The Attack on Democratic, Constitutional Rights During the Pandemic Is Ominous: Aruna Roy

The celebrated rights activist speaks on the response of the government to the COVID-19 crisis and what India needs to do to move forward.

The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown crisis have had an untold impact on migrant labourers and informal workers and highlighted the lack of compassion from the Union government and its overall laxity in providing relief to the poor.

In this interview, renowned social activist and Ramon Magsaysay award winner Aruna Roy speaks about the need for emergency relief measures, a revival package like the ‘new deal’, the urgency of instituting certain universal rights as social security measures to cope with any future crisis, and the importance of the state fulfilling its basic constitutional obligations. 

She also warns about the dangers of rescinding workers’ rights, the push for increased privatisation and neoliberal policies in the name of attracting investments in the backdrop of the current crisis, and also about the state becoming more centralised in character.


You have earlier said that India lacks compassion rather than resources in coping with the situation which emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic and national lockdown. Ideally, how should the government have dealt with this humanitarian emergency?

In the past few weeks, more than a dozen workers were crushed under a goods train in Aurangabad, and the Uttar Pradesh government brought an ordinance rescinding almost all the rights of labour. Madhya Pradesh followed suit.

The pandemic has created a socio-economic condition fortuitous for regimes ready to crop hard-earned rights of workers and the vulnerable. This ruthless attack on democratic and constitutional rights is ominous. It is the beginning of an economic emergency, of which there may be many interpretations. But what emerges clearly is the regression to the days when the Bastille was stormed, where worker’s rights are concerned.  

We all know that the first lockdown came with just a few hours’ notice. It is impossible to believe that the government of India did not know that Indian unorganised sector workers, who seek employment across state borders, are often thousands of miles away from home. India’s economy draws heavily on such workers, in both the agricultural sector and in the manufacture, in the thousands of small enterprises all over the country. 

 There is a space crunch in the lives of the poor, especially with the urban poor, even in normal circumstances. Habitations are often so congested that physical distancing is impossible. Space defines privilege. The impromptu camps hastily assembled were not much better provided, including the provision of essential services.

As former chief secretary of Kerala, S.M. Vijayanand says, in 1979 the government of India legislated the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act

Typical of the times, it relied on licences and inspectors; the focus was on the contractor who brought in migrant labourers from other states.  The Act contained important elements for the welfare of the migrants: registration, which could provide necessary data, conditions of work as relevant in the destination state, hours of work, minimum wages and equal wages, shelter, protective clothing, free health care, displacement allowance, journey allowance. But unfortunately, this Act was not seriously implemented by any state, including states with active trade unions like Kerala, Maharashtra, West Bengal, etc.

 Also read: ‘Hunger Can Kill Us Before the Virus’: Migrant Workers on the March During Lockdown

In the absence of data where it was most required, and the fact that all transport was suspended, the Ministry of Home Affairs further compounded the matter when on March 29, for instance, it issued orders to stop the lakhs walking home, and quarantined them for 14 days.

This resulted in tremendous hardship for the migrant workers and the result was the unfair skewed treatment of this country’s economic backbone – the wage worker. The mantra of mandatory social or physical distancing repeated ad nauseum, lulled the unconcerned classes to view the people on the streets as a health hazard. The hypocrisy of pretended ignorance of conditions of living of workers – in cramped rooms, crowded homes, and in congested streets, was no more than a platitude. The privileged, in fear of contamination, with assured room for physical distancing and food stocks, cannot wish reality away. The virus, we must remember, is impartial in its spread, despite the propaganda promoted communalisation of the virus, and accusation that the poor spread the epidemic. 

India is a conglomerate of variables; of competence levels, of availability of administrative structures, delivery systems, and cultural habits. The nature of the conditions of poverty vary. Decentralised micro-planning and space for independent action by the states are necessary. The bureaucracy, working with the directions of a clear decentralised political vision and mandate, could deliver.

We invoke the example of Kerala repeatedly because it is a state where the creation of decentralised and competent administrative units and structures, has become a part of its political-cultural habit. 

Migrant workers walking in Mamallapuram, May 31, 2020. Photo: PTI

Immediate attention needs to be paid on five issues. The stranded workers need to reach home, and their return has to be subsidised by the government. Free or heavily subsidised rations as per the National Food Security Act (NFSA) should be universally available for rural and urban workers for the duration of the lockdown.

The MGNREGA should be extended to 200 days a year with full payment of wages in compensation for work denied by physical/social distancing for the period of the lockdown.

