India’s lockdown tragedy: bleeding along the fault lines of a nation

As India comes out of a long and harsh lockdown, and Covid-19 cases are rising with worrying speed, it is important to reflect on the  Indian government’s response to the pandemic, and its implications for the current moment and the future of Indian society.

In what seemed at first like an epidemic originating and spreading in distant lands, the delayed arrival of Covid-19 in India in March 2020 has led to a shattering meltdown of public life, and the implementation of a punitive lock-down regime.

The most visible manifestations of this are not a health crisis – that a nation with dismal health facilities was expected to have – but the mass displacement and movement of the working poor, loss of livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people, and a fragmented public sphere in which truth is the first casualty.

While much of January and February were spent hosting and celebrating international guests such as Brazil’s Bolsonaro and America’s Trump, the Indian state woke up to the threat of the pandemic on 24 March, and then without much planning or thought for the masses, declared a complete lockdown, which, with a notice of just four hours, shut the working and social worlds of 1.3 billion people.

Yet, this unplanned and irresponsible order was not unusual. It was reminiscent of the November 2016 midnight announcement of a demonetisation of currency notes when 500 and 1000-rupee notes were banned overnight. Forcing people to exchange the old notes with new ones at the banks, the move was justified on the grounds that it would wipe out black or illicit money, stem terrorist funding, and clean up the economy to make it more efficient.

In practice, the new notes were not being printed fast enough, and the resulting currency shortage devastated the savings and livelihoods of millions of people, claimed the lives of several hundreds who died in the midst of the utter chaos and distress that demonetisation created, and unashamedly integrated even the poorest into a technological financial regime backed by crony capitalism. Worse yet, 99.3 percent of the currency notes were returned, turning the intended policy goal into a spectacular failure.

The Covid-19 lockdown has come in the context of an already decelerating economy, contested citizenship laws, and deep social fracturing. For not only its most visible victims but for the nation as a whole, the pandemic and the lockdown regime are producing distress along the many fault lines of the nation and its societies.

That the situation is being experienced very differently by different classes of people is evident in the differences between the harrowing stories and images of those who are bearing the brunt of this new state-led offence versus the insouciant celebration of life under lockdown among the upper classes.

Social media has been saturated with the new lockdown lifestyle that is emerging among the privileged, and which consists of fun food recipes to be made without cooks and domestic help, entertainment opportunities, jokes about encounters with Covid-19, and “never miss the opportunity” advice for enhancing children’s competitive learning via online classes.

While online classes have become the new mode of teaching-learning for the upper classes, a vast majority of middle and working class children are locked out of regular classes and do not have the opportunity to take annual exams.

With the closure of all public transport and lack of alternatives for the estimated 140 million migrant workers who constitute the backbone of the labour class in urban India, the lockdown initiated an exodus where several thousands started walking to their villages and homes.

That the state failed to even take cognisance of the needs and conditions of these workers is not new. Over the past decades, economic policies and political manipulation have been based on a combination of an economics of neglect and of a politics of rescue. The agrarian and predominantly rural population and sectors have been largely considered redundant to a nation which has focused primarily on global economic ambitions. A politics of rescue consisting of populist policies of loan moratorium for large farmers and of free grains for the poor have been deployed primarily at election times to garner votes from the rural majority.

The structural issues of unequal distribution of resources (with an average agricultural land holding size of 1.1 hectare), and of dismal welfare institutions such as poor and inadequate medical and education sectors, have largely remained unaddressed. The result has been the growth of an impoverished peasantry which the Dutch Anthropologist, Jan Breman, who has been studying India for the past four decades, refers to as a growing body of “footloose labour”. It is this labour, embedded in precarity and multiple forms of marginalisation, which is the core of a rural remittance economy.

Before the pandemic, with agriculture and the rural economy consistently recording negative growth rates over the past two decades, a significant number of the vast rural population has sought employment in the booming construction industry and in the fast growing urban service economy to which they provide labour. For this large body of precarious workers, neither political legislation nor economic policies have offered adequate pay, or medical, housing and employment security. Most young men migrate without families, and most live and eat in the premises in which they work. Many live on roadsides and in camps and “illegal settlements”, which are temporary living spaces. A lockdown meant not only loss of employment, but also loss of living space and food. And the urge to be with one’s family continues to be the most pressing emotional need for many.

Workers on the move or stuck in cities

In desperation and defiance of government orders not to move from the place of residence at the time that the lockdown entered into force, a large number of people engaged in a mass exodus, walking in the direction of their villages.

