(SAVARI and Round Table India are doing a series to put together the Bahujan perspective on the Coronavirus pandemic)
Anu Ramdas: Gurinder, thank you for taking the time for this. My first question to you is about Punjab. In the background of the pandemic, we know Punjab receives a lot of international travelers because of its very large diaspora. Can you give us an idea of how the state prepared to minimize or restrict the virus entry through international travel to Punjab?
Gurinder: Now, international flights are not there, they have stopped. The Indian government has stopped them, now there is no travel as such. But many people had come back to Punjab in recent months. As far as the diaspora is concerned, they managed well actually beforehand. But there was only one case, which I need to mention, about one Baldev Singh. He was from a rural background and he went to Italy and Germany. He was a preacher, a Sikh preacher, and he went with two companions and returned and then visited a festival called Holla Mohalla in Anandpur Sahib of Punjab, which has its own kind of a legacy of celebrating. He went there and, he died, unfortunately, of heart attack and, Al Jazeera and BBC they called him, the first case or zero patient of Coronavirus in Punjab, who infected 40,000 people. So that false propaganda was made. And, this is how Punjab, came into the limelight, on this issue. Whereas the fact-finding as conducted by a few friends of ours, found that, you know, he was such an innocent person, you know, unnecessarily he was dragged into the whole picture. As if he was a careless person and he intentionally hid this, that he’s a Corona positive patient and lots of false propaganda was made around him. But there are arguments now.
One thing I want to talk about here is Indian society, how they react to such cases. The thing is, a person who is, you know, more than 70 years old.. and leave aside this, any patient, people, and society should be sensitive towards him. A singer is there, Sidhu Musewalla, he made a song and where he dragged this person into it again and, very derogatorily he treated him in that song and the Punjab DGP, Dinkar Gupta, he tweeted that song. So, what I’m saying is, how society is also, rather than being sensitive or, having a humanitarian viewpoint or, being sympathetic towards the patients, they mark them by vilifying, where a person feels humiliated. Because of this, I think, there are two cases, a couple has committed suicide, whereas later it is found, they were not Corona positive. Now more than 70 cases are there (the interview was conducted in April 2020), the death rate is very low, I think 6-7 are there, some people have recovered also, 5-6 people. I think the response from society is, I mean this is how the society has been made, you know, they are not sensitive, they are not sympathetic and they don’t have this feeling to be caring, to accommodate patients. I think this is the bottom line.
Going back to what you asked, what is the preparation for it? One thing is, in all the states of India, governments are saying a lot of things–state, and central governments. In Punjab, the Sikh communities have come forward. From the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbanda Committee and Durbar Sahib, they have come forward and given some guidelines of their own, that from the Sikh perspective, to open all the funds, the offerings that Gurdwaras receive, for the poor people. All the inns in the gurdwara, which are called Sarai, they have been opened for the people, that they can come and stay. Usually, there are no such cases where people have no shelter to live. Although they might be poor, they have shelter. So the worst cases could be, as we have experienced, many migrants.. how police have been treating them. There is no mechanism for them, for travel or anything. Rather they have been beaten up, and some families have committed suicide in India.
But in Punjab, this has not been the case. In the beginning, a few families left on their own, for UP and Bihar, on foot. But later when this was realized, [people like] even my own elder brother, he’s in Morinda, he mobilized people in the gurdwara, and around 300 families who were going back to Bihar or UP, or wherever they belong to, he stopped them and offered 10kg of rice, 3kg of wheat, and the committee said that whatever you need, whatever medication, whatever sort of need is there, you come to us, but you don’t go back. So, in Chandigarh also, it has happened, in other parts of Punjab, it has been happening. Many organizations are there, many people, individuals are coming up.
This is the kind of, you know, being Sikh, as an organized community, this is their response. Whereas when it comes to the state, the Punjab government, it has, as all the state governments, coming out with guidelines that, quarantine yourself, don’t go out, don’t shake hands all these kinds of things, but as always, the doctors don’t have proper kits. This is a pan-India problem, I think. There is no procurement from other states or the central side. These kind of challenges are there. But, I think, more or less, the situation is under control.
In the beginning, people were still coming out, they were marching here and there, on their scooties for their routine stuff, but police has handled them strictly. This kind of situation is in control because not many cases are coming up.