Children’s schooling suspended at a critical time of the year when examinations are held must be addressed. Health check-ups must be made free and access to public health universally expanded.

Nikhil De and you have filed a PIL in the Supreme Court for ensuring full payment of MGNREGS wages. How important is this as far as the rural poor is concerned? Many have pointed out that finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement of the wage increase was an already notified thing and without work, this increase will not benefit anyone. 

We filed the PIL in the beginning of April primarily demanding that MGNREGA workers with active job cards be paid full wages during the lockdown, or else provide work that followed norms of ‘social distancing’. Though the Ministry of Rural Development had issued guidelines allowing MGNREGA work, they were in contradiction of the lockdown order of staying at home and/or maintaining distance and work was not possible for almost a month of the lockdown.

In a context where unemployment is going to skyrocket even after the lockdown ends, the PIL also asked for the number of days of work guaranteed by raised from 100 to 200 to support rural livelihoods during the impending economic crisis. 

Also read: Has the Finance Minister Pulled a Fast One on MGNREGA Workers?

Most governments dodge the first entitlement to trigger employment – work must be “guaranteed” on demand. The government counselled the private sector to pay full wages to all active job cardholders during the lockdown. It is obliged to put its counsel into practice for the MGNREGA, legislation that is designed to provide livelihood security. The Act makes a provision for unemployment allowance when the state cannot provide work.

MGNREGA has helped build rural infrastructure by giving employment to approximately 10 crore families. But because of the resource constraints, many could not access the entitled 100 days of work. Migrant workers coming back home will swell the already desperate demand for work.

The government has existing provisions for expanding MGNREGA work by another 50 days in situations of any calamity. The expansion of the Employment Guarantee Act must, therefore, be effective and open-ended. The ‘100 days per family’ scheme must expand to allow access to any adult seeking any number of days of work during the period of recovery from the COVID crisis.

The Maharashtra Act of 1975, which guaranteed employment with no restrictions on the number of days or people, and identified four taxes to be put into a dedicated fund, served as a model for the NREGA when it was enacted 30 years later.

As a consequence, Maharashtra always had enough money to implement the law. However, its innovative funding pattern was not adopted by the MGNREGA, and consequently, it has always been short-changed. This is despite a unique legal architecture of being demand-driven and not budget constrained. The recovery package should have contained a set of dedicated taxes for adding a special “Disaster Management Employment Guarantee Programme”.

Perhaps we could have started with a one or two percent wealth tax so that some of the unequal distribution of the fruits of economic growth that has gone to the top 5% in the country is used for serving the basic needs of those who contributed fundamentally to that growth.

Since the MGNREGA came into inception, the MKSS has been fighting for the daily wage rate to be at parity with the State’s minimum wage. The wage rate increment of Rs. 20 per day, incorrectly being perceived as a benevolent social welfare move by the government for the rural worker, is part of a routine yearly process of wage notification. This wage increase does not address the COVID-19 related emergent rural economic (or urban) distress. 

COVID-19 is not just a health crisis. This crisis has many dimensions. What is your assessment of the handling of this crisis by the Indian government? What should we learn from this in terms of our policies?

The new nightmare, COVID-19 – seems to be the science fiction of the 1900s come to life. It has become the fig leaf for the already dictatorial tendencies of many national governments, including India to centralise power, the key to all control. 

Also read: Will India’s Economic Recovery Be Quick? Modi Says So, But This Can’t Happen in a Vacuum

Dire necessities are adequate testing for COVID 19, sustaining economic production, distributing free and extra rations to the vulnerable, distributing the many lakh tonnes of food grain in FCI godowns, stabilising the agricultural economy. Additionally, if the lockdown period points to any premonition of what is to come – then the outcome of civil liberties, rights, and freedoms look bleak.  

The use of technology to identify and deliver health care and food will become the vehicle for insidious control – like the Aarogya Setu app. National threats and terrorism are being used to strip ordinary citizens of democratic and civil rights. The Aarogya Setu is one more tool in the hands of the undemocratically functioning system to monopolise information, power, and the right to decide. These are dangerous tendencies.

 This global affliction should, on the contrary have helped  empower the government to move forward; re-imagine better ways of guaranteeing food, health care and livelihood to people.

We need to guard against being trapped within limited vested interests, with a façade of nationalism and individualism. 

COVID-19 has exposed complexities and challenges which question future economic, social, and political structures. How will state and society re-build, post the pandemic?

