The clangs and claps of the March 22 Janata Curfew had hardly died down than Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared on national TV at 8 pm on March 24 to declare a nationwide “sarkari curfew” of 21 days with effect from midnight. By then, about 21 states had already announced lockdowns of different durations and were enforcing them in various degrees. The prime minister’s draconian declaration is intriguing because only the previous day the cabinet secretary and principal secretary to the PM had in consultation with state chief secretaries announced measures to contain the corona pandemic. This included complete shutdown of 78 districts/cities across the country, identified as hotspots of Covid-19 and where only essential services were allowed to operate. State governments were allowed to expand the list depending on their assessment of the situation. In the meantime, all interstate bus services were to be suspended till March 31.
This is called risk-based management which is in line with the advice given by leading experts on the subject. They advocate “cocooning” for countries like India with high population density, where mass-scale quarantine and a nationwide lockdown are near impossible to implement. Cocooning is a measure to protect those over 70 years or those medically vulnerable by minimising interaction between them and others. This means that these people should not leave their homes. Even within their homes, they should minimise all non-essential contact with other members of their household. This is to protect those who are at high risk of severe illness from coming into contact with the virus.
The other variation of cocooning is to identify city/district/region-wise hotspots with these measures being practised by all sections of people. Such a strategy could have been effectively implemented and scaled up if need be with the help of our highly competent armed forces. India was probably moving in this direction when Modi jumped the gun and clamped the curfew throughout the country at one go. He finished his speech at 8.30 pm and a nation of 1.3 billion—rich, poor, old, infirm, disabled, women, youth, children and infants—constituting one-sixth of the human race had just over three hours to shut down everything, provide for their livelihood and move to a place of safety to spend the next 21 days in “solitary confinement”.
As if in response, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, D-G of WHO, took to the media and said: “Asking people to stay at home and shutting down population movement is buying time…But on their own, these measures will not extinguish epidemics.” Then he went on to suggest six measures to combat the deadly virus:
- first, expand, train and deploy your healthcare and public health workforce
- implement a system to find every suspected case at the community level
- ramp up the production, capacity and availability of testing
- identify, adapt and equip facilities you will use to treat and isolate patients
- fifth, develop a clear plan and process to quarantine contacts
- lastly, refocus on suppressing and controlling Covid-19.
According to him, aggressive measures to “Track, Trace, Test, and Treat” (T4) is the best way to prevent and contain the pandemic.
None of these measures found mention in Modi’s speech which ad nauseaum repeated “social distancing” as the only panacea. As per industry experts, the complete 21-day shutdown would cause a severe, disruptive impact on both demand and supply across sectors. They estimate the cost of the lockdown at around $120 billion (Rs 9 lakh crore) or 4 percent of the GDP. Further, with 94 percent of India’s workforce employed in the unorganised sector, this lockdown would effectively put over 45 million migrants out of work. India’s economy, already on dialysis because of demonetisation and other economic excesses, could go into coma. With standing crops awaiting harvesting, farming has already gone into a tailspin.
Rendered jobless and wageless overnight, millions of migrant labour became paupers. With all forms of transportation suspended and police resorting to brutality, the heart-rending scenes that followed and the pathetic exodus from major cities are to be seen to be believed. The horrendous part of it happened six days down the line.
On an executive fiat issued by the home ministry, these les miserables inching their way home were halted in UP, crowded together and sprayed with “disinfectant chemicals” as if they were the corona virus itself. In neighbouring Haryana, migrant labour was ordered to be herded together and locked inside “indoor stadiums” converted into “temporary jails”. These humans were deprived of their last vestiges of dignity. And an individual sans dignity is nothing but “meat-on-feet”. This is reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s Holocaust days.
It is pertinent to note here that the prime minister of New Zealand which has a population of less than 50 lakh gave 48 hours’ notice and South Africa with less than six crore gave 72 hours’ notice for lockdowns. But India with 1.3 billion people had less than four hours. Such was the rank unpreparedness of the government.
In the event, even after a week, with masses of jobless, homeless and cashless people moving like herds, the very fundamentals of “social distancing” stood abandoned. Yet, tongue-in-cheek, the government described this response to Covid-19 as “pre-emptive, pro-active and graded”. Such perversion is not without reason. As Covid-19 was spreading worldwide, India had adequate advance notice. (See box)
Such dismal planning and preparedness was due to the political leadership being busy elsewhere. Instead of expanding and strengthening the healthcare infrastructure and testing facilities, it was engaged with the venomous Delhi state election campaign and the Rs 20,000 crore Central Vista, a fancy real estate project. As Covid-19 was spreading, the BJP national leadership was busy with “Namaste Trump” and purchasing MLAs to form a government in MP. There was little response to the expert’s call to adopt the T4 solution to deal with the virus.
Over the weeks preceding the national lockdown, four central laws—the Epidemic Diseases Act, CrPC, Disaster Management Act and Essential Services Act—were invoked with stringent clauses. All these laws, except the CrPC, are meant to facilitate planning, preparing and managing natural and man-made disasters in a systematic manner without panic and causing least inconvenience to the public. But in the case of coronavirus, though there was enough warning, the centre and some state governments miserably failed in this critical aspect of management. To cover this unpardonable failure of governance, the centre resorted to the lockdown, thereby unleashing pandemonium to contain a pandemic.
