‘You cannot implement such a huge exercise, which is bound to cause misery to millions, without studying every aspect of its consequences, economic and social,’ notes Sherna Gandhy.
IMAGE: A worker with a child on his shoulders walks to his village amid the nation-wide lockdown, on the NH24 near the Delhi-UP border in Ghaziabad, March 26, 2020. Photograph: Ravi Choudhary/PTI Photo
If only the people who made the decisions for us lived like we do, we would get a very different set of decisions.
If Uddhav Thackeray, our accidental chief minister, had an average middle class income, had two old average middle class parents to look after, lived in an average middle class society instead of a fortified army camp, and went out to work every day using public transport, I wonder if he would have decreed in a pompous notice that no one could stir out of their houses for the public good for one week.
Ditto the prime minister who extended the lockdown by another three weeks, leaving us aam janta to wonder whether these guys know anything about how the average Indian lives (leave aside the poor Indian whose hellish life is unimaginable by a middle class Indian such as myself).
Yes, a lockdown is necessary all the experts agree — though only for a short while to give the government time to get its act together and find the space, beds, equipment, testing kits and centres, and medical personnel that are needed.
IMAGE: Delhi government workers serve food to homeless people and daily wagers near the Nigambodh ghat in New Delhi, March 26, 2020. Photograph: Manvender Vashist/PTI Photo
Since this virus has made its presence felt fairly strongly since January, and since the government has been warning us since early February that things are going to get worse before they get better, a large part of all this medical stuff should already be in place.
But for a government that spends a measly 1.28 per cent of its GDP on health care (National Health Profile 2019), it would have been a miracle if it had been in place by now.
However, it should at least be in place by the time this ‘lockdown’ (our latest buzzword, murmured approvingly by the rest of India when Kashmir was subjected to it, and not so approvingly when the rest of India has been subjected to it), ends around mid-April.
If not, then all this pain we are asked to bear for the greater good of ourselves, our parivars and our country, as PMji so emotionally put it, will have been in vain.
Moreover, if the lockdown had to take place, it should have been properly planned and that plan clearly conveyed to the people in detail.
That would have mitigated the toll this is taking on our daily lives and not created such a fear of the unknown among people.
IMAGE: A deeserted view of south Delhi’s Kalkaji Mandir, March 26, 2020. Photograph: Vijay Verma/PTI Photo
Neither Thackeray nor Modi explained how the supply chain will work.
Apart from saying grocery stores will remain open, they gave us no assurances that trucks will be allowed to move freely to bring in the supplies of food and other everyday items.
It was announced that inter-state borders were shut.
Also that no vehicles would be allowed on the roads except in medical emergency etc.
But it was not spelt out whether trucks, taxis, tempos that carry fruit and vegetables into the state and cities will be allowed to move as usual.
Hence the panic buying every time a government notice or televised appearance gives us further news of lockdowns.
These announce that nobody must go out of their homes, that a Lakshman rekha must be drawn outside our front doors, as PMji eloquently put it.
So, who fetches us our daily bread, as it were? How do the groceries and veggies get to our homes?
The Maharashtra government in its notice on March 22nd said one person from each family could go out shopping for essentials, but was this concession superseded by the PMji‘s fatwa of the 24th which made no mention of any such concession?
Since domestic help has been barricaded in their homes as well, sporadic good Samaritans are the only hope of the elderly and the sick.
Developed countries may be able to implement such a ban because they have social workers and nurses visiting the elderly any way (except probably in the US whose public health system seems to be as rickety as ours).
The bhajiwallahs and fruitwallahs, whose convenient corner stalls would have helped since they would have been within short walking distance of most homes, have packed up and fled to their gaon.
Ditto the bhajiwallis who used to come to the door.
They would anyway have been banned by housing society managements from entering, since these entities have suddenly shown unprecedented solicitude for the well being and health of their members and are ordering cleaning operations unheard of before.
IMAGE: The main market road wears a deserted look in Beawar, Rajasthan, March 26, 2020. Photograph: PTI Photo
No government health minister has given a thought to the plight of the elderly and sick.
Without domestic help, essential for some of them to even get out of bed, or do their shopping, or clean their homes, they are very badly affected.
No one thought of them or of the huge pool of unorganised labour that is now streaming out of cities when ordering the shutdown.
If they did, they ought to have made provision for it.
For it would be much worse if they did think of them and just shrugged their shoulders and said well, someone has to bear some pain (provided it is not me, of course).
(Oh sorry, sorry. One person did think of them — UP’s modishly bare-shouldered orange clad chief minister. He said — and I heard it with my own ears — that food would be delivered to every person at their doorstep in India’s most populous state. He did not, of course, say how.)
I suspect sometimes our governments, state and Centre alike, do not know how things will pan out.
It’s more of a play-it-by-ear kind of thing.
If monetary assistance is to be given it should have been announced together with the prime minister’s announcement of the lockdown.
If a former finance minister can come with a with a 10-point plan, why can’t the government?
Mr Modi, in particular, who likes to take credit for all big ticket (read disruptive) ideas of his government, announces and enforces a policy and then works out the ‘glitches’ (GST is a prime example).
You cannot implement such a huge exercise, which is bound to cause misery to millions, without studying every aspect of its consequences, economic and social.
This government has a tendency to put the burden of suffering on people.
The pictures of whole families with their meagre belongings, setting out to walk — sometimes as much as 400 miles, they said — to get to their villages, is a sight that should haunt all of us forever.
Yes, sometimes civil society has to go through hard times, but the hardship can be mitigated with some forethought and planning by the civic, state or central government authorities.
IMAGE: A group of migrant workers walk to their villages in Ghaziabad, March 26, 2020. Photograph: Ravi Choudhary/PTI Photo
Neither with demonetisation, nor in this instance, nor in the instance of Kashmir did the government think of ways of making things easier for the ordinary person before making the grand announcement.
There is an arrogance in this kind of thinking and acting.
The political class in this country is lucky that civil society is so weak and so slow to defend its own interests.
Sometimes it doesn’t even recognise what its own interests are.
There will be many who read this article who will say, oh, quit moaning about everything.
But if you don’t hold the government to account, if you don’t insist on its giving you the best it can instead of the crumbs from its table, then you end up with what we always get — governments that care more for staying in power than serving us, the people.
Sherna Gandhy, distinguished journalist and commentator, can be contacted at news@KhabriBaba.co.in