Will the future be a nightmare of unaccountable power with lip service to compassionate governance? Or will we make use of this sudden cessation of movement to think wisely and compassionately, examine mindless greed and the destruction of the environment?

In the Indian state’s response to COVID-19, the centralisation of power has already brought up numerous issues. Though announcing a financial package for the vulnerable, and collecting huge private donations in the PM CARES fund, there is little transparency or accountability, or concrete action, by the Centre. Particularly for ensuring that basic entitlements for the vulnerable and discriminated – food, healthcare, COVID testing, money – reach everyone, especially in the most backward areas.

The situation begs the question – can a centralised system really deliver food and healthcare to everyone in a country as vast as India?  

This increased centralisation is a violation of the principles of federalism, in a scenario where State’s funds are drying up and they require additional funding to fulfil their administrative and financial responsibilities during the COVID lockdown and after. It is the State’s that are primarily delivering social entitlements to the vulnerable sections that fall in their territorial purview. 

Testing in progress at Mumbai’s Dharavi. Photo: PTI

Policy is already being insidiously affected by the enforced isolation, which has prevented community gatherings and protests. The State justifies its unconstitutional actions – police brutality against the migrants and poor, rampant detentions and arrests of activists, increasing the lockdown time period, lack of transparency of funds and decision-making processes – by citing the public health crisis. The Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897, a colonial edict, gives the government the power to take measures if it thinks ordinary provisions of the law are insufficient to prevent a health crisis. The fear of falling prey to the virus has numbed the masses and emboldened the state. 

 Also read: How the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 Came to Be

An increased centralisation of power leads to a decline in people’s involvement in shaping policies. Contrary to the design of a welfare state that looks at the condition of the most underprivileged as central to its concerns, the government was preoccupied almost wholly with the containment of COVID-19 – the lockdown and quarantine. Its stated concerns implied that this was sufficient and adequate to tackle the spread of the disease. Other issues were discounted. 

Kerala chose to keep the welfare state as the framework to guide public policy and implementation. This contributed to the rapid increase in participatory development and much better social indicators for the state. The tradition of partnership between people and the government helped counter the COVID-19 crisis and significantly shaped the ability to address insecurity. 

How do you look at Rs 20 lakh crore economic package announced by the Union government?

We at the MKSS think that ‘the government’s economic package is largely an exercise in accounting jugglery that seems to have been designed and announced keeping in mind the media news cycle and the need to manage headlines. While different people have different estimates, most analysts seem to think that the actual government expenditure during the current financial year as a part of the ‘Atmanirbhar’ package will be closer to 1% of the GDP than the announced 10% of GDP.

Numbers have been artificially inflated to make it seem like what is being offered is a lot more than what it actually is. One chunk of what has been announced is a part of routine budget expenditures that would have been made anyway even if there was no pandemic and no 20 lakh crore package. Therefore, these are not really additional measures that the government is taking on account of the unforeseen economic distress the people are facing.

Also read: To Rebuild the Economy, India Needs to Be Atmanirbhar in Ideas

The other thing that the government has done is to offer things like interest subvention or collateral free loans where the government providing the guarantee. While these are welcome measures, they give a false impression of the impact on the government’s finances and misrepresent the amount that the government is spending for these schemes.

Further, what many economic actors like farmers or street vendors need right now are not loans but immediate relief through direct cash transfers. Additionally, even the direct relief being given falls far short of what we have been asking for.

Consider, for example, MGNREGA for which the government announced that there is a 65% hike in funds. This will certainly help improve the coverage and number of households which will now get work through the programme. The revised estimate for MGNREGA for the last year was about Rs 71,000 crores. Compared to that the budget for this year was reduced to around 61 thousand crores. Hence, the actual increased allocation this year over the revised estimate for last year, is about 30 thousand crores. This increase is less than 50% of last year’s revised estimate.

Migrants, who have arrived from Surat in Gujarat, walk to board buses to reach their native places, in Prayagraj. Photo: PTI

Whereas what is needed is to increase the allocation by multiples. What we have been asking for is increasing the entitlement in the number of days of work and changing this entitlement from households to individuals apart from expanding the programme to cover urban areas as well. Therefore, what was needed was at least a fourfold increase in the allocation, compared to an increase by less than half.

Also, the government has added things like direct benefits being given to various stakeholders to loans being offered and measures taken by the RBI. These are not similar kinds of things that one can add. Just like one cannot add the amount of food one has eaten to the quantum of seeds that have been sown and fertiliser that has been produced.

