Prime Minister Narendra Modi at 8.00 pm on March 24 announced a 21-day total lockdown in India aimed at flattening the curve and preventing the outbreak of coronavirus in India.
All domestic flights, trains, buses and other forms of transport were grounded. The entire nation was supposed to come to a grinding halt.
However, panic-stricken people, afraid they would not be able to find essential commodities, queued up outside groceries, vegetable, medicine and provisions stores to stock up.
At last count, India had witnessed 1,998 confirmed cases, 151 recoveries and 58 unfortunate deaths.
While some people welcomed the lockdown, citing it was the only way to contain community transmission of the coronavirus, others criticized the move as it would have big economic ramifications.
Three weeks of a complete lockdown amounts shaving off of $0.2 trillion worth of GDP for India. Global ratings agency Moody’s has already slashed India’s GDP growth estimate from 5% for FY21 to 2.5%.
Considering the gravity of the situation, the Indian government has announced an economic package of Rs 1.7 lakh crore to boost liquidity, ease repayment stress, and provide stability to the market.
The Reserve Bank of India has cut interest rates by 0.75% and the government has provided Rs 15,000 crores to fight the coronavirus.
It is clearly visible a week after the announcement that the state governments were not ready for this lockdown nor were they consulted or intimated in advance. The police were not clear of the rules to be followed.
There have been several reports of police brutality: one person in Bengal who had ventured out to buy milk was beaten so badly that he died. There are many videos of police treating the vegetable vendors badly and not allowing them to function, thus taking away their livelihood.
The lockdown triggered a massive movement of migrants to their home states. About 1/6th of the population of the country lives in cities, outside their home state.
Photographs of labourers walking for hundreds of kilometers to go back to their homes flooded the Internet. A few have died while walking on the highways, crushed by vehicles. After all, these daily wage workers would not be able to earn anything during this lockdown period and it is only logical that they would want to go back to their home state. They will save on the rent and other expenses by moving back.
Parallels were drawn to the November 8, 2016 speech of Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he announced demonetization, stripping all the Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes of legal currency status. During demonetization everyone suffered: people had to stand in queues, there was shortage of cash, people lost jobs. Many people lost their lives (80-100). The economy is still bearing the brunt of demonetization.
However, people, especially the poor, supported the move as they were happy that the rich lost a lot of money and had to stand in the queues rubbing shoulders with them.
Though they suffered a lot, they were happy because of the satisfaction over the neighbour suffering more. Modi emerged as Robin Hood: a tea seller who was taking on the black marketers and hoarders.
He enjoyed high approval ratings and the Bharatiya Janata Party was able to form government in 4 out of 5 states which went to polls, a couple of months later, including the prestigious Uttar Pradesh.
A 21-day complete lockdown is in many ways Demo. 2.0. A sudden decision, nobody was prepared, a lot of confusion and chaos ruled, seemed arbitrary, and the state machinery was not prepared.
This has left the poor as sufferers again. They have lost jobs and their daily wages, and are struggling to get basic necessities.
Social distancing is a concept for the rich, not the poor. Lakhs of labourers are stranded at borders. Their dignity has been compromised with news of migrants being sprayed with disinfectants in Uttar Pradesh. Some states like Bihar do not want them to come back home for fear of the contagion spreading.
Social media is abuzz with people criticizing the migrant workers’ movements arguing that this would defeat the purpose of the lockdown and could lead to community spread of the coronavirus.
People sitting comfortably in their homes, with rations stocked up, working from home, getting paid and watching Netflix and Hotstar will not be able to appreciate the viewpoint and pain of the daily wager, the labourer.
What do they do? How would they pay rent? Who would provide their families with food and medicines?
We all know the capability of our government: the machinery is not at all prepared to carry out such an activity. Announcements by the prime minister and the chief ministers stating they will take care of migrant labour are fine, but implementation is tardy.
As per government data, some 600,000 labourers are residing in camps across the country amid the lockdown and are being taken care of. This number is very small. Do we have only 600,000 labourers?
This time around the tables have turned. Modi still has the support for his lockdown decision. The middle classes and the rich are supporting the move as they fear an outbreak like the one in Italy, France, Spain or the United States would be catastrophic for India.
It is this fear that is making them support the decision. However, the poor who have lost their livelihood and are suffering may not be happy with the move and might not support Modi, unlike during demonetization.
Modi’s ability to play on these contradictions within our society and create confrontations leading to polarization is what has worked for him all these years and will continue to do so….
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