This was reminiscent of the 1947 violent mass movements of people between Pakistan and India, as newly independent but partitioned, postcolonial nations. This time workers were walking across India, seeking to reach their communities of origin in distant regions and cities.

Stories from this mass movement tell us about the callousness of the state, the tenacity of rural migrants to return to their homes, the complexity of an economy in which subsistence lives have underwritten the profits of capitalists, and a nation in which the lives of the disadvantaged majority are considered superfluous.

Hundreds of young people have collapsed and died on the roadsides. Sixteen people were mowed down by a goods train, as they lay completely exhausted and in deep sleep on the railway tracks that they thought were their lifeline to returning home. In one abandoned industrial shed, an exhausted mother wept, as she was eating only one meal a day and was now unable to generate breast milk to breast feed her six months old child. Migrant cooks – who had doled out delicacies for upscale urbanites – found themselves abandoned and without food.

A young man quarantined himself on a tree outside his village as he was not allowed to enter. A mother rode 1400 kilometres on her scooter to pick up her stranded student son from another state. In the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, a young couple hung themselves since the migrant, returning husband was not allowed to enter the village. In Bengal a young man drowned in a river while trying to get into a town to purchase medicines for his wife. And eighteen young workers from Mumbai hitchhiked a ride inside a concrete mixer in their attempt to reach their village in Uttar Pradesh.

Other migrant workers who were unable to leave the city found themselves shuttered in either rented homes and camps, or placed in “shelter camps”, arranged by the government to quarantine the mass of migrant workers. After some weeks in this situation, many yearned to be with their own families and in their community of origin. As several migrants expressed to visiting social workers and activists, they would rather die at home in dignity than live in these lockdown shelters.

Cultural omens and spectacles

The sudden announcement of a severe lockdown was made acceptable to people via periodic cultural pronouncements and gimmickry – something the BJP (the ruling party) has become expert at. A week after the lockdown, people were exhorted to clang utensils and clap their hands as a way to appreciate the work of the frontline medical personnel.

In early April Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked people to switch off all lights at 9 pm on 5 April, and light lamps so that the corona virus could be collectively chased away. Numerologists extolled the significance of the day: April as the fourth month, and the lighting held on the fifth day, add up to the lucky number 9 – this allegedly highlighted the PM’s ingenuity in providing an auspicious way to ward off the coronavirus and safeguard the people.

The pandemic received a Hindi name, mahamari (“great affliction”), reminiscent of the way smallpox , once a major scourge in India, was referred to as the maha mari, a visitation by an angered deity who had to be appeased and then warded off with rituals.

If such cultural camouflaging was not sufficient, the government ordered the defence forces to send airplanes so that key hospitals in the cities were showered with flower petals, and ships in certain ports lit up – all as ways to express the people’s appreciation for medical institutions and personnel.

With demonetisation, people’s hardships were legitimised as a strategy and a sacrifice for the greater good of the nation. In a similar way, the spectacles of petals and lights put up by the defence forces were part of a strategy to make the lockdown acceptable as a medical emergency in which the greater good, and therefore the lives of the people, were being safeguarded by the current political dispensation.

Lockdown lifestyles and class privilege

That the lockdown manifested in full magnitude the immense differences of privation and privilege among the citizens, was evident in the lifestyle that emerged among the upper middle classes and the rich and powerful. Online work made continued employment possible for those who were privileged to be in jobs that could be carried out in smart working mode, and had access to good communication facilities.

Their only privation, which was the drying up of the army of domestic and other support staff, was resolved within a week of the lockdown. Sanitation workers and cleaners were considered “essential service workers” and their continued work ensured that the cities and towns were kept clean. Delivery services, including offers to deliver liquor, continued to provide goods to many housing complexes and there were no signs of scarcity in these neighbourhoods.

The most striking contrast was shown in the availability of fresh groceries. The first week of the lockdown saw a spiralling of prices of fresh fruit and vegetables, but by the second week the lack of interregional transportation saw a glut of fruits and vegetables. Farmers reported severe losses as many were unable to harvest their crops. For those who did manage to harvest their produce, the limited market blocked any possibilities of sales or profits. Desperate and angry farmers dumped their produce, and in some cases a few set fire to their fields, or ploughed in all the standing vegetables.

