Insensitive Modi forces the poor to go on a ‘Long March’
In the 1930s, China's legendary Chairman Mao Zedong took his Red Army on a ‘Long March’ across China to save the fighting forces of his Communist Party from the pursuing Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang) army. It was a well-thought out strategic requirement for the survival of the communist movement in China and a glorious chapter in the history of modern China.
Across the Himalayas in India, Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, is currently presiding over another ‘Long March’. By clamping a 21-day all-India lockdown suddenly on March 24, Modi brought all economic activity to a grinding halt and forced the migration of the poor from the cities to their villages across hundreds and thousands of miles.
With factories and markets closed and construction work suspended since March 24, and with no hope of the situation improving, there is absolutely no means of earning money to keep body and soul together. While the rich have stocked up, the poor have been left high and dry to either face starvation or to trudge back to their villages. Many have chosen the latter. The movement has been significant from States like Maharastra and Kerala, where the coronavirus has taken a substantial toll.
With nowhere to stay because landlords were unwilling to keep them, anticipating failure to pay rent, the foot soldiers of India’s economic growth were left with no choice but to return to their villages in the hope of getting the traditional social support.
"What would we eat here? One cannot eat stones," laborer Bunty's wife told NDTV, carrying a huge bag carrying all their possessions perched on her head. Another family could be seen on camera walking behind her, the man carrying his young son on his shoulders, his wife clutching the hand of their little daughter.
"No one helps you out in Delhi, the way they do in the village," said Bunty. "We can have just rotis with salt or chutney in our village. It will be peaceful there. But here, we have nothing. No one helps anyone in Delhi," Bunty adds bitterly to justify his 150 kms walk back home. Inter-state borders are sealed and yet that does not deter him.
Munna Lal has walked 100 km over the last 24 hours with almost no food or water. He has to cover 150km more to get home. Lal, 48, is one in a group of eight laborers walking across the length of eastern Uttar Pradesh to get to their ancestral village of Gatla Beli in Bahraich district roughly 250km from Kanpur city, where they worked as masons.
They left their construction site at 3 am on the day after the lockdown was announced when the care-taker told them that work would be halted during the 21-day national lockdown.
“Coronavirus will kill us, but the government is killing us on top of that,” said Harvesh, weeping bitterly. “We are daily wage earners. Now, we don’t want to die of hunger here,” she said.
Most came from villages near Aligarh, some 150km south-east of Delhi. Some would take a day to reach, while others would take two or three days to make it to their villages.
The sight of daily wage labourer Bunty walking 150 kms to his Uttar Pradesh village from Delhi with a ten-month old child on his shoulders left many TV viewers upset, angry and disgusted. The outpouring on the social media said it all. "Have a heart, Prime Minister," pleaded one netizen. Another said: "He has none, have you forgotten demonetization 2015?"
The current distress far exceeds the one during the 2016 disastrous demonetization of India's 500 and 1000 rupee notes which forced millions of Indians, mostly poor, to endure long queues to change currency.
"This is trademark Modi. Make a sudden announcement without imagining the public distress it would cause," summed up a Facebook user.
In his televised address to the nation yesterday, Modi had said "21 days' lockdown may seem to be a long time, but this is the only way to ensure everyone is safe". Staying at home, he had repeatedly said, is now a matter of survival. But for Bunty and family, it is a choice between the devil and the deep sea.
The government has also repeatedly underscored the need to share with the less fortunate. During his interaction with his constituents in Varanasi, Modi suggested that those who had the capacity, "Take the pledge to take care of nine families for 21 days". But he failed to convince his crony capitalist friends who have hugely profited during his tenure. The only capitalists who have come forward is Aziz Premji. Spicejet has offered to fly laborers out of Mumbai and Delhi.
The BJP has instructed each of its ten million workers to feed five people through the 21-day lockdown. Party chief J.P. Nadda made the decision, which the party hopes, will help in feeding fifty million people. But all this rings hollow to Harvesh as she walked back home with her child, luggage on her head, with fifty others to their villages in UP from south Delhi.
The government announced aRs 1.70 lakh crore package (“Gareeb Kalyan Yojana”) to alleviate the hardship of the poor hit by economic disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown. But poll analyst-turned-politician YogendraYadav took to Twitter to expose the statistical claim of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, saying the allocation scheme-wise she announced only adds up to Rs 1.20 lakh crores.
Nero like nonchalance
With India's public health infrastructure clearly inadequate to handle a pandemic like COVID-19, a nationwide lockdown was the only option. But Modi 's government was slow to respond initially to the pandemic threat. In January, when the virus was on the rampage in China, Modi and his lieutenants were busy toppling the Congress-led government in India's largest state, Madhya Pradesh. Horse-trading enabled the BJP managed to wean away a Congress princeling Jyotiraditya Scindia with his band of 22 legislators. The Congress government collapsed and BJP formed the government.
Even after COVID had spread to Europe, Modi and his ministers were gathering in huge numbers at events like the marriage of party President J.P Nadda's son. Some BJP leaders including legislators were advocating consumption of cow dung and urine to fight the virus and one senior BJP leader from Madhya Pradesh even said "nothing will happen to us, our 33 million Gods will save us."
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In mid-March, the Modi government woke up to the threat finally-- much after State governments like West Bengal, Kerala and Delhi had got into the act. But while the State governments were pressing ahead with brief lockdowns and pushing social distancing through thoughtfully crafted media-driven campaigns, Modi suddenly took to TV and announced a nationwide lockdown on March 24, giving only four hours for people to respond.
Congress lawmaker Shashi Tharoor was bitterly critical that the woes of such a huge population has not been factored into planning an abrupt lockdown.
“From Demonetisation to the lockdown now, the Modi government has displayed a criminal lack of sensitivity to the distress of the poor and the most vulnerable," Tharoor said.