Rakesh Ram S
(SAVARI and Round Table India are doing a series to put together the Bahujan perspective on the Coronavirus pandemic)
Anu Ramdas: Welcome Rakesh, thank you for taking the time. Kerala has a very large diaspora and also a large number of people working in different States in India. It has a lot of back and forth travel that is significant to spread of the pandemic. This imposes different kinds of challenges for that state, which is dealing with international travelers and internal travelers from different States. How has it played out so far? Do they have different kinds of strategies to deal with these kinds of workers, travel plans and how are they doing the contact tracing, especially for the Keralites who work in other States in India.
Rakesh Ram: Kerala has always been highly dependent, for the last few decades at least, on remittances from the Keralites working outside the country. The government and civil society in general are very considerate to them and they give support to them. So, even though this may be the first time that they were suddenly starting to be seen as problem makers, bringing the disease and all that, but even then, the government was just asking them to stay in home quarantine. Even when many of them defied the directions, the government was not taking strict action. And when the government understood that this was getting more and more serious, the isolation wards, treatment wards, everything was of top quality when compared to Indian standards.
In most of the places they converted parts of the medical colleges, and not the smaller hospitals. And, also there are a lot of foreigners coming into quaratine and even they were treated very well. That’s what I hear and I believe they were given good support. And even for Keralites from other states, until a few days before the lockdown started, till that time even they were getting support. They were not stopped from coming back. A lot of people came back to Kerala and they’re still coming. In a lot of these medical colleges, Kerala has much better facilities than other states. But still a lot of the medical colleges are generally overcrowded, they don’t have the best facilities. And even here there is a bit of positive discrimination. Like most of the infected were from the upper classes and castes, and with the same facilities as earlier, which were struggling for space before, they worked to offer better facilities, which is a little interesting.
Anu: Regarding the class of workers from Kerala in other states, they are mostly white collar workers. Would you, classify them broadly as white collar workers? What about the ones in the disapora?
Rakesh: Yeah, I would say like a large percentage are white collar workers inside India and in the diaspora there are mixed groups, like laboring classes and white collar workers, everybody.
Anu: The laboring classes when they’re working in Gulf or even in the Western countries, they are not the same as the laboring classes in India, right? They will be able to access healthcare, at a different quantum as compared to the laboring classes here. In both cases, even if they are blue collar workers coming from the diaspora and largely white collar workers working in probably other states, they both have access to good health care. And the state itself, like you’ve said, has a fairly robust, infrastructure for health. I read a report about workers walking down from Kotagiri (in Coonoor and other areas). They were walking back to Kerala. That’s the only report that I read that was very different from, North India, where hundreds and thousands of workers are walking back home. I was very surprised to see that one group of people were walking home from these hills, how have they been treated what kind of access to healthcare do they have?
Rakesh: This is a smaller percentage of workers who are in the bordering districts. Maybe some of them will be farmers. A lot of Keralaites go to Coorg and maybe Tamil Nadu areas to do farming and that kind of work. I also heard reports that even later, after the lockdown was imposed, there were a few people using the smaller roads to get back to Kerala. I don’t think they will be getting the same support because they are under the radar.
Anu: Yeah. So under the radar kind of workers who are working in these bordering states would be mostly bahujan, adivasis, so that brings out the question: what kind of health care is generally available to the adivasis, the tribals, the, fishermen, and other occupational castes specific to the state?
Rakesh: I think the lockdown has impacted the laboring classes, mostly the daily wage laborers, the fishing community, adivasis in a very bad way. And even though the government from the beginning had planned, or at least on paper, to make sure that they will all be getting at least food grains and support. There were reports that the most marginalized groups are the adivasis and dalits even in the cities, the dalit colonies are not getting the kind of support that the civil society as such is getting. And yeah, if you see the adivasi part, there has been a lot of complaints about the lack of healthcare infrastructure in those areas in Kerala.
Anu: Is the pandemic going to change anything?
Rakesh: One section was Kasargod. It is the neglected district in Kerala. It has a mixed culture, sharing a border with Karnataka. The medical facilities are not that great. Many times there were incidents where patients, especially kids, had to be moved to Trivandrum for treatment. Government speciality centres which are the only option for many families are in Trivandrum which is 500 kilometers away. Kasargod became a hotspot of Corona with a spurt of cases. And another part was there was a medical college that was under construction for many years. And now in last few days or weeks, the government has got doctors and staff and converted it into a COVID-19 hospital. So maybe some improvemnet might come out of this.
Other than a few Ambedkarite activists, not a lot of a questions are raised in society about the lack of support to the fishing community, Adivasis and Dalit colonies. Police intervention during the lockdown is another aspect and you would have seen in most places, police has been brutal. Even in Kerala, the police was very brutal and I believe it has been following a set pattern of discriminatory violence against Bahujans and a lot of people were beaten up. And Kerala is known for social surveillance coming from different factors like rigid religious structures and also controlling cadre parties like CPM. So it was not very shocking, but drone cameras were used by police to disperse people breaking lockdown restrictions. And those videos were openly shared with the media and media also didn’t find any ethical issues in sharing of those videos. Even details about beating up people were widely shared, both by traditional media and social media.