In the fifth largest city of the country, Bengaluru, where I am based, and whose lush countryside is home to a rich horticulture economy, farmers undersold their fruits and vegetables. The immediate beneficiaries were the privileged classes who now had access to a cornucopia of a wide variety of mangoes, grapes, bananas and vegetables – all at distress sale prices.

In the inner cities where the working classes were locked out of employment, food was either provided by civil society and charitable organisations, or through government-run meal centres. In a low-income area where a by-election was due, an aspiring political contestant (who had been dismissed for electoral malpractice in a previous election) fed his electorate with two meals a day (a choice of vegetarian or non-vegetarian food), drinking water, and a supply of vegetables every few days. One recipient of this unusual generosity, a woman who works as a domestic cleaner, said to me with a tinge of sarcasm: “Who would have thought that we would be fed this way and with this kind of food… I now make only the morning tea and breakfast for my family… the rest comes to us via the leader”.

Another painful manifestation of such class biases was how the government addressed the needs of providing transport facilities to those who were stranded and away from their homes. While airlifts were facilitated for Indians in Iran and Italy even before the lockdown, the need to provide mass transportation for working class migrants was initially ignored.

Responding to pressures and to the negative images in the media, the government reluctantly provided some special trains called “Workers’ Express” (Shramik Express) and buses during the second phase of the lockdown (after 14 April) so that migrant workers could reach their homes.

Yet, even this service was cancelled soon after, as state governments succumbed to the pressure of the construction sector lobbies who expressed the need to retain labour within the cities. Only mass public pressure and the filing of human rights violation suits forced the government to rescind their orders.

As the transport for workers was being delayed and mismanaged, the media celebrated the initiation by the government of the “world’s largest air-lift” of its citizens from the Gulf countries, and the deployment of ships to rescue citizens stranded in the islands around the Indian Ocean.

The deployment of these special ships and airplanes, called the “Hail India Mission” (Vande Bharat Abhiyan) has become another media and cultural celebration of the government’s “heroic” rescue of its citizens from distant shores.

What the lockdown’s mismanagement highlights is how contested the definitions of who counts as a citizen and of what rights one is entitled to. The extent to which full citizenship is acknowledged and acted upon by the state is also narrowing, leaving large numbers of people excluded from full rights.

The transnational classes are given priority. Within the Indian nation, each regional state is expected to take care of its members, and within states, each district is expected to care for its resident population, and at the village level it is up to the caste community to take care of its own.

The irony of neoliberal globalisation is apparent: while capital, technology and labour are expected to flow effortlessly at the beck and call of corporate interests, in times of distress it is the state, the community, and finally the family that must rush to the rescue of the individual and collective workers – never the corporations that profit the most from the current economic order.

The special economic stimulus package announced by government in May was yet another example of the neglect of rural and urban working classes. Paltry sums have been allocated to these sectors and the dire need to provide emergency food, income support and safety nets has been largely overlooked.

The stress is primarily on acknowledging the “tax-paying middle class” citizen and appeasing the business and entrepreneurial classes who form the backbone of consensus for the ruling Hindutva (fundamentalist Hindu) nationalist party. Continuing the government’s cultural ploys, the economic package was presented as an innovative measure in which harmful globalisation is rejected and a new “self-reliant India” (Atmanirbhar Bharat) is forged.

It was no surprise that, in the midst of this gargantuan humanitarian catastrophe, the mainstream media celebrated the recent USD 5.7 billion equity deal between Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook and Indian e-commerce and telecom giant Jio Platforms, led by Indian businessman Mukesh Ambani, Asia’s wealthiest man and a close ally of the ruling party. With Facebook now owning 9.99% of Jio Platforms, the deal highlights the consolidation of ties between transnational capital and India’s ruling apparatus.

Eroding democracy

Over the past six years, India’s democracy received several blows, such as: the draconian and anti-humanitarian measures in which Kashmir’s political rights were abrogated; false charges levelled against critics of the government and rights activists; a questionable court judgment that facilitates the construction of a Hindu temple over a contested site also claimed as a mosque by a Muslim community; and new constitutional amendments that excluded South Asian Muslims from access to Indian citizenship. All these anti-democratic moves, combined with the lockdown measures, make for an erosion of India's democratic fabric never witnessed before.

The government has provided no details about the Covid-19 crisis decision-making procedures and the mandated bodies in charge of them. The inputs of experts and professionals are largely missing in government decisions, and the federalism and basic rights of all assured by the constitution are being violated.

Amidst the general fear and panic among the populace, anti-Muslim sentiments have been stoked, and overt bigotry in both private and public domains has gained sway. There is little concern among the elected representatives for the very people that have sent them to parliament.

