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India

Is rich-hungry India heading for chaos?

If the system fails to ensure food for millions of poor, India could witness a civil war-like situation

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Updated: April 27, 2020 03:24 AM GMT
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Is rich-hungry India heading for chaos?

Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay (right) meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on March 20, 2018. Modi cannot ignore the plight of the masses who voted for him. (Photo: UCA News) 

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The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The effectiveness of governance lies in the mechanism of delivery. Failure, then, is sure to bring dishonor to the government in power.

India's current situation must worry Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who came to power six years ago promising development and achhey din (good days) to all Indians. When he completed his first five years, most voters were far away from the good days.

However, Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was re-elected to power in 2019, basking in the glory of Modi's personal popularity. His emotive appeals and repeated promises impelled the masses of India to vote for him.

When drawing the roadmap for India's fight against coronavirus, Modi banked heavily on a lockdown — perhaps the only easily available method before him. But its effect on the masses — the daily wage workers, farmers and migrants — is turning out to be disastrous.

Modi cannot ignore them. Most enthusiastically voted for him expecting his magic to turn around their lives for the better. But the Covid-19 lockdown has brought poverty, harassment and insecurity to them instead of the good days that they have been waiting for. Perhaps the BJP can afford to ignore them because they are a scattered group who form no voting bloc. 

"Some of the problems and harassment faced by migrant workers during the lockdown period were avoidable. Some workers said they would probably die of hunger before the unseen virus gets them," commented veteran politician Yeshwant Sinha, who was once a BJP member.

The 82-year-old Sinha, a former finance minister, said social distancing norms were largely being enforced, keeping the middle class and elites in mind.

Sinha indirectly also points to the millions in the slums of India — 64 million officially and double that unofficially — for whom social distancing is just not possible. People brush against each other as they pass through congested narrow pathways of slums for simple tasks such as collecting water.

It is also impossible for people in slums to remain permanently inside their homes, where on average four people live in a space of 10 square feet, which includes a kitchen and often a toilet too.

The government neglected the poor and planned nothing for them, especially for migrant workers who sleep in cramped rented quarters. No measures were taken to ensure they had night shelters, public toilets or food. The government acted as if the poor did not exist.

That neglect led to panic in many places, not just in big cities like New Delhi and Mumbai but also in smaller towns in southern states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka.

The government even failed to arrange transport for poor people to get back to their villages before the lockdown started on March 24. But officials justified the situation by saying that migrants moving from cities to rural areas could spread the virus even to remote villages, a disastrous situation.

People were in a dire situation, and some began to walk hundreds of kilometers to their villages. One person who set off on foot from New Delhi to his village in the central state of Madhya Pradesh died midway after walking over 150 kilometers.

The plight of migrant workers figured in major litigation in the Supreme Court. The court agreed on the risk of infection in villages if migrants returned. The court, however, directed the government to ensure food, water, beds, medication and counseling for migrants.

But nothing much could be done as migrant workers do not have an official identity. Most of these people have no documents to prove their identity or domicile. The identity documents, anyway, would not confirm their engagement as migrant laborers.

An estimated 30 percent of Indians, or about 400 million, are internal migrants. Conservative estimates are that at least half of them eke out a living doing jobs such as construction helpers, rickshaw pullers and roadside tea sellers. The government has no record of them as workers and no system to ensure their welfare.

Making things even more complex, the federal home ministry guidelines on lockdown relaxation have put the onus on states and local district administrations to ensure social distancing norms are enforced. The provincial administrations have directed individual industrial units, mostly operated by private entrepreneurs, to enforce social distancing norms. They were also asked to ensure that workers are given hygienic food, sanitizer and masks.

The governments have moved away from providing any benefits to migrant workers, even those who were in the organized sector. Migrants have ultimately turned out to be nobody's child when it comes to administrative accountability.

The principal opposition Congress party has urged PM Modi to be bold in declaring a financial package worth at least 5-6 percent of India's GDP to ensure economic recovery post the Covid-19 lockdown.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi also wrote to the prime minister seeking delivery of 10 kilograms of free food grains per person until September to the poor, including migrants who do not hold documents to prove their identity and domicile.

She said the crisis had pushed many relatively secure families into food insecurity and poverty despite India having some 59 million tonnes of buffer stock of food grains.

The government granaries are overflowing with more than three times food grains than the country needs as buffer stock. But sadly, millions are hungry and the government has no system to identify the needy and get food to them.

BJP leaders say the migration issue has been blown out of proportion by opposition parties. One of them, Virendra Sachdeva, said the government announced a US$24 million relief package to take care of the poor, workers and those who needed immediate help. He also named a series of other welfare programs for migrants and workers. He said Modi has the highest popularity among global leaders in the fight against Covid-19.

Dilip Bhattacharya, a social worker, believes it is case of "missing the woods for the trees." Migration in India has happened primarily because of lopsided development policies. The Covid-19 crisis should make policymakers rethink those policies.

It may be the early stages, but what is concerning is that the gulf between rich and poor may provoke conflict soon, say in three months from now. Can India handle a civil war-like situation? The country already has immense social and political issues in the form of age-old caste and communal conflicts.

"No full stops in India," wrote BBC journalist Mark Tully as the title of his book published at the end of his career in 1991. Three decades and Covid-19 have changed the situation. India could be heading for a near-full stop despite all its inherent survival instincts and resilience if the system fails to ensure food for millions.

Nirendra Dev is a New Delhi-based journalist. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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