour. So they should take control of their lives as soon as possible. There is a need for the awareness in the bahujan communities at multiple levels. We need to leave the shackles of blind faith which makes us mental slaves. We need to mobilize ourselves socio-economically and politically so that we can have a say in decision and policy making processes. We need to build our own institutions so that we can support each other in the times of such crisis. That means without further delay we must put the dictum given by Babasaheb, ‘Educate! Agitate! Organize!’, into practice. Only then can we have a country based on the constitutional values of equality, fraternity, liberty and justice.
1) Economic Survey 2018-19
2) National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector’s Report on Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganized Sector 2007.
9) Baseline Study – ‘Enabling Inclusive Cities for Homeless ( https://igsss.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Baseline-Study-Enabling-Inclusive-Cities-for-Homeless.pdf)
10) Social Media Posts and Discussions with friends
Arvind Bouddh is a graduate from IIT Bombay. He is an egalitarian.