Anu: Gurinder, all over the world, what is coming to play is the relationship between the centre and the states. All the relationships are being questioned, and reworked, especially in the way resources are being used to manage the pandemic. We’re seeing it everywhere. How is it working out between Punjab and Delhi? How much of the emergency relief funds have been released to Punjab?
Gurinder: So far there is no information specifically about how much funds have been allocated to Punjab. I tried to dig out, and yesterday I was talking to some people in Punjab. No one has any clue actually, so far. Some false kinds of things are there, this much crores, that much crores, but no authentic information. Definitely this is a big question. Between the state government and the Delhi government, the situation is really bad. It is not that only in this pandemic it is coming up, it is a usual thing, because Food Corporation of India and other procurement agencies, all are in control of [central] government. It has become very difficult now, but it is a 2-3 decades old problem actually. Yeah, we can say that because of this [pandemic] we are experiencing, this question is coming up again. Anyhow, the centre never bothered, no matter if it is BJP or Congress, they always have these grudges and partial behaviour towards Punjab.
Not just this pandemic, if Punjab government is given more powers, in education and in other ways of how to deal with problems in the society… the problem of unemployment, the problem of focal points and industry, small farmers, big farmers, land issues, water issues–these could have been resolved much before. There would have been a struggle, but it would have been within Punjab. So that could have been handled well, by the people and the government.
It is not in Punjab only, I have been seeing that people are coming up who, in their own way, they are mobilizing money, they are coming up with food packets and they are giving to people. Otherwise, from the state’s side, we see that it is only issuing guidelines and giving more power to the police to do anything. In Punjab, we have the same kind of situation. The bottom line is: centre does not want good things to happen in Punjab. I don’t think, Amarinder Singh, who is the CM of Punjab, has been demanding that we need more powers …
Anu: But the most developed countries have released money for the citizens. When they’re at home under lockdown, they have lost their wages and jobs. For many of those who need, there is a relief, funds have been released. US, Denmark, Germany, all of them have released the money. But there is no talk of it in India.
Gurinder: Now, let’s step back before this question comes up. You see how the migrants have been treated. Lakhs of migrant people were there, it’s not just men, but people with small children and along with families, they were walking on the road, they were having bags, and police brutality was there. What kind of society are we talking about, actually? And the state machinery. I mean, police never go beyond the government. What the government says, they obey that. They always follow the orders. So, I believe, with my own experiences, if the boss said ‘you don’t touch anyone,’ they would not do that. It is to teach a lesson that, ‘you are like this, you should be kept here.’ There is no agitation. Please try to understand. I can understand if there is agitation. They are not agitating or protesting, they are just pleading. In such a society, it is not that I am dying of hunger, but I am also facing humiliation from the state, at the hands of the police, from the hands of any machinery that I am coming across. At every step, I am misbehaved with. People will come to this question quite late.
It is not just this pandemic. There are various kinds of funds that have never been allocated when this country was so-called progressing or prospering. There is no demand also. This central government has taken all the people into their hands. As they have done in Madhya Pradesh, literally they are buying MLAs and all. I think it’s a game now: whether they will allow having a life if it is not on their terms. The demand is not there at all.
Anu: The next question I want to ask is related to food. The pandemic is going to disrupt so many things. Because it’s coming with a lockdown, supply chains, especially for essential goods is going to be disrupted. But also, routine processes. Agriculture follows its own timeline. It doesn’t stop for a pandemic, you can’t put it under lockdown. What is the agricultural situation in Punjab right now? What is going to happen as things get disrupted now, for the next crop, for the farmers?
Gurinder: There is already a delay, actually. One thing is that it was badly affected because of the weather also. There was heavy rain and continuous strong winds were there. I won’t say all, but a lot of lands where the crop was there, it’s not in a healthy condition anymore. However, now the mausam is fine, it is friendly now. Because of this lockdown, the labour is not there, who would go in the field and cut. But in some areas, they have started. This is, because of whatever local measures that were taken. They have spoken to the police, so the laborers have started harvesting. But we can’t say that it is happening pan-Punjab. The government, within a week–they are going to do something on this, whether they would go with the harvesting machines… That’s still a pending thing because it is a big task now. They are also waiting for the lockdown to complete, within a week they will come up with something. The farmers have gone to meet the CM. I think that has to happen, but the problem is with the khet-mazdoor, the laborers who work in the field but don’t own it, they get a cut from the total crop by offering their service. That is not happening now, so they are sitting at home. They are depending on either the local Gurdwara, or someone to give food. This is the situation.
