Former Navy Chief Ramdas Writes to PM on 'Dire Conditions of Mass Hunger'

The ex-navy chief also voiced his concern over "the increasing intolerance in our society, and the use and misuse of religion, hate speech and targeting of minorities" and said that the COVID-19 pandemic must be "fought collectively".

My dear prime minister,

I heard with great interest, your address to the nation over national television on Ambedkar Jayanti – April 14, 2020.

However, like many others, I kept hoping and waiting for you to give us more specific information as to the steps and plans by which the government intends to look after the millions of workers who have been displaced from their  various worksites – and who are either being forced to stay in the cities at their place of work, or those walking hundreds of kilometres to go home to be with their families. From all the accounts that we see in the media and also from first hand reports, their plight is heartbreaking and worse than anything we could have imagined.

You might recall my last letter dated March 27 addressed to you, with copies to the Hon Raksha Mantri, as also the CDS, and the three chiefs of Army, Navy and Air Force. I had suggested that you and your team could seriously consider utilising the immense manpower of the armed forces, and most importantly, their all-India presence, to extend a helping hand to the local administrations and not wait for the civil authorities to request for such aid.

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Such assistance by way of ‘aid to civil power’ to be understood as ‘aid to civil authority’. This could be rendered in a variety of ways – from assisting in the movement and transportation of large numbers, to running community kitchens and distributing food, or by way of opening up the extensive hospital infrastructure and making available health care personnel, to augment existing services available to our civilian population.

I had also proposed that food grains could be supplied by the district authorities, who should be empowered to access and utilise the enormous buffer stocks of food grains held by the Food Corporation of India (FCI) all over India. From all available accounts our holdings of food reserves is almost three times the amount required for any emergency.

Labourers carry sacks of rice after unloading them from a wagon train at an FCI godown during the lockdown, in Jammu, April 16, 2020. Photo: PTI

You will agree with me that the present situation is nothing less than the gravest of grave emergencies – dire conditions of mass hunger created by a complex set of circumstances brought on by the sudden imposition of the lockdown. Not making these stocks of food immediately available to the most affected, with or without ration cards, would almost be tantamount to hoarding stocks of vital commodities at a time of dire need. After all, this is why these stocks are being held in reserve.

I am aware that the Armed Forces are already doing yeoman service in the field of health care, medicine, quarantine centres, extra beds etc. This is only in keeping with the best traditions of the service. I also fully appreciate that your team at the Ministry of Defence must be extremely hard pressed in having to deal with this pandemic whilst also ensuring that there is operational readiness at all times.

I commend the excellent work being done by several state and district administrations, as also by NGOs, a range of civil society groups and religious organisations. I had also mentioned in my last letter that the scale of the problem is unprecedented. Our responses too must therefore be likewise.

I am a former Head of the Navy and a veteran who joined the Indian Armed Forces [Navy] soon after Independence in 1949. I too remember the shock that so many experienced after the assassination of the Father of the Nation. Despite this traumatic event, we, the people of India, were exhilarated by the adoption of our constitution under the leadership of Baba Saheb Ambedkar. It was the vision of EQUALITY among all the people of India that has been the guiding light and a beacon for all of us in the Armed Forces.

People stand in a queue to collect food from volunteers during the lockdown in Surat, April 16, 2020. Photo: PTI

It is with deep concern and sadness that I am seeing the increasing intolerance in our society, and the use and misuse of religion, hate speech and targeting of minorities, especially of Muslims, forgetting that many of our personnel in the armed forces are also Muslims. This tragic calamity created by the coronavirus/COVID-19, should be fought collectively, using all the resources at our command and taking along people from all sections, regions and communities.

The emergence of fake news and mischievous propaganda released by some IT operators, at a time when India’s efforts against COVID-19 are being watched carefully by the international community, brings no credit to our country.

Prime Minister ji, you have repeatedly expressed your faith in the constitution of India and the values of justice, equality, liberty – in short of ‘Vasudeva Kutumbakam’ – embodied therein. I am confident that you will also act swiftly and decisively to affirm that your government and party will show zero tolerance for all acts which smack of any kind of prejudice against any person, community or region – based on religion, caste, ethnicity, class or occupation.

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There are clearly misguided sources at many levels who are taking advantage of the situation to spread their disruptive agenda.  At the same time all media, including social media, must be directed to conform to the ethics of unbiased, investigative reporting.

Being currently the seniormost former Chief of the Naval Staff, I consider it my duty to place before you the above points for your serious consideration and suitable corrective action.

Since postal, speed post and courier services are all unavailable at present, I am taking the liberty to make this an open letter.

With highest regards,

Yours sincerely,

L. Ramdas

Admiral (retd) L. Ramdas is the former chief of the Indian navy.