Amidst much speculation, hope and rumours were rife with the possibility of an extension of the present lockdown, when we finally heard the Indian Prime Minister’s third address to the nation. The whispers announcing the country-wide extension now have an official stamp from New Delhi. However, at the same time, we have been reassured that certain parts of the country which haven’t witnessed a worrying surge in the number of viral infections will be eventually restored back to their socio-economic normalcy.
In times of nation-wide uncertainty, a ‘true leader’ is the person who instils undying faith of optimism and unshakeable determination in his countrymen. Shri Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, undeniably stands up to this ideal imagery of a ‘political messiah’ rescuing his country from the black hole of dark times. One perhaps cannot go without admiring his magical oratory skills which leave an indelible and profound impact on the ordinary citizen.
From bestowing a bouquet of flattering words to India’s Constitutional Father Dr. B.R. Ambedkar on his 129th birth anniversary to comparing the obedient compliance of his citizens to the virtues of a ‘disciplined soldier’ carrying out his/her patriotic duties by staying back at home – Modi’s encouraging words seem to echo the old familiar promise – ‘achhe din aayenge!’ (good times are coming!).
However, upon critical analysis, one realises that behind this veil of crafted presentation lies an oasis of silence. While Modi’s charisma solidifies his role as an ‘inspiring leader’ his ground-level administrative actions do not seem to crystallise his competence as a ‘worthy administrator’ in the present situation. This concern and inference is corroborated by the fact that experts and concerned citizens still do not have a clear answer to a number of issues which plague the country apart from the deadly virus. To put it more bluntly – we are still looming in the dark, completely ignorant of what awaits us in the near future.
In this article, I will highlight two broad issues that were not addressed in the Prime Minister’s speech – the concerns with medical infrastructure and the problems faced by migrant labourers. Throughout this article, I wish to emphasize upon the Modi government’s obstinate refusal to involve the citizens in the decision-making process by sharing its regulatory plans coupled with a stubborn insistence to maintain an administrative opaqueness or secrecy with regards to its future policies.
“Test, Test and Test” – The three magical words for the world: In the present times, there are two three-worded phrases that are actively being circulated on social media – ‘Stay at home’ and ‘Test, test, test’. While the Indian government has been fairly successful in ensuring the former, it’s official statements confirming the latter have been questioned time and again.
In the middle of March, when the pandemic had reached its zenith, the Director General of the World Health Organisation, Tedros A. Ghebreyesus, announced a simple advisory mantra to all the countries – “Test, test, test” in order to detect infected individuals. This three-worded advice had immediately received a uniform and unambiguous endorsement from the medical fraternity across the globe. In subsequent days, it was proved beyond reasonable doubt that countries that are testing more aggressively have reported a higher number of cases. In fact, the same holds true for India as well. Indian states and Union Territories that are fortunate to be equipped with more testing centres and are examining more samples have reported a higher number of confirmed cases.
Unfortunately, in the midst of this medical chaos, we are informed that India has not been testing adequately. One of the major reasons behind this is the unavailability of testing kits. Reports seem to suggest that Indian health equipment manufacturers are finding it difficult to procure these logistical equipments as most of the foreign supplies have been channelled to countries like Italy and the United States where the pandemic’s impact has been the worst.
Other reports inform us that even if India procures an adequate quantity of testing kits – the abysmal testing guidelines mandated by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare would not allow the experts to have a clear idea of the extent of this viral spread. The present guidelines allow a medical test only when a patient shows medical symptoms coupled with a travel history from foreign countries or a direct contact with a person who had returned from abroad in the recent past. Thus, individuals who might not be able to establish and convince the authorities of a ‘foreign connection’ may not get the privilege of availing a medical check-up.
We are told that this extremely judicious and prudent utilisation of resources is justified in the present situation where there is a scarcity of health equipments. It is pertinent to note here that experts and former government officials have disagreed and criticised this approach of the Indian Health Ministry.
What is more interesting is the Prime Minister’s careful weaving of words. At one point in his speech, he notes a dramatic country-wide increase in the number of labs, testing equipments and beds without delving much into the internal flaws of the testing methodology itself. One wonders what good would an addition of a hundred new labs bring if the testing mannerism remains flawed. In addition to this problem, many individuals have strongly complained about the poor maintenance and unhygienic conditions of the health centres which in themselves discourage citizens from visiting these medical units for a check-up.