While one has heard of incorrectly comparing apples to oranges, here apples and oranges are being added to eggs when counting chicken.

Not to mention measures like privatisation and dilutions of various laws in the name of ease of doing business. These are negative steps at any time but it is doubly cruel to implement them at a time of such acute distress. These are steps that harm the working class and take away from the relief otherwise being offered. Right across the board, ranging from traders to trade unions to BJP-RSS affiliated bodies, everyone is unhappy with this package.

The irony that the Atmanirbhar package, which is supposed to increase national self-sufficiency and promote swadeshi, allows foreign investment and ownership reminds one of the doublespeak that Orwell warned us about.

What kind of revival package is needed to repair the damage caused by the pandemic? 

Any package to address multiplying conditions of a regressive economy and of emerging social conditions will have to house itself within a welfare framework. In times of instability, democratic governments must show leadership and deliver rights.

The burning question is – will leaders choose to redefine nation, national and global interest for all, or distort it to further their power and control? Gimmicks initiated to “feel good” – banging on plates, lighting candles, using precious airline fuel to drop flowers – are propaganda.

For long-term solutions to the pandemic, strategies must be evolved through dialogue between state and civil society. It is a bureaucratic nightmare to reach 1.3 billion people; without decentralisation, this will fail.

Also read: Some Thorny Questions About the Military’s Rose Petal Show for ‘Corona Warriors’

We need to universalise food and cash transfers to a great extent. Many activists, academics, bureaucrats and policy-makers have made suggestions of the amount that would be needed to keep the economy afloat and provide security for the vulnerable. Prabhat Patnaik, Jayati Ghosh and Harsh Mander proposed recently that a cash transfer of Rs 7,000 per month for three months to every household (assuming 80% would receive this) is necessary.

The expenditure would be around Rs. 4,36,800 crore, which is less than 3% of the GDP. Along with this, distributing a large portion of the 77 million tonnes of food grain stocks is imperative for tiding citizen’s extreme economic distress that is to follow the lockdown. 

Also read: A Green New Deal for Rural India Is the Ethical Imperative of Our Times

India needed to outline policy similar to the ‘New Deal’, which was a series of public works programmes and reforms initiated by the United States to deal with the financial crisis after the Great Depression. At the core of the reform was to fight the great depression with “cooperation” rather than “competition”. The highlight of the deal was a massive public works programme guaranteeing work at minimum wages to anyone who sought work. 

In this time of COVID-19 crisis, India needed a New Deal of its own, outlining an open-ended, creative, expanded employment guarantee programme at minimum wages.

Migrant labourers live and build our cities but the lack of social security for them in a crisis of this kind is very evident these days. How should the government have treated them? 

 Essentially the economic profile of the poor demands the basic structure of a welfare state; but that has been under constant frontal and insidious attack. The last seven years have seen the economic design dismembering the concept of welfare systematically. The craze for privatisation and the attack on labour laws have come down very hard on workers. 

To deny universal food security with a huge surplus of 77 million tonnes of food grain accumulated in the FCI godowns, which will swell after a good Rabi crop, is unpardonable.

There is clearly little intent to address the crisis with practicality and compassion. This virus merely upends the sharp divide of the two Indians we have manufactured, with a disproportionate impact on the socio-economic conditions of the poor and unorganised sector.  

The lack of security for migrant workers is outlined in a report by Stranded Workers Action Swan (SWAN), from a sample of 17,000 migrants in distress across the country. Government delivery of both pre-existing schemes, and new orders passed during the lockdown, are highly inadequate in terms of implementation, delivery, and actual relief package. 

Also read: After the Lockdown Lifts, We Need to Make Cities Liveable for Migrants

The report says that 46% of the groups that reached out were SOS calls with no food or money. More than four out of five persons haven’t received rations in the second phase of lockdown compared to 96% in the first phase.

This improvement is also largely driven by some cases in Karnataka. 68% compared to 70% in the first phase had not received any cooked food. As many as 64% had less than Rs 100 left while 74% continue to have less than half their daily wages remaining to survive for the rest of the lockdown period. Only 6% have been fully paid during the lockdown period and 16% have been partially paid. 78% have not been paid by their employers at all during the lockdown. As many as 89% had not been paid at all in the first phase. 

