Long Distance Distress

What exactly was it that prompted Prime Minister Modi to give just a four-hour notice for the lockdown? If the requirement was to keep the population indoors, strictly enforcing “social distancing” – how unfamiliar the word had seemed when it was first mentioned in his lock-out release. Abjectly it failed lakhs of Indians, mostly young daily wagers, jostling to get away from their work to homes, hundreds of kilometres away, walking and sleeping in heat and in rains, in the wide-open on the deserted road surfaces, the road their bed and the sky above their roof. In broad daylight and in the darkness of the nights, very often dong the only thing they just then knew or cared for, finding their way homes. At least one died after the 200 km mark, the other, a daring but frustrated youth opted to break the orthopaedic cast on his leg, a burden which he cast away at the risk of jeopardising his recovery, just then a needless burden, an extra weight to carry. There was not much money on the overwhelming majority of these mostly young Indians, their only goal, to reach home however uninviting a prospect to the city-bred. The main reason for their having little money on them was the timing chosen by Mr. Modi to enforce his writ. The Lakshman Rekha, a four-hour gap between the announcement of the lockdown and its enforcement didn’t give them the opportunity to collect their dues from their employers. The highest priority obviously was to somehow leave their places of work before day-break. The other priority was to escape the local police before it spread its net on the highways. One of the earliest few died before arriving at their home base. That’s the death that was noticed. Quite likely, someone of the other who might have not made it. It could have been handled better, the flight by lakhs of young daily wagers, the largest manually induced peace time distress migration in independent India, Modi had not indicated the severity of the top-down nationwide lockdown in his telecast only a couple of days earlier. There was no mention of dislocation on such a massive scale not indicated any relief measures for the daily wagers, in fact, Mr. Modi was silent on the issue of the necessary relief measures. Uncertainty about the future of the lakhs who set out, migrating from workplaces in distant states to the elusive security of their homes, of which they were the breadwinners. The return to unemployment in confusion and insecurity left millions of daily wage earners virtually in suspended animation; it was bound to fail. With doomsday predictions, no work and no guarantee from the government, the migrant laborers basically sought the security of their distant homes. They had no option but to travel any way they could, including, as they literally did, on foot to go home. It didn’t do my ego, my Indianness any good to see foreign TV networks including CNN and BBC, recording the painful trudge home of thousands of laborers, all of their young dreams in their eyes melting away for good. One of the networks shared how homebound youths from Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh spending their time snoozing on low lying branches of big roadside trees. Tired and exhausted, starvation writ large on their withering young faces, thin worldly possessions reduced to manageable overhead packs. A heart-breaking story, yet one which must cause fresh thinking among the political establishment, Mr. Modi, his BJP and all other political parties included. There is an urgent need to go beyond personality and charm offenses. Both the government and the opposition need to move beyond “Modiji did this”, “only Modiji could do this”; instead this arena of deliberation needs systematic expansion. Before the government and the opposition, between the centre and the states, between experts and the administration and even between the union and the state administrations. Unless this is done no amount of grandstanding and no number of disaster management laws can help us democratically address situations of crisis. We must also avoid the knee-jerk reaction of creating “funds”. “The PM cares” fund announcement five days ago severely harks of petty one-upmanship. Prime Ministers are expected to care and that is why he is elected to that chair. Since the current crisis is a public health crisis, the politics around it should be about how much we spend on public health through regular budgets. The issue is pulling money into building long-term and broad range testing facilities across the country.

To conclude, for the present, the massive exodus of casual labour from the metros that is being witnessed across the country is now beginning to lead to labour shortages, not only in the transportation sector but across the supply chain. These labour shortages will lead to disruption not only in the production of essential goods but in the supply of essential and non-essential items as well. At the moment it looks unlikely to return to normal immediately after the lockdown is lifted.

There are reports already of erratic supplies of food and essentials causing panic and confusion in Goa, for instance. It is imperative for the government to formulate protocols to enable facilities to start production as soon as possible, and for ensuring the uninterrupted supply of essential goods.

To conclude on a somewhat different note, it is not adequate consolation that India is not alone in experiencing this eerier quiet characterized by its current lockdown – the lockdown of the idea of public domain.