The Covid-19 lockdown on the largest population on earth with the shortest possible notice has completed five weeks. Overnight, a medical pandemic was made into an economic and humanitarian disaster of immense proportions. It is time we took stock.
First, let us see the way the lockdown was imposed in India. Even a 1,000-man infantry battalion of our professional army, always prepared and ready-for-action, gets four hours’ notice to move into operation. But here, within four hours, a 135-crore civilian population that was totally unprepared and chaotic was ordered to lock down, halting and abandoning everything. Given the immense life-livelihood hardships this has brought about, one wonders who the government was at war with—the virus or the people, particularly the marginalised.
Equally shocking was the way the lockdown was enforced—with baton-wielding police entirely in charge, taking orders from an authoritarian political leadership. There were horror stories of citizens being hounded, beaten up and subjected to all kinds of indignities. The massive number of urban migrants, mostly poor and penniless, was despised because they could be carrying the virus. So they were stopped, sprayed with chemicals and put in isolation barracks with no food or water so that they didn’t spread the disease. Many migrants, including pregnant women and tender kids, were forced on a long march home, crying for food and water en route.
There is a gruesome story of 120 migrant labourers who were walking back home being stopped by the police at Vapi in Gujarat. They were forced into long cylindrical water containers which had holes for ventilation. The migrants were forced to pay bribes to transport authorities just to reach home under such misery. In short, millions of migrant workers and other vulnerable groups have lost their livelihoods, income/food security and sense of dignity within a matter of weeks. They knew they were vulnerable to the virus, but for them the cure of an extended lockdown is already worse than the disease.
It looks as if overnight every citizen has turned a criminal or part of an “unlawful assembly”. Just the numbers put out by the Tamil Nadu police on April 18 on crimes for violation of the lockdown are telling: FIRs registered—2,14,951; vehicles confiscated—1,94,339; persons arrested—2,28,823; penalty levied—Rs 1,06,74,294. Crimes for violation of Section 144 of the CrPC are: FIRs—1,008 and vehicles seized—707. These numbers kept going up. This is in addition to the beating up of individuals walking on roads and subjecting them to all kinds of insults and indignities.
Such harsh measures and humiliation enraged people and there were misguided attacks on police and health workers such as what happened in Moradabad, UP. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s response was typical of a tin-pot dictator. He ordered attachment of the properties of people involved in the attack and directed them to be arrested under the National Security Act (NSA) which allows preventive detention up to 12 months without trial. He said: “In Uttar Pradesh, we will not let anyone break the law….We are taking the harshest action against those who are trying to convert this virus into a community infection during lockdown…The government will do whatever is appropriate, including NSA, to discipline the miscreants.”
Who are these “miscreants”? On April 20, almost one month into the lockdown, a truck carrying 94 migrant labourers from Haryana to Bihar was intercepted by the UP police on the Jharkhand border in Sonbhadra and everyone was quarantined. Asked why they ventured into this risky “exodus”, Nand Kishor Rajak, one of the migrants, said: “There was no work, no employment… We would have died of hunger there. So, we decided to take the road.” And it is such “miscreants” that the UP government wants to be arrested under the dreaded NSA.
Why is this happening? Because what is being enforced is not pandemic lockdown where governments should carry the people with them through co-operation and compassion, but riot-curfew where the public is terrorised and subjugated by the might of the State.
Riot-curfew is an extension of Section 144, CrPC wherein even individuals are instructed not to move around for a particular period of time. The government can put complete restrictions on traffic as well. Markets, schools, colleges and offices remain closed under the curfew and only essential services are allowed to run on prior notice. Those violating can be booked for engaging in rioting, which has harsh punishment.
On the other hand, lockdown is a measure or condition where people are temporarily prevented from entering or leaving a restricted area or building during a threat of danger. Preventive lockdowns are pre-emptive measures to mitigate risk. Emergency lockdowns are implemented when there is imminent threat to the life or risk of injury to humans. Lockdowns can limit movements or activities in a community while allowing most organisations to function normally, or limit movements or activities such that only organisations supplying basic needs and services can function normally.
Lockdowns, whether preventive or emergency measures, should be risk- and community-based. So, in case of infectious diseases like coronavirus, communities with imminent threat to lives or risk of injury to humans should have been identified first before a lockdown is imposed. These are called hotspots and on March 23, only 75 out of 736 districts in India were identified as such. If only these districts were locked down on that date and scaled up or down, with the centre and states working in tandem, the humongous human and economic disaster staring at the country could have been averted. This also would have ushered in real co-operative federalism. But alas, this was not to be.
Further, people under this lockdown are neither criminals nor “unlawful assembly”. They are law-abiding citizens who should be treated with respect and dignity. As the virus is a life-and-death issue, people are bound to panic. It is the bounden duty of the central and state governments to work closely with local bodies/institutions, business and civil society to assuage this panic by educating the public about physical/social distancing and other issues before imposing any serious restrictions or lockdowns. But what happened in India was just the reverse.
While so, it doesn’t look as if this top-down lockdown has contained the spread of the coronavirus. When it was imposed, the numbers were around 500 confirmed cases and 10 deaths. But this, even by government figures, has increased 40 and 60 times, respectively. Hotspots have more than doubled. Availability and quality of PPE and testing equipment/kits continue to be poor, resulting in the virus spreading and even killing frontline doctors and healthcare workers. The level of tracking and testing continues to be abysmally low. What is worse, except for “balcony people”, physical/social distancing is just a mirage. Over 50 percent of citizens (about 70 crore), continue to live without any distancing norms.
To cover up all these, matters are being further tightened and centralised and the media muffled. Slowly, our freedoms are getting severely eroded by making us afraid of the demon corona. Don’t move, stay at home, don’t assemble. Don’t criticise—the government is doing the best for you to keep you alive. Obey what the government tells you. If you disobey, we will arrest you. You have no right to information—we will tell you what we think you should know, and you should blindly believe it.
The People’s Union for Civil Liberties, founded by JP, has sounded the warning bell by declaring: “This imposition of lockdown has resulted in virtual abrogation of many of the civil liberties guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution including the right to mobility, right to reside anywhere in India, right to organise and peaceably assemble, right to carry on any trade, occupation or vocation…”
For a pandemic like corona, decentralised and participatory model of disaster management is the right way to go. Kerala has done it and achieved encouraging results. These were the early measures adopted by the state in collaboration with local bodies: establishing Covid Testing Kiosks that facilitated a high level of testing; Covid special hospitals with tele-medicine services; 1,400-plus community kitchens across the state providing cooked meals; 5,500-plus migrant labour camps; rapid appointment of 300-plus doctors and 400-plus health inspectors; stimulus package of Rs 20,000 crore; Break the Chain Campaign and plasma therapy.
Though Kerala was the first state to be inflicted with coronavirus, it flattened the curve, bringing about near-normalcy so as to relax the lockdown. But the Modi government opposed these relaxations, forcing Kerala to roll back. As if to rub it in, the Union home ministry deployed special teams in four states to assess the outbreak and lockdown implementation. The central government is micro-managing everything, including reopening of minor economic activities in remote parts of the country.
As things stand, the corona and the curfew could be long-haul. Let there be compassion, not cruelty, in dealing with this cataclysmic disaster.
— The writer is a former Army & IAS officer. He has served as SDM and DM in Haryana and Chandigarh
Lead Picture: UNI