A lockdown, according to the Oxford Dictionary, means confining prisoners to their cells, typically in order to gain control during a riot. As a corollary, restrictions under Section 144, CrPC are imposed whenever there is an imminent threat to human life due to rioting, communal clashes or disturbance to public order. But the lockdown was imposed under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, on the ground of containing a suspected outbreak of epidemic. In the present case, neither a riot nor “unlawful assembly” are involved. Yet Section 144 was imposed, subjecting individuals going about to procure essential supplies or medicines, and migrant labourers on their arduous walk to reach their villages, to indignity and police brutality. As of now, as many as 22 migrant workers have died in their attempt to return home.
Locking down 1.3 billion with the resultant mayhem, chaos and congestion is the worst way to contain the contagion. By adopting the T4 methodology, Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore have successfully contained the spread of the virus. This meant the government taking responsibility instead of burdening the people with it. Practising this approach would have gone a long way in coping with Covid-19. A humongous human crisis has been dealt with in the most inhuman manner.
Now experts are advising extension of curfew due to contagion dangers caused by the migrant exodus. But the cabinet secretary has said no to it. Extended or not, with such dismal governance, India’s future appears bleak.
— The writer is a former Army & IAS officer. He has served as SDM and DM in Haryana and Chandigarh
India’s corona chronology
- January 1: India’s first travel advisory was issued. It kept evolving
- January 30: WHO declared the outbreak a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”
- February 3: A Group of Ministers chaired by the Union health minister was constituted to monitor the situation
- February 12: Rahul Gandhi warns in his tweet: “The Corona Virus is an extremely serious threat to our people and our economy. My sense is the government is not taking this threat seriously. Timely action is critical”
- February 28: WHO raised the level of risk to “very high”
- March 4: Rahul repeats his caution and is trolled by the BJP IT cell
- March 5: The PM is personally monitoring the preparedness and response on a regular basis, states the health minister in Parliament
- March 11: WHO labels the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic
- March 22: Janata Curfew
- March 24: Lockdown with less than four hours’ notice.
Supreme Court advocate Simanta Kumar took up the case of an incident of police brutality under the garb of Section 144. His report:
On March 30, 2020, I came to know about abuse of power by the police personnel in Challera village, Gali No 3, PS- Noida Sector 39, Dist- Gautam Buddh Nagar.
At around 9.45 am, two vehicles, with more than six police personnel, were making an announcement to not to come out of homes, and under the guise of Section 144, never gave a second thought before hurling sticks at any person seen outside home.
The victim was standing on the terrace of his rented house with his mobile phone and when the police personnel saw the victim, they started to hurl abuses and kept banging the gate of his house. When the victim asked for the reason of doing so, they started to threaten him, and when he opened the gate, four-five police personnel held him by the neck, dragged him inside the police vehicle and started thrashing him mercilessly. He was beaten continuously for an hour.
The victim stated that in the vehicle he saw bricks and stones and the police personnel pinned him down with their legs and beat him as if he were a terrorist. When the victim started to bleed from the mouth, the police personnel stopped the beating.
Neither was he informed why he was detained or beaten, nor was his family informed about his whereabouts, and therefore on the face of it, the police personnel arrogantly violated the guidelines of DK Basu vs State of West Bengal (1997) 6 SCC 642 observed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India.
The policemen alleged that he was making a video of the cops beating citizens on the street, but when on search the police didn’t find anything in the victim’s mobile, they deleted everything from it.
SHO Neeraj Malik told the constables: “He’s got enough thrashing, just leave him.”
The constables and SI Devendra Rathi then said: “Today Yogi ji (CM of UP) is coming to Noida. Since there are no cases in Noida Sector 44, we will register an FIR against him under Section 188 (Disobedience of order duly promulgated by public servant) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) so that Yogi ji will come to know we are showing strictness on the streets and this police station will get an appreciation.”
The SHO said that they didn’t have any evidence against him, and so he directed the constables to record a video of the victim forcing him to state that he was causing obstruction to police work.
When the victim denied this, they slapped him and asked him from which state he belonged to and how much he earned? The victim stated that he was from Jharkhand, and then the SHO started hurling racial abuse at him: “Saale Bihari 5,000-6,000 kamaane ke liye poora Delhi and Noida ko gandaa kar dia he, tum saalon ka encounter kar dena chahiye…maaro saale ko (These Biharis come to earn Rs 5,000-6,000 and then go about violating Delhi and Noida. These people should just be killed in encounter, beat him up).”
The constables again started thrashing the victim and demanded ransom. The victim said he won’t pay a single penny to them. After that, the SHO transferred the victim to IO Raghvender Singh of PS Sector 39 and there, Constable Sanjay Singh registered an FIR under Section 188 of the IPC. The victim was detained in the police station of Sector 39, Noida, and forced to undergo a medical test as a criminal procedure.
The victim requested them to give him a shirt, a mask and gloves as he was only wearing a trouser and a vest. The police personnel again started to abuse him and said: “Mar saale Bihaari Corona se. (You Bihari, go die of Corona).”
The wife of the victim called around 11 am to the Police Helpline 112 and told them of all the facts of the case. She was assured that police will come to her within a short time. However, no one came and after an hour, she was told that her husband was detained in Sector 39 police station and she was asked to visit the police station with a shirt.
The wife of the victim called me and I immediately accompanied her to the Sector 39 police station. They told us they won’t release him. I incessantly requested them, and after a few hours, the victim was released on bail. I requested for the FIR and medical copies, but they refused to hand them over.
Lead Picture: UNI