The One Ingredient Missing in the National Lockdown Is Compassion

The only institution that remained cognisant of the underprivileged was the Supreme Court, which took note of overcrowded prisons and the threat that the pandemic posed to prisoners.

Crowds of workers – aged and young – walking down highways, on foot, with children, without food, towards their homes, miles away from the national capital – a sight this nation has not seen since partition and one that no nation should ever see.

On March 24, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown, with effect from midnight March 25, 2020, for a period of 21 days. This was in addition to the prohibitory orders already imposed across the country to curb the spread of cases of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). State borders were effectively closed, passenger trains were suspended, flights were ordered to be grounded and inter-state road traffic movement, including that of inter-state buses, as well trucks, was suspended.

While the unabated spread of the global pandemic did require measures to be taken to limit the spread of the disease and to ensure that our healthcare system is not overwhelmed by an increase in the number of cases, as examples of other countries had taught us, at the same time one element of basic human instinct had to be ensured – compassion.

Once the lockdown was announced on March 24, the issue of supply of essential goods was kept in mind by the government. The implementation was ordered to be well maintained and the prime minister continued to assure people that there was no need to panic and that adequate measures are being taken to ensure that the supply of essential goods would be unaffected.

However, what had escaped from the planners of the national lockdown – continuing over three weeks, and likely to be extended – was the plight of the daily wagers, the workers, the lower scale employees, the rickshaw pullers, contractual workers, maids and a myriad number of persons living away from their homes trying to sustain their livelihood and that of their families back home. Once the haunting scenes of thousands of persons walking on foot, braving the heat, rain and hunger, surfaced and were severely criticised by the citizens, certain measures were belatedly put in place by the government, including another unplanned announcement by a state chief minister that buses shall be made available to help the migrants reach their respective homes.

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The next visuals that emerged were of huge crowds, at the Anand Vihar Inter State Bus Terminal, desperately trying to board a bus to reach home, and writ large upon them was the unpreparedness of the governments in failing to provide adequate measures beforehand to deal with the developing situation.

If the lockdown is the result of lessons from other countries, Italy in specific, we ought to also have taken note of how, as soon as the news of a lockdown spread, people started moving out of the affected clusters and into the interiors of the country, increasing the transmission and resulting in an unmanageable situation. India, on the other hand, is also a far larger and more populous country than Italy or Spain, with a significant population in metro cities comprising of labourers, daily wagers and migrant workers trying to earn a living.

Migrant workers travel to their villages during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of COVID-19, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India, March 29, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Amit Dave

Under the current pandemic, as it is unfolding before the world, thought and compassion must be of primal importance. Taking care of those who cannot speak for themselves. One such section of persons is lodged in our overcrowded jails i.e. prisoners and undertrials. Even when the lockdown was not announced, one institution remained cognizant of this class of persons – the Supreme Court of India.

The chief justice of India, taking note of the overcrowded prisons, suo moto, sought responses from all states and Union territories with regard to the prisoners, both convicted and under-trials, giving them only a week’s time to file their responses. In its order dated March 16, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, led by the chief justice noted the bitter truth that our prisons are overcrowded, making it difficult for prisoners to maintain social distancing.

The court noted that there were 1339 prisons in the country, and approximately 4,66,084 inmates languishing therein, with the average occupancy rate of the Indian prisons being as high as 117.6%, and in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Sikkim, 176.5% and 157.3% respectively. During this hour of a global pandemic, the Supreme Court in its wisdom gave a voice to those who stood at the lowest rung of the societal ladder, in light of the greater susceptibility of the spread of COVID-19 in prison inmates. The court noted that as there was a high risk of transmission of the coronavirus to prison inmates, our prisