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COVID19, a big disaster in the making

COVID19, a big disaster in the making

khalid anis ansari 2


Khalid Anis Ansari

khalid anis ansari 2(Round Table India is doing a series to put together the Bahujan perspective on the Coronavirus pandemic)

Anu Ramdas: What are your deepest concerns about the ability of Pasmandas to cope with this pandemic in India?

Khalid Anis Ansari: First of all, when we use the category ‘Pasmanda’, it is not a monolithic category. We are talking about a category with a huge number, about 700 communities, belonging to Muslim BCs, Muslim Dalits and Muslim adivasis. All these communities have different kinds of problems and their situation is very different. First, we have to acknowledge the diversity of the Pasmanda space, both at a social level and at an economic level.

Having said that, the first thing which we were dealing with at a broader level, was how to understand this crisis? And how to actually address it? On that count, I think the Indian government has got one part right, that rather than falling for strategies like ‘herd immunity’ and so forth, at least they are going with the broader consensus, especially with the experience we have had from China, Italy, and the US, that there is no other way except to break the chain or to flatten the curve, and strict physical distancing and isolation are in order. On that count, I think the government has got it right. But apart from the direct impact of the pandemic or the disease itself, there is going to be collateral damage.

Once the economic system is brought to a halt or it collapses, there are financial consequences for a large number of informal labor force. If you look at the labor structure in India, about 90% are informal labor force, working in the construction industry as migrant laborers, agricultural workers, small, marginal farmers, slum dwellers and so on. Most of the Pasmanda muslims, the backward muslims, adivasi muslims, dalit muslims, will fall into these categories. So, they would be the marginalized sections.

And the second part, which the government has not really said anything concrete, so far, is how these sections of the marginalized will be taken care of. I am not really a specialist in the health sector, and I don’t have any concrete knowledge about the health sector and how they will cope with this epidemic. From whatever little I have read, about the policy measures that could be taken in this particular context, one are the existing welfare schemes that the government has, like National Food Security Act, NREGA, or Ujwala, there are a certain number of Pasmanda sections who could use these welfare schemes. But there are other sections, like the adivasis, the nomadic communities, who might not be enrolled in the government welfare schemes. So most of the Pasmanda intellectuals and activists, what we were expecting from the Government was some kind of an emergency relief package, where there could be direct cash transfers of Rs. 5000-7000 a month to these poor households and also ration supplies, a kind of a basket of supplies which could contain wheat, rice, soap, oil and so on. That is at one level, direct cash transfers, ration supplies for 2-3 months for the marginalized, but also at the level of healthcare infrastructure, the doctors and nurses are complaining that they don’t have masks, sanitizers, the basic medicines or ventilators available in the hospitals.

So, I think there needs to be a 3 pronged response, not only for the Pasmanda, but in general for all the marginalized – cash transfers, rations, and healthcare infrastructure needs to be worked on. I think it is this collateral damage where people will become unemployed for the next couple of months or so, and how will these people cope? And what kind of response do we expect from the government? I think that needs to be mooted and thought about.

Anu: Across the class of marginalized communities, having cash transfers, having ration supplies, these are very concrete relief measures. But it does not factor in emergencies apart from succumbing to COVID-19. Emergencies like childbirth, pregnancies, prior and other illness, how are they going to cope? Because there is a way the marginalized manage these emergencies when they’re out working, they’re networked with relatives and co-workers. So when all interactions are cut off, do you think, some kind of thought has gone into dealing with these kinds of emergencies? 

Khalid: Absolutely! From whatever we hear from people, it’s a big disaster in the making. Just imagine someone who is living in Bombay, and suddenly he has been thrown out of a job, he doesn’t have food to eat. There is no concrete plan as of now, all the train services, all the transport service has come to a standstill. These people are living in a no man’s land. They have nowhere to go. Today I saw pictures where people are walking down the highways. Entire families of 6-7 people walking down the highways. They have no idea where they’re going. Once they’re on the highway, they’re also victims of police excesses. It is a very bizarre situation. At a micro level, things have not really been thought of. If you look at the government announcements, it is at a very macro level. Even at the macro level, it is not well thought out. It looks like it is catering to a certain populist sentiment, to a certain idea of the nation and so forth, but in terms of real human pain, real human problems, I think there is a systematic lack of any planning. It is very cold, it is very brutal, it is very insensitive. No one really knows how to take care of the situation.

Anu: Is there also a blind imitation of measures taken in the West? Lockdown in the West means an entirely different prospect. They have mechanisms in place, they have structures in place, they have alternatives. In New York City, they have not shut the subway system even now, knowing that lives and livelihoods are dependent on that. India shut down public transport. We cannot use words like lockdown without the local context. Even for the most elite in Indian society, a lockdown is near impossible, because of the way the society is structured, the servant culture, the caste system, the supply chains. So there was more of a media response, to say yes, XYZ countries did lockdowns, so we are doing a lockdown. 

Khaild: That could very much be the case, because those who plan at the PMO office and the big thinktanks, I am not really sure, how much they really know about the ground situation, what kind of problems the people are really facing. For example, even yesterday, after PM Modi’s announcement about this 3 week lockdown, there was a statement from UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, that no one should move out of their house, and it is the government department which will send in essential commodities, without any clarity at all. How is the government going to send these materials to people? In such a big state, one of the largest states in India? So there is an announcement, without any structure, without any thought put into it, and if we’re surviving, it is because of local negotiations. Despite the CM’s announcement that no one should move out, at least in the place where I live, there was some kind of a relaxation between 6am to 9:30 am where people could go to the shops and vendors and get their stuff. If the police people had followed the CM’s announcement literally, then it would’ve been a big crisis. So yes, it looks like there is an imitation of the western experience, without factoring in the concrete situation on the ground, without factoring in the crisis that people will face in India.

Anu: Going back to the point about migrants walking away from the city. With a lockdown, there is no access to water and food to wherever they are heading. The restaurants are closed, groceries are closed. We don’t know how long they have to walk to reach their destination, we don’t know if they’re going to have essential supplies to reach their destination. 

Khaild: Yeah, yeah, most of these migrant workers depend on the roadside dhabas, these small restaurants for food. Not all of them can really cook the food while they are working. Yes, it is a crisis. There is a village nearby, called Badshahibagh, there are 4-5 dhabas, and all of them have shut down. The police have ensured that these dhabas do not open. And the students who live in Badshahibagh are facing a crisis. So, yes, yes.

Anu: What would be the Pasmanda intellectuals and activists’ suggestions to the government or the media? Who do they think that they should reach out to at this point to talk about this crisis?

Khalid: Anu, there seems to be a chaos. Even at the policy level, from whatever is being imagined at the level of the centre, and how it percolates down to the state level and then to the district level. All kinds of miscommunications, all kinds of misunderstandings there. For example, let’s take a simple issue, which has to do with the Pasmanda community of Qureshis or butchers, At the central level, from the circular which was released yesterday by the Secretary, it says that the basic food items like fish, chicken or meat will fall under the essential commodities category. Now that is at the level of the centre, so meat, poultry and fish are considered as essential food and the state is required to see that the supply chain is not halted. But at the level of the state, if you look at Yogi Adityanath’s statements, there is talk about vegetables, but there is a singular absence of meat or fish or such kinds of so-called non-vegetarian food in his speeches, his discourse. At the district level, slaughterhouses have been shut down for the last 3-4 days. Meat is simply not available. Most shops are closed. Chicken is not available.

I have heard that there are a few vendors near the Yamuna river, the police have even asked the fish vendors to close their shops. At the central level there is a different policy, and once it percolates down to the level of state and district, there is a different spin altogether. This is just about one community, the Qureshis or butchers, which is associated with the meat industry. Other communities are also facing different kinds of challenges. For example, the Vangujars, that supply milk in the area? How do they do that, since it is a complete lockdown and the police excesses are there, they are not allowing them to use mobikes to sell milk? What kind of intervention can be done in that context? Maybe, these are early days, one doesn’t know how these things will pan out, probably in the next 4-5 days, the local wisdom will kick in, and different kinds of negotiations between the communities, and the state administration, that’ll happen. And probably, after some kind of elementary negotiations, things could reach a bearable level. One can only hope for that, but one is not sure.

Anu: Both the instances that you spoke about meat and milk and the communities, the Vangujars and the Qureshis, it is also linked to refrigeration. In the West, when they went under lockdown, they are not going to throw the milk out or burn the meat. There is the whole technology advantage under which this lockdown is operating in the West, in China. Refrigeration is not an option for most of India’s farm production. We have industries, communities working around commodities that have to move along the supply line every day, because they can’t be stored. So, like you say, it will have to depend on local wisdom, basically left to themselves. If they were barely surviving, now these communities are going to be pushed, I don’t know, how many decades behind. This is a massive tragedy unfolding, economically.  

