Book Review: Locking Down the Poor- The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre

A CRITICAL LOOK AT THE CARAVAN OF MIGRANTS AND THE JUGGERNAUT OF THE NEOLIBERAL INDIAN STATE 

6th March, 2021

Written by Hunardeep Kaur

Artwork by Rachel Mathew

Shaam da rang phir purana hai

Ja rahe ne bastiyaan nu footpath 

Ja rahi hai jheel koi daftaron naukari ton lae jwaab 

Pi rahi hai jheel koi jaldi pyaas 

Tur peya hai shehar koyi pindan de raah

Sutt ke koyi jaa reha hai saari kamaayi…

Shaam da rang phir puraana hai

Chad ture han ik hor gairan di zameen 

Chaje vale, ja reha hai lamma laara 

Jhidkaan de bhandaar ladin…

 

(The shades of evening like many before

the pavements are heading for settlements

the lake turns back from offices, thrown out of work

the lake is drinking its thirst

some city has set off on the road to the village 

throwing off all wages, someone is leaving…

the shades of evening like many before,

leaving behind another’s land

loaded with the humiliation of rebukes, 

The long caravan moves on…) 

Mander writes, “At a time of one of the gravest crises in the country’s history, the Indian state has been adrift. Bereft of vision, administrative capacity and public compassion”. 

The book not just chronicles the apathy and failure of the government in curbing the crisis but also critiques the functioning of the neoliberal state that in the name of governance does nothing except for selling the rhetoric of atmanirbharta in order to hide its own incapacity.

Reading Harsh Mander’s recent book- Locking Down the Poor- The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre, I was reminded of the above poem by the revolutionary Punjabi poet Lal Singh Dil. Reading the poem, one can reflect on the vulnerability of the working class to exploitation, exclusion and abandonment as well as the helplessness and the angst of the poor who are often denied control over their own lives. Their lives are dictated by the policies of the government or the diktats of the employer as described in the poem. The poem then becomes especially relevant to our times when the society has been witness to and complicit in one of the gravest humanitarian crises in history. The book by Harsh Mander becomes important in order to make sense of the multiple layers of this human-induced crisis that accompanied the crisis of the pandemic. 

Harsh Mander, a social justice and human rights activist, in his recent book Locking Down the Poor- The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre throws light on the moral bankruptcy of a government whose poor and negligent public policy choices led to thousands of workers being left stranded in the cities of work with no security of wages or employment and nothing to fall back on. That they were forced to walk all the way back to their home states without little or no assistance from the government says a lot about what we as a nation have become. Mander, in the book, combines ground reports with factual data to uncover the structural inequalities that lie underneath the ostensible show of democracy and to critique the policy choices of the neoliberal Indian state that has always shown a blatant disregard to the lives and livelihoods of the working class. The class bias inherent in the policy choices of the incumbent government becomes all the more evident if we look at its arbitrary decision to carry out a nation-wide lockdown with negligible concern for the country’s major population- the poor. 

The abrupt announcement of lockdown as a preventive measure to curb the spread of Coronavirus, ended up pushing the poor onto the roads. Hunger became more fatal than the virus. Mander, in the book, documents the mass hunger among the homeless, slum-dwellers, sex-workers and immigrant labourers, that he witnessed as part of the relief work by Karwaan-e-mohabbat. The working class, which in itself comprises of a complex strata of population, was left without any means of securing food and clean water and was wholly dependent on food provided as part of the relief work by different organisations. To add to that, the poor and the homeless were often beaten up by the police who in the name of abiding by the stringent lockdown, ‘punished’ them for violation of the curfew that was nothing short of impractical and insensitive. The long hours that people had to stand in the queue for a morsel of food is a testimony to the total desolation inflicted on the working class as an outcome of the most unthoughtful, inhumane and stringent lockdown imposed by the government. As Mander writes, “At a time of one of the gravest crises in the country’s history, the Indian state has been adrift. Bereft of vision, administrative capacity and public compassion”. 

But this is not to say that hunger, destitution and structural inequalities did not exist before the pandemic rather this is to emphasise on the fact that the pandemic visibilized what had for long been invisibilised by the mainstream political and cultural discourse. To no surprise, it continues to be invisibilized and unaccounted for in the public policy choices of the government. Mander reflects upon the class bias and hubris that marked the decision of shutting down practically the entire country with little or no consultation whatsoever with the medical experts, social scientists and the concerned political leadership operating at different levels. Referring to this decision by the Prime Minister, he writes, “In a decree reflecting unbridled hubris, he gave the billion and a quarter Indian people just three and a half hours’ notice before shutting them into their homes and enforcing the closure—unprecedented in human history in its scale and audacity—of the entire economy and all transport”. 

