Gautam Navlakha – journalist, rights advocate, dedicated democrat – is directed by the Supreme Court to go to jail for an imagined violent overthrow of the government. He invites compatriots to listen to Leonard Cohen’s call to “Ring the bell/which still can ring; forget your perfect/offering”. Would Navlakha have been surprised to know that the government was listening? For, three days later, the prime minister solemnly called to arms the nation, to imprison itself in a “janata curfew” and “ghanti bajao” – ring a bell – to offer an imperfect offering of thanks to frontline health-care workers.
Apart from a carnival on that placid Sunday evening, what else did the prime minister have on offer? He gravely advised isolating the ill and social distancing. He kindly cautioned old people from going out of the house and others from visiting hospitals. He appealed to employers to pay wages and assured essential services. He anointed the finance minister to head a task force and draft an action plan for the economic challenge. And he sagely reminded his “130-crore” audience that Ram Navami was coming and their sankalp, sanyam and shakti-upasana – determination, discipline, power-worship – would free the nation.
His gravitas elicited a wave of excellent advice: learn from local and global experiences; develop emergency plans; re-start data-gathering systems; develop patient-handling protocols; intensify free testing and contact-tracing; import equipment and drugs; use stadia as medical centres; insure health-care workers; invest in public health and distribution; distribute water equitably; give compensation to the ill; reschedule loans; recover dues from defaulters; tax wealthy corporations; prepare for a major recession; and suspend citizenship tests.
Captains of industry and commerce sneaked in a few of their own demands. These ranged from a 90-day extension for slippage of running accounts into NPA; easier loan repayment terms; permission to renegotiate contracts; compensation for trade losses; regulatory forbearance and partial loan guarantees; tax holidays; cash transfers to Jan Dhan accounts (using the oil windfall to maintain purchasing power of the poor); and end supply constraints to NREGA (to cater to reverse migration).
What about the poor? Many argued that social distancing and isolation were harsh for them. They wanted an increased allocation to a functional PDS; and meals distributed through local centres. Financial needs were linked to 60 days of work for registered workers; jobs in local production, transport, processing, health care, and construction; no job reductions and price hikes; increased wages and equal pay; cash transfers to informal sector workers; compensation for death; enhanced old-age pensions; and suspension of bill payments.
On behalf of the poor, they demanded a freeze on evictions. They asked for safety; halls and schools as emergency centres; mohalla clinics; water and sanitation; paramedics; and free admission, diagnosis, and treatment in all hospitals. Other issues were special trains for migrant workers; affordable credit; fast track courts for cases of violence; helplines for women and children; and reliable information. They suggested an executive task force; higher taxes to pay for welfare; an emergency welfare fund; and not using the crisis to ban protests and abuse human rights.
Who did the government of sabka saath, sabka vikas listen to? Five days after his first address, carefully choosing from the petitions, the PM told the nation that the janata curfew had worked well, so he (citing “expert” opinion and “global experience”) was extending it to a “lockdown” for three weeks more. For “supply of essential commodities and health care services” he allotted a munificent Rs 15,000 crore – for equipment, ICUs, ventilators, training, and increasing testing to over 60,000 per week.
The same day, the finance minister exhibited tender concern for investors and firms: e-services; relaxations in taxes, minimum balances, trade conditions, fees, prosecutions, and compliance dates. Two days later, she announced a second package of Rs 1.7 lakh crore (less than 1% of GDP) for food security; cash transfers; insurance for health workers; NREGA wage increases; ex-gratia payments; and, of course, benefits to companies by way of EPF contributions. How a fraction of the working poor was going to access this magnanimity was left to vivid imagination.
The minister of state for labour, generously acknowledging a demand that Construction Welfare Boards should give relief of Rs 10,000 per month, advised all states & UTs to transfer the money with the boards into the accounts of registered workers. This clever ploy meant that the funds will be exhausted giving each registered worker Rs 15,000. How far will this individualised dole last in a long-drawn lockdown? Does it not squander social capital that could be used more productively?
Other informal sector workers do not have boards. Activists suggested that NREGA be extended to all who wish to take advantage of it. But NREGA is a seasonal distress-alleviating scheme for the agricultural off-season for 100 days. For daily wagers, will anything less than 300 days of secure work make any difference? Fish-workers too have asked for compensation: an allowance of Rs 10,000 for 3 months; masks, safety, rations, and fuel; relief from repayment, and guidelines for fishing. Will the government smartly transfer the burden to the Fishermen’s Welfare Corporation?
This government is dedicated to the welfare of the wealthy, the upper castes, and the consumer. It has distanced and washed its hands of its constitutional responsibilities. Where it gets its ‘international’ wisdom from is a mystery, considering that out of 191 countries, only 16 have imposed a national lockdown. South Korea, with no lockdown but a low casualty rate, does not seem to have inspired him; or Cuba; or Sweden. Instead shakti-worshippers invoke the Mahabharata to “defeat” the virus – a mythical war that left 40 lakh dead on the battlefield – and now the power of candles, diyas and torches for nine minutes.
This dream of conquest is self-defeating because the human species is part of nature and defeating nature rebounds to hurt the species. The novel coronavirus is a manifestation of that self-goal. Adopting this kind of upper caste, neo-liberal thought leads to war paranoia: locking up everyone; violently disciplining anyone. At the same time as the working poor flee for their lives from this battlefield of isolation and hunger, there are public spectacles of UP chief minister Bisht seating Lord Ram and MP CM-elect Chouhan unseating Kamal Nath.
A government that has been decimating publicly-funded services, selling profitable public sector companies, propagating market-based solutions that enrich its cronies: such a government is firmly not open to negotiations. So yes, the demands will be made, again and again; but will they be met? Is it possible to move beyond the saffron hue and think how the working poor can mobilise to meet their own needs; laying claims on administrations that may be more responsive; and chalk out a political path to reclaiming their rights to a different mode of dignity and solidarity?
Or is their only solution to desert this merciless society, never mind the gates, the goons, and the guns? As Leonard Cohen sang, a prediction that government would probably not hear,
You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum.
You can strike up the march
on your little broken drum;
Dunu Roy is with the Hazards Centre, New Delhi