Anu: Police brutality videos are shared like they are civil society’s public health messages. Connected question Rakesh, you are a software engineer who is from Kerala and working in Bangalore. They’re neighbouring States. They have different languages, histories, different infrastructure, different ways of handling public health. You, have access to both experiences, how is Karnataka faring?
Rakesh: Since Kerala had the first cases and also they had the recent history of dealing with Nipah virus, they were much faster in responding. Karnataka was slow and unorganized and screening of the inbound travelers started much later. And because of that, many Kerala NRIs were using Karnataka airports to get to Kerala. The official numbers are still low in Karnataka. So we have to wait for the real story compared to Kerala. There were a lot of complaints about the quarantine facilities and testing centers that the government set up here. And another part was, even before this, maybe because of the BJP rule and the general political climate, there were a lot of attacks on migrant laborers. Even government controlled actions against the migrant laborers. Migrant laborers are both from North Karnataka as well as Orissa, Bengal all those States, but they’re all being clubbed as Bangaldeshis in the context of CAA. So along with that, this came, so govt did not announce any support for the laboring class who were in Bangalore, living in the labor colonies. Maybe at a later point they announced some support I believe. And another drastic, very shocking, move was done: they published the list of all the people in quarantine along with addresses. This was done only by the Karnataka government.
Anu: That is exposing private citizens to intrusions. These are families, children, women, unbelievable violation of rights and exposing private citizens to all kinds of violence, no disease should be an excuse to do these things. Bangalore has also a major international airport. It has a lot of traffic coming in. How were the screening and isolation procedures in Bangalore being handled?
Rakesh: I remember it was started later, but the way Kerala initially handled was also not that great because a few of the southern districts were doing well, I mean Cochin airport and Trivandrum airport but airports in Northern districts were lax initially. Later, the northern districts were having more cases and they also became efficient in screening. Kerala had been very efficient with the screening and quarantine. They had a lot of ambulances lined to just take the traveler to their homes. That’s the kind of the response that is required. I’m not sure how it was done in Karnataka.
Anu: Finally, Rakesh, this is a broader question about communalization and criminalization of the Bahujan that is always happening, but under the disguise of, what do you say, under the aura of a pandemic, this has taken on different tones. Can you share your thoughts on that?
Rakesh: Since the initial case happened in Kerala and I think by March first week, we had, awareness that we should not be doing big functions and crowded events. And March 9th was the Attukal Pongala festival. This was originally more of a Bahujan festival but it became big or mainstreamed in recent years, a religious function where women cook pongala (sweet rice pudding) in Trivandrum city on the way to the temple. The government and the temple committee had a talk and they decided to go ahead with the festival, but as is the social norm the blame falls on the Bahujan who follows any rituals that can be branded religious. The most widely publicized photos were all of Bahujan women and maybe poor women who were wearing the masks and doing the pongala.
And this is a very popular festival and many celebrities were doing it but we wouldn’t see anyone trolling the savarna women who were doing the ritual. And then later on we had the Tablighi Jamaat incident, which I think was more around 14th of March and afterwards until the 23rd. So at that time, the same blame and media scrutiny was not on the leadership of the Tablighi Jamaat. But instead, the media was always following the followers who returned to their states. Even making false news about how they were behaving and all that. And I feel during both the times: in the Attukal Pongala case, all the liberals were violently judging the Bahujan who were following this ritual; and the other part, the right-wing was violently judging the followers of Tablighi Jamaat. In both cases, the government, and the religious committees, which allowed this to go on escaped the scrutiny.
And in general, there were so many big issues in Kerala. In 2018, we had Nipah virus and in 2019 we had the floods and in 2020, we are having Covid-19. So, all these issues that are affecting everybody, affecting both the upper castes and the lower castes, the government and the civil society came together. They were very efficient. But again if you see the 2019 floods, the later stages of rehabilitation were poorly managed because I think the upper class people who had losses, they were compensated quickly. All the lower classes they had to run from pillar to post, they have to do battle to get their compensation. Similar thing was seen during 2017 Ockhi cyclone. It caused a lot of damage to the fishing community. And, the government and the civil society was very insensitive to the demands of the fishermen for boats or search parties to find the missing fishermen. It caused huge loss of lives in the fishing community. Effciency is there, but for whom is the question.
Covid-19 has clearly shown that world over if the upper classes and the elite classes are going to be affected by any kind of distress phenomena, the responses are swift and highly efficient and of high quality.
[This interview was transcribed by Anu Ramdas.]
Rakesh Ram S is a software engineer based in Bangalore. He is also an Editor at Round Table India.
Anu Ramdas is the founding Editor of Round Table India.