In the context of extending the lockdown in the unplanned manner in which the government has been doing, economists Raghuram Rajan, Amartya Sen, and Abhijit Banerjee wrote that, “a huge number of people will be pushed into dire poverty or even starvation by the combination of the loss of their livelihoods and interruptions in the standard delivery mechanisms.” They, and many other economists across the ideological spectrum, have emphasised the importance of the government providing more for the vulnerable sections so as to avoid extreme economic distress.   

Instead, we can see how the NDA governments across States are leaning towards anti-poor policies. The damages caused by this crisis are worsening by either the lack of concrete steps taken by the government or their appalling policy decisions such as suspending labour rights.

The proposed ‘Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020’ (though it was withdrawn later) exempted all establishments, businesses, and factories from following all but three labour laws, and a section of a fourth law. If this ordinance is anything to go by, the future bodes extremely ill for workers and labourers, who will be completely at the mercy of their employers with extremely minimal rights. 

Isn’t it that a crisis of this magnitude exposes the virtual absence of a social security net for most people? Don’t we need at least a set of universal rights to provide a decent living for the people? 

Free India planned its economy to lessen the divide between, ‘the haves and the have-nots’, within a welfare structural framework.  The steady erosion of that framework was countered in part by the rights-based legislations. It is apparent that there is need for a legislative right beyond government’s obligation, to put the constitution into practice.

COVID-19 has forced an exposé of the huge divides between the poor and the rich. It has to some extent brought back the success of the welfare paradigm with the example of Kerala.  

The systemic measures will include coverage of all for food entitlements: strengthening the PDS; implementing MGNREGA with an extended 200 days guarantee; drafting an urban employment guarantee act; ensuring that ‘The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act’, and other such enabling legislations are put into immediate practice; to strengthen labour laws, strengthening the Public Health system, (we have a history of such efforts to draw upon); continued schooling and ensuring that state schools function well; etc. 

Also read: Lockdown Gives Centre Power Without Responsibility, Easy to Pass Buck for Failure to States

The enactment of the rights-based laws enabled to bring in the concepts of universal rights by looking at its specifics. The moment demands that there is, both globally and in India, an urgency to revive and re-imagine economic and political structures. 

In India, the challenge is to revive democratic action and principles, and equality will be re-emphasised as a fundamental value in the post-COVID world. There is an opportunity that must be seized to ensure that certain basic rights will be guaranteed to all citizens — the right to food, the right to work at minimum wages, and equal access to healthcare. These entitlements can be provided to our citizens, to help flatten the poverty curve and enable them to respond to the pandemic with greater confidence and planned cooperation.

Food grain and pulses can be assured through an expanded and universalised National Food Security Act. Basic livelihood security can be assured through an expanded and reoriented Employment Guarantee Act. Equal healthcare can be assured as a right through a much-needed pooling of all our health resources — private or public. It is the myopia of the worst sort to fight the spread of COVID-19 by wishing away a massive humanitarian crisis. The solution lies in assuring all Indians livelihood and income security.

In India, instead of universalising certain welfare measures, what we have is targeted programs. Many people are out of the net of many schemes. It is reported from all parts of the country that the lack of ration cards is a big problem for many to avail COVID-19 ration benefits.

Is this also a time to push for universal schemes rather than targeted welfare schemes?

The MKSS, in the campaign for the Right to Food, the Right to Work, and other such rights-based campaigns, have always championed the universalisation of all welfare schemes. In fact, the success of MGNREGA has been in the very fact that it espouses universalisation and self-selection, and gives the possibility for everyone to get access to work. The mobilisation around MGNREGA was from the grassroots, where people had clarity about what they wanted from the legislation. In its current iteration, no government can de-bar anyone in a rural area to demand work. Work is guaranteed.

 Also read: Six Charts Show That India Needs to (and Can Afford to) Universalise PDS

In the case of the National Food Security Act, we lost our battle to universalise the scheme to bureaucratic and right-wing arguments. As a result, there are many cases of people – nomadic tribes, migrants, people in inaccessible areas etc – who have immense problems with ration cards and access to food. If anything, the crisis has shown us that the government needs to find a solution to these inherent problems.

Technological solutions like the Aadhaar have, in fact, made it even more difficult for extremely marginalised sections to access adequate food. 

This is definitely a time to push for universalising welfare schemes, though the political will to do so is non-existent. The government seems to want mass digitalisation and surveillance without understanding the implications of whether this will help the poor at all.

Unfortunately, the lockdown has created physical and psychological distance, which is difficult to overcome if people want to pressure the state. 

Jipson John and Jitheesh P. M. are fellows at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.