The disregard for working class needs cannot be ascribed to incompetence. India’s administrative apparatus is able to successfully organise major religious events such as the iconic kumbh mela, a major Hindu religious festival in which over ten million people congregate. The lockdown exodus of working class migrants, seen as an act of dissent against the government’s orders not to move, has met with a callousness that mocks government claims to democracy. Worse still, religious gatherings are seen as sites for political mobilisation, but this desperate mass movement of workers was not perceived by the ruling party as having any political worth.

The economy and the most marginalised for whom everyday work is the only lifeline will not be the only casualties of the government’s response to Covid-19. A populist authoritarian government, backed by religious nationalism, is seeking to make the most of this crisis to further shut down democratic processes.

Arrests of people opposed to the biased new citizenship laws, or critical of the Modi government, and of those who championed the cause of the most disadvantaged groups (indigenous groups and workers) have gained momentum during the lockdown, and democratic processes have been compromised at multiple levels. A nineteen year-old college student has been jailed without due process, after proclaiming at a political rally "Long live Pakistan" (as part of a longer poem in which she sought to celebrate all nations). At the time of writing, she is still in jail.

For long the single most important institution that has until recently upheld democracy, the judiciary has also been compromised, with many judges acting according to the Prime Minister’s interests. The media (with a few brave exceptions) have become either the mouthpiece of the government, or outlets that conveniently erase cases of violations of democratic and human rights. In the meantime, several persons who have committed heinous crimes such as public lynching, rape, and murder, and who are backed by the Hindutva network, remain scot free.

Compounding all this has been the deployment of a contact tracing app for Covid-19, called Aarogya Setu or “Health Bridge”. The government encourages all citizens to download and use this app. The initiative has already stirred controversy, as some ministries have initially made the app mandatory for employees, and some regional governments imposed its download on their citizens. Many such moves have been diluted or reversed after widespread opposition. Civil rights activists rightly note that this is another instrument of surveillance and will feed into the draconian anti-opposition strategies of the government.

Some hope in the midst of tragedy

Even as the dreams of a fast-tracked global economy have crumpled with the decline of GDP growth in recent years, it has been the culture of workers and rural residents and their strong emotional bonding to their villages, homes and communities that have come to their rescue.

Amid the horrific stories, the lockdown period has also seen acts by ordinary people that restore faith in humanity. Truck drivers have ferried migrants at great risk to themselves; roadside eateries have fed people free of charge; passing strangers have donated money to the walking migrants; people have opened their homes, schools and institutions to strangers and have fed and cared for them; Muslims have come to the rescue of their Hindu neighbours, helped cremate their dead, and then cared for the deceased’s relatives.

And, in what is possibly a key redeeming feature in this tragic scenario, a band of young, educated, and committed youth in the urban areas has become a beacon of humanitarianism and rights’ activism. Many youths now criss-cross the cities, at great risk to their lives, providing food, medical supplies, legal aid, and support to working class strangers.  It is these young people – rather than the elected representatives, the bureaucracy, or the mainstream media – who are now upholding the values of the constitution.

The resilience and forbearance of India’s working classes and castes now stand on a threshold: will the lockdown and the government’s blatant lies, biases and culture of disregard for human rights, spur these classes to rethink their political options?

Or, as in the past, will they succumb to the cultural gimmicks and spectacles of religious nationalism, and continue to be sacrificial subjects in a country that claims to be the world’s largest democracy? How the Covid-19 lockdown, its aftermath, and the trajectory of the virus will unravel may foretell a new history for India as a nation.

A post-pandemic humanity?

As several scholars and public intellectuals have indicated, we are witnessing and experiencing a “great disruption” – a failure of the dominant economic order which also coincides with the onset of a global climate emergency. Covid-19 has laid bare the many fault lines of the 21st century world and highlighted the important similarities across vastly different countries, indicating an underlying shared global condition.

The long lines of cars that await to receive free meals in the US and the conditions of millions awaiting food relief in India, the medical crisis onset by the neglect of public health systems, and the fact that this is also a time when billionaires are turning into trillionaires in both countries, indicate the similarities in the economic and social structures of the two nations.

Working classes have been made dispensable, a population whose economic precarity and social vulnerability mark them as easy victims of callous systems. And, barring a few nations that have not fallen into the trap of neoliberal capitalism, this is the reality for societies around the world.

