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  Opinion   Columnists  11 May 2020  Manish Tewari: India rushes headlong into summer of death

Manish Tewari: India rushes headlong into summer of death

Manish Tewari is a lawyer and a former Union minister. The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle @manishtewari
Published : May 11, 2020, 5:29 pm IST
Updated : May 11, 2020, 5:29 pm IST

It begs an obvious question if governments are not there to help citizens in need what else are they there for?

Migrants arriving from Andhra Pradesh undergo thermal screening after deboarding a train at Danapur railway station, during the ongoing COVID-19 nationwide lockdown, in Patna. PTI Photo
 Migrants arriving from Andhra Pradesh undergo thermal screening after deboarding a train at Danapur railway station, during the ongoing COVID-19 nationwide lockdown, in Patna. PTI Photo

The lockdown from March 22 to May 17, 2020, has bombed. At the time of writing the number of reported cases were 62,939 and the number of dead were over 2,109. There were 341 reported cases and seven dead on March 22, 2020, when the lockdown was put in place. The doubling rate, progression rate and every other indices used to measure Covid-19 is going south with no end in sight. In the past 47 days the economy has sailed up the disaster creek without even a paddle.

It may be worthwhile to recall what the Prime Minister said on the 23rd of March, 2020. “Hence, it is my plea to you to continue staying wherever you are right now in the country… The next 21 days are of critical importance for us. As per health experts, a period of at least 21 days is extremely critical to break infection chain of coronavirus. If situation is not handled in these 21 days, the country and your family could go back 21 years…”.

The nation bowed in obedience.

When the 21 days got over on the 14th of April, the Prime Minister announced another 19-day extension of the curfew on the 3rd of May. There was sense of triumphalism in his speech. He said, “Friends, in such a crisis it is not right to compare our situation with any other country. However, it is also true that if we look at corona-related figures in the world’s big, powerful countries, India today is in a very well-managed position. A month, month-and-a-half ago, several countries had been at par with India in terms of corona infection. But today, corona cases in those countries are 25 to 30 times than that of India…”

The nation again deeply bowed in obedience.

By the 3rd of May it was quite evident that things were not going according to plan. The virus wasn’t getting slayed. The total number of cases rose to 40,263 and the fatalities to 1,306. On the 2nd of May in an unprecedented act the Chief of Defence Staff along with the three service chiefs held a live press conference to announce that the three services would be feting and felicitating those frontline workers who were in the forefront of the battle against Covid-19.

An eminently laudable gesture. However, many distinguished ex-servicemen pointed out in signed opinion pieces and interviews that it did not require the full and collective weight of the top brass of the defence services to announce that action. Under the cover of this extraordinary presser, the ministry of home affairs issued guidelines extending the lockdown by another 14 days albeit with certain relaxations.

The nation now groaned.

By then the fragility of both the Indian economy and the insensitivity of the state were on full display. The Indian economy had already been in a downward spiral for the past eight quarters due to sustained and inept mismanagement. The rate of GDP growth in India had already tailspinned from eight per cent to four per cent even before Covid-19 assaulted the world. All predictions suggest that the growth rate of Indian economy will be zero this year, if not in serious negative territory. Demand, the principal charioteer of growth, had earlier buckled. It was mirrored by the regression in industrial production, job losses, decline in exports, and severe strain on the vigour of the financial institutions. The economy was coming apart already. The prolonged lockdown has blown it to bits.

However, even worse was the fate that befell the poor and the working classes, pejoratively called migrants. The most indelible image of the early days of Covid-19 was millions of our less well off fellow brethren walking home thousands of kilometres carrying their pitiful belongings on their heads. They were robbed of their dignity and self-respect, and reduced to penury. They had the option of either starving in their shanties or finding their way back home. Those who were stopped en-route were housed in shoddy quarantine camps bleached with chlorine and made to stay beyond the necessary quarantine period in derogation of their constitutional rights on the specious excuse that a curfew was in force.

To add insult to injury, the government of Karnataka even cancelled the special trains taking the working people home and implied by its actions that they were indeed “bonded labour” required for restarting the economy and so therefore they had no right to go home. It was only under intense political and social pressure were the special trains recommenced. Then came the horrific news that 15 “migrants” using the railway tracks as a navigation tool to get home were crushed under the wheels of a goods train.

The government further ordained that migrants must pay their own railway fare to go back. If they couldn’t they could as well as hike home. State governments who offered to pick up the tab were told to deposit the money in advance before the trains would be made available. Indians stuck abroad were told they had to pay to come back or grow a pair of wings. Same fate befall those who are being evacuated by sea. Pay or swim back home. It begs an obvious question if governments are not there to help citizens in need what else are they there for?
The irony of the lockdown is that economists who were charged with looking after the economic health of the nation became epidemiologists.

Epidemiologists morphed into economists. While the former could not flatten the disease curve the latter flattened the economy. There is no empirical evidence to suggest that without a lockdown the number of infections would have been unmanageable.

India is not totalitarian China. Neither does it have the demographics of either Spain, Italy or Germany. We required and continue to do a more enlightened and nuanced approach rather than blind bludgeoning with a sledgehammer. Blindly aping the Wuhan lockdown has pushed us into the summer of death.

Tags: covid-19 india, covid-19 lockdown, migrant labourers