The exclusionary nature of this decision to bring about a nationwide lockdown ended up reinforcing inequalities as lockdown was a ‘provision’ not everybody could access, abide by and afford. Rather it became a prolonged event that stripped the working class of its means of survival and made a mockery of the lives of the poor. The data that Mander provides in this regard is quite revealing of the state of affairs that marked the pandemic, “The lockdown resulted swiftly in an estimated 11.4 crore job losses—over nine crore daily-wage earners and almost two crore salary earners have been laid off across 271,000 factories and 6.5 to 7 crore small and micro enterprises”. That the government did nothing to prevent the “mass hunger, mass unemployment and torturous dislocations”, rather was bent on exploiting the opportunity given by the pandemic to expand its own power and dominance and wallow in its own hubris, is a testimony to the irresponsibility and vanity that marks the state of the current political dispensation. The poor were left without any safety nets and the government did practically nothing to improve the situation, let alone initiating wage transfers that could have helped lessen the humanitarian crisis had the policy choices been sound, intelligent and inclusive. In words of Mander, “As it turned out, the public immorality grew into public criminality because the state did not even make partial wage transfers. In fact, it did virtually nothing to adequately shield the already disadvantaged Indian from further insecurity and destitution”. 

Further, the government called for social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus but what it completely ignored was the impossibility of distancing among the working class. People who were often forced to live in cramped, overcrowded slums and homes with little access to adequate water supply, could not afford distancing. While questioning and critiquing the approach of the government to the crisis, Mander also highlights the problematics of the use of the term ‘social distancing’ in the context of the pandemic in a country that has for long been plagued by the virus of caste and casteist practices of distancing and untouchability. 

The mass movement of the migrants on foot from their cities of work back to their villages as an outcome of being abandoned by their employers and being left without food security in a country where the government refused to take responsibility of the repercussions of the imposed lockdown, finally made the otherwise invisibilized working class visible. It exposed the fragility, hypocrisy and the human costs of a system that for long has survived on the exploitation of the working class and at the behest of the invisibilisation of their rights and dignity. As Mander writes, “What the migrant workers and their families endured was yet another, perhaps the most painful, chapter in the story of their lives scripted by a profoundly callous state and an unjust, unequal society”. He goes on to talk about the Shramik trains that the government set up for the migrant workers to be taken home. The complex and often opaque process that the workers had to undergo in order to secure a seat on the train, the initial decision of the government to charge travel fares from the workers, the lack of provision for food and water, the wayward routes that the trains undertook, all of this goes on to say a lot about the attitude of the government that considers the lives of the poor as dispensable and seeks to gain profit from the destitution that it has forced upon them. 

The current political dispensation exploited the crisis of the pandemic in order to not just expand its dominance but also to propagate its ideology and polarise the society further in order to distract the citizens from the deficient ways in which the government went about handling the crisis, and thereby evade responsibility. Harsh Mander talks about the vicious hate campaign against the Tablighi Jamaat that led to the stereotyping of Muslims as carriers of the virus. The maligning and targeting of Muslims was carried out blatantly and even by public office holders. In words of Mander, “We all know that the COVID-19 pandemic is caused by a highly contagious and potentially deadly mutating virus. But for this to mutate in India, within a few days of a national lockdown, into a ‘conspiracy’ by Muslims to infect and kill non-Muslims is a stunning accomplishment of right-wing communication and mobilisation with few parallels anywhere in the modern world”.

The humanitarian crisis, during the pandemic and the lockdown, occurred at the level of public health facilities as well. The patients with other ailments were denied entry into public as well as private hospitals unless they got themselves tested for Coronavirus. That the patients who had contracted the virus were kept in subhuman conditions, that private hospitals refused to cater to the Coronavirus patients and thereby evaded their responsibility in times of medical emergency, goes on to say a lot about the failure of the public health system and the unreliable nature of the private facilities. Mander, in the book, critiques the increasing privatisation of public facilities and condemns the negligence of the neoliberal state towards improving the public health system. 

The book not just chronicles the apathy and failure of the government in curbing the crisis but also critiques the functioning of the neoliberal state that in the name of governance does nothing except for selling the rhetoric of atmanirbharta in order to hide its own incapacity. The book further documents the voices of those who have been brought to the brink of despair by the callousness of the government. But, at the same time Mander allows the readers to concretise plausible alternatives to the policies adopted by the current government. In his perception, a complete and total lockdown is not feasible in a developing country like India. Instead, the government could have ensured transparent contact tracing and localised lockdown. This could have been accompanied by making the Public Distribution System universal and the private hospital facilities could have been nationalised for the duration of the pandemic. The book then combines sound data with first-hand accounts of people who have been severely affected by the policy choices of the government, and a critique of the government policies with practical alternatives that would have prevented the grave humanitarian crisis.

It will be apposite to end with a quote from the book, “As India stares at a bleak future of a more extended period of runaway infection than perhaps anywhere else on earth and of years of mass hunger and joblessness, the man elected to govern the country posts photographs of himself feeding peacocks… He spends scarce public resources in a grandiose plan to build a new parliament… The catastrophe that we find ourselves in is the direct outcome of such leadership of hubris and narcissism, with an almost pathological absence of compassion”. It seems we are living in our own version of Omelas, the so-called Atmanirbhar Bharat, one where one’s atmanirbharta, ironically, depends on the exploitation and destitution of the common masses, where an illusory utopia is created out of the dystopia of the poor. 

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