How should we understand the current conjuncture amidst this haunting emptiness and the paralysing confusion that the Covid-19 has triggered? What is the historical significance of this moment, and what implications does it have for the future of humankind? To my queries along these lines, I received three different responses.

The first one was by feminist and Buddhist historian, Uma Chakravarti. For her this is a  “Buddha moment”, since we are faced with existential questions that illness, sorrow, and death pose to us. It is too early to say how many lives Covid-19 will claim, or how the pandemic will be remembered.

Will this moment pass into history just as the misnamed Spanish influenza of 1918 was, where nearly 20 million Indians died, but a strange sense of amnesia enveloped our memories, and we barely know much about that pandemic and its toll? Or, as a “Buddha moment”, will the current challenge require us to seek new ways to deal with illness, suffering and death?

Will altruism be reinvigorated in the face of mass death, with collective efforts to ease the burden of illness and death? There are many recent examples to draw inspiration from: the Mumbai-based pharmaceutical company CIPLA, owned by Muslim entrepreneur Yusuf Hamied, enabled the provisioning of low-cost drugs for AIDS treatment in several poor countries. Will the magnanimity and generosity shown by Hamied become the exemplar of medical philanthropy in times of coronavirus?

Can this dire moment force us to reckon with the fact that it is not just technical knowledge and the power of money, but  a combination of community care and state responsiveness that can help avert mass deaths? Will countries follow the example of Kerala, a small state in India with a leftist government that has successfully managed the Covid-19 crisis on the strength of state supervision, community mobilisation, and public altruism? Will Kerala become the model for new ways of public caring and provisioning?

The second response is drawn from a conversation I have had with Gary Leupp, a scholar of Japanese and labour studies and a friend. He asserted that Covid-19 might have a silver lining: much like the Black Death of the 14th century, that laid the foundations for the crumbling of Europe’s feudal system, the coronavirus pandemic could initiate the demise of global capitalism.

If this is possible at all, what new economic and social orders could we imagine?  Can we go beyond the tried and largely failed big “isms” (communism, capitalism etc) of the 20th century to initiate new forms of production, reproduction, and being? Could a triangulated structural order that privileges democracy, decentralisation and diversity forge for us new imaginaries that will not reproduce the depredations of the 20th century and what is emerging now in the 21st century?

Yet, democracy itself needs to be redefined beyond its standard political rhetoric to make way for democratic social and economic structures and processes. We should give a chance to the possibilities provided by sharing, by degrowth economics, and by new forms of production that recognise both individual abilities and collective responsibilities, together with ecological sustainability and economic stability.

A renewed democratic ethos can rest on the pillars of decentralisation and diversity, where a plurality of production, distribution, and institutional models can be combined to challenge the existing sharp divides between urban and rural; between industrial and agricultural; between centres and peripheries; and between regions and nations.

Can we retrieve and revive diverse knowledge systems, including tried and tested local systems of ecological restoration, agriculture, medicine, architecture, metallurgy and a plethora of domain knowledge systems which were scuttled under the ambush of modern, western, science-based knowledge? Can new equations between humans and nature be fostered so as to build a harmonious balance between the two in which there is no scope for more zoonotic diseases?

To make sense of the intense humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding before our eyes, and to offer her own words of courage, a friend, the learned and gentle octogenarian Vatsala Parthasarathy in a conversation drew on Hindu mythology and asked me to see this phase as a great churning of the ocean out of which a nectar that will enable the rise of a new being can be anticipated. What imaginaries should be associated with such a new being?

If Covid-19 and its impact on the world are to produce a great churning, it must start at the very foundation, by rooting out the divisive structures that differentiate humans on the bases of race, caste, ethnicity, religion, region and gender. The exclusions and privations resulting from models of living that privilege individual consumption and lifestyle over collective being and lifeworlds, need to be dismantled.

Will the churning that is now visible across the world and in our foundational being lead to the emergence of a new humanity? Will this humanity be very different from the one that over the past few centuries has managed to dominate nature and the earth with such destructive consequences? Will the bleeding of the world at its most vulnerable fault lines coagulate into a new world citizen, who will challenge manipulation, distortions, and neglect, to reclaim the legacies of rights, equality, freedom, and life itself?

A.R. Vasavi is a social anthropologist and a member of the PUNARCHITH COLLECTIVE. She received the prestigious Indian research award Infosys Prize 2013 in Social Sciences – Sociology And Anthropology. She is based in the state of Karnataka, India.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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