Khalid: Yeah, all of this is true. Like you talked about refrigeration, these Vangujars live in forest hamlets, where there is no power supply at all. The milk has to be supplied daily or else, it gets completely destroyed. Also, all kinds of superstitions. For example, with the kind of regime we have, there is a certain understanding of non-vegetarian food. Once this epidemic started making inroads in India, all kinds of informal gossip and rumors about the origin of this virus, from chicken and mutton, started circulating. With the consequence that chicken prices really dipped, and chicken which was earlier sold for Rs. 140-150 a kg, slashed down to Rs. 20 per kg with huge losses for those in this business. And it was a completely unfounded, unscientific rumor. But because we have a particular regime, a particular kind of understanding at this time, I think, these kinds of rumor mongering happens. I think it would be unthinkable in the West, that you would have such rumors about particular kinds of food or kinds of dietary habits.

Anu: What is the kind of sentiment at the community level that you’re sensing about this crisis? That they are going to deal with it by themselves? Or is there an expectation that the state would handhold a little bit, at least.

Khalid: Say about a week back, the community was gamed by the religious leaders and moulvis. If one moved around in the area, there was this sense that if you’re a believer, and you offer your namaz properly, nothing will happen to you. And that is not only for the Muslims but also for the non-muslim communities here. This is a very rural area where I work, so there was a lack of information, and it became free-floating ground for religious leaders. But once Prime Minister Modi got into action, after these two interventions, suddenly there is anxiety all around. Most people now think that there is a crisis, it cannot be solved through prayers alone, so something needs to be done. Now there is a panic, there is genuine fear, their wages are being hurt. No one has any clue what is going to happen. People are clueless. I see the dhabas, they have not opened for the last 5-6 days. They keep asking me, how long this is going be? If I give them an honest estimate that this could go on 7-8 months, there are all kinds of estimates, then suddenly their faces droop. It is a very painful sight. People are just sitting idle, without any work, with no place to go, and no sense for what the future has in store for them.

Anu: What the West did, with restaurants especially, because it came under essential services, they switched to delivery. There is no dine-in but there is delivery. They had to lay off a big part of the workers. The food supply chain to a large extent has not been ruptured. The grocery shelves went empty for a couple of days, but it is replenishing. The dhabas, they would come under essential services, but they cannot switch to delivery. Their whole way of working would have to change in order to do that and then they’ll run into cultural practices. The community has to figure out rapidly for these industries, especially the ones that come under essential services. 

Khalid: Just opposite to our campus, there is a small dhaba, and it specializes in biryani. It sells only biryani. Because the chicken supply was stopped, for a few days, he could not prepare the biryani. Once he procured some chicken, from somewhere. Even after that, since the police was completely monitoring the roads, it is a complete lockout, no one can really go to that dhaba. So, he passed his phone number informally, to the faculty members and university staff, that if they need biryani, he would supply to their houses. So, we had that phone number. Once, a few faculty members tried. But the police did not even allow him to come inside the university. Even if the dhaba person is innovating, and trying to develop some kind of delivery service, then these arbitrary police excesses. Probably, there will be some kind of negotiations in the next 4-5 days.

Anu: In all the instances that you are highlighting, the police don’t seem to have its orders about what is essential.

Khalid: The definition of essential, the kind of exceptions that have to be made, there is no training on that count. Forget the police, PM Modi is announcing the complete lockdown in his 8 pm address, and the very night, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is attending some religious function with 20-30 people where Section 144 is imposed in the state. If 144 is imposed, there cannot be meetings of more than 5 people at a time, and here is the Chief Minister, he is attending a function with 20-30 people when the curfew is imposed in the state, and no eyebrows are being raised, no questions on him. If that is the level at which the CM is operating, violating everything the PM said a few hours before, what do you really expect of the police?

Anu: So much depends on the resilience of the marginalized. But that is cold comfort. That should not be the case, that should not be the situation at all.

Khalid: It is an evolving situation. We are in the middle of the crisis, and there’s so much lack of information. What we are hearing are through informal sources, a few anecdotes, a few stories, here and there. Let’s see how it evolves.

Probably, the next week would be very crucial. We are anticipating some kind of emergency package from the State, in the next 2-3 days. If that doesn’t come along, we are in for a big, big crisis. Let’s see.

The interview was transcribed by Sundeep Pattem



Khalid Anis Ansari teaches sociology at Glocal University and tweets @KhalidAnisAnsa1. Views are personal.

Anu Ramdas is founder editor of Round Table India.

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