Perhaps our greatest failure lies with our inability to provide our doctors, nurses and medical staff with a sufficient number of good quality – ‘personal protective equipment’ (PPE). The world today is indebted to the tireless services of the medical fraternity. With great disappointment we must acknowledge that we, the citizens, and the government have done nothing to boost the sagging morale of our health warriors who work relentlessly on the forefront.
We must understand that our attempts to express a weekly patriotic fervour in the form of orchestrating a euphoric clamour of domestic utensils and presenting a visual façade by lighting candles or lamps will not yield any ‘productive result’ during this health crisis.
One can well understand that India, as a fast-growing developing country, has its own reasonable economic limitations. In such a scenario, one would have applauded the Prime Minister if he would have honestly and expressly acknowledged the difficulties that the country faces at the moment. Unfortunately, one is compelled to opine that the Prime Minister’s description of an all happy Disney picture was both misleading and uncalled for.
Lockdown vs. Livelihood: The Issues faced by our Migrant Labourers: In India, the migrant workers are probably the most vulnerable group in the country’s ‘informal sector’. This group alone comprises 80 percent of the Indian workforce. These workers migrate from their villages to metropolitan cities in search of job opportunities which primarily demand manual labour. They are the individuals we see working at construction sites, factories or running errands in busy market-places for a meagre daily wage.
In the last week of March, this group was suddenly informed that the Prime Minister had announced a complete country-wide lockdown in the wake of a ‘foreign disease’ which had already claimed thousands of lives abroad. Quite reasonably, they realised that without any income they would not be able to sustain themselves in the city for long. The obvious alternative was to head back to their native villages where they wouldn’t have to pay their accommodation rents and would also get a meal to survive.
In order to fully understand and appreciate the problems faced by our migrant workers, it is important to critically engage with how their earning mechanism operates. These workers usually retain a small portion of their income and send back the rest to their families residing in the villages. In a recent interview, Mr. Pronab Sen, India’s former Chief Statistician and the present Chairman of the Standing Committee on Statistics, explains to us that since the lockdown was immediately preceded by the festivity of Holi most of the workers would have sent their entire salary back home – therefore, currently, they would not have a single penny to sustain themselves. Moreover, these individuals would have procured their meals from the shanty roadside eateries most of which have also been closed down. This means that they would not be able to buy food even if they miraculously managed to save some money.
In response to Modi’s reassurance of supporting the workers through the ‘Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana’ – Mr. Sen expresses his disappointment by explaining that most of these government banks would be located back in the native villages and thus, while the benevolent government funding might support the worker’s family back home – it would be of no use to the labourer who remains stranded in the city.
The government had also given assurance that it would set up food distribution units from where the stranded labourers would be able to procure food supplies by showing their ration cards. This too seems to be a problematic approach. The former chief statistician tells us that this policy would only benefit those labourers who have permanently shifted and started residing in the cities. On the contrary, the migrant workers do not permanently reside in their place of work and thus, their ration cards would only enable them to procure food back in their native villages and not in the city. Therefore, they might not benefit from the food distribution system.
Once again, the Prime Minister’s speech does not address this alarming concern. Modi’s silence echoes and further reveals India’s apathy towards these helpless migrant labourers.
The Three R’s – Reconstruct, Redefine and Reinvent: Indeed, trying times test our character and put our determination on trial. However, trying times also present an extraordinary opportunity to learn from our mistakes and reconstruct, redefine and reinvent ourselves.
India, its Government and ‘We, The People’ must use this moment to learn from our mistakes and experiences while simultaneously endeavouring to mould a new future for the country. The country’s top leaders must realise that rather than passionately infusing nationalist zeal in their citizens they must share detailed plans with the people and involve them in the decision-making process. India must utilise this moment to reconstruct its infrastructure, redefine its role as an emerging world power in the international political spectrum and reinvent the wheel of fortune for a new future. As the world endures a historical transformation, India must seize the opportunity and prove itself.
Anirban Chanda is a fourth-year law student at Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat. The views in this article are personal and not endorsed by any party.