On the other hand, as I said, Gurdwaras are now mapping out plans. They don’t want to depend on the government for this. So they are doing whatever the best possible they can do. We have actually, in FCI godowns, a lot of reserves, so much wheat is there, rice is there. The Indian government has sent 20 trains of rice and wheat to the other states, as a kind of offering. So, it’s not that it’s not there. We have to see, people will decide ….
Anu: This is the minimum they have to do. What about hospital infrastructure?
Gurinder: There are charitable hospitals that have come forward. Like in Amritsar there is one, in Ballanwala, Jalandhar, there is one, they have been working. But, I believe that this is a sudden kind of thing that has come. We never have heard about it, this kind of disease, what kind of measures and what kind of equipment are needed for this. Because of this, I think, there is a gap. And there is a Central level failure. They could have produced a lot of masks, could have done all these things. They are sitting on huge amounts of money. They are not doing it, and we are not seeing that Government is coming up with some kind of an offering, some kind of measure, that is not there. Otherwise, quite some time has passed, they could have done a lot of things.
Anu: Yes, India had several months advantage over others…
Gurinder: Yes, so PGI, Post Graduate Institute in Chandigarh which is a big one, like AIIMS in Delhi, they are also having these kinds of problems. But fortunately, we don’t have this kind of thing: like in Uttar Pradesh, if doctors ask for masks, ask for equipment and kits, they said that you will be sacked, those kinds of things are not there. They are listened to properly, and they try to address the things. That’s a bit better than in some other states. If people go to see doctors, it is not that they will be beaten up, or they will be treated badly. You just say that I am going for this, police believe that. That kind of, a little bit of room is there, you know, to have a sigh of relief. Otherwise, in the lack of lots of equipment and other things, a huge problem is there. I think there is no testing also, many cases are there which are not tested …
The two people with Baldev Singh, who are still alive, they said when they were interviewed, they had been told to quarantine themselves and not meet anyone. They said, ‘we live in a village, we are not updated, we don’t watch TV. Why do the government and journalists think that we should always be updated, and know what to do or not do? We are humble people, we are going everywhere, we are leading our life.’ Why suddenly, they are demonizing…
Anu: Yeah, and shame them nationally, internationally …
Gurinder: As if they were thinking, I am going to die, so I’ll kill as many people as possible.
I think, also, this question should be taken up this time, agencies like Al Jazeera, BBC, maybe they have their offices in Punjab, but before they take it up as international news, they should be sensitive, talk to the local people at least, the version of the family.
I want to say, in the end, it will be really great if people start thinking in the line of a federal structure, gaining it back. Especially, the food procurement and distribution is carried out by the centre now, they don’t release wheat, they don’t release rice. I have seen, in Manmohan Singh’s time, when lakhs of tonnes of wheat and rice got spoiled, lying in the stores. Somebody asked because it was not completely spoiled, why don’t you release it? He said that we don’t have those kinds of mechanisms to distribute. Fair price shops, ration shops, and all are there? He said, it’s too much, a big thing and they can’t do it. So, they dump it in the ocean. For dumping in the ocean lots of money was spent. Those kinds of things are there, and it is prevailing because it is too centralized.
It is high time, with this pandemic, they understood, how better they could have addressed this situation if the states had more powers in their hands. It would have been a much better way, it would have been amazing, I would say. People would have come forward with more efforts, initiatives. Now people keep looking up towards the centre. The centre has to decide and until then we have to sit idle…
Let’s see how they’re going to do this. As far as Punjab is concerned, there are progressive people, the journalists are there, the Bahujan journalists, especially the Sikh people. Every single move of the government, they keep an eye. But that is not sufficient because we don’t just need information, we also need some action based on it.
It is there in Punjab, the feeling that they have to strengthen the federal structure. But, this nationalism, this akhand bharat, the propaganda…. In Punjab, people are aware of it. Because of the long history of its oppressive effects. Whatever the calamity, they look through this lens of federal system, they have this habit.
Anu: The other states think Delhi has to do something, whatever scraps Delhi throws, they have to take it.
Gurinder: The other states think, a better raja will come tomorrow. But they want a raja, that’s there.
[This interview was transcribed by Sundeep Patttem.]
Gurinder Azad is a poet, writer, activist. He is also the Editor of Round Table India (Hindi). Anu Ramdas is the founding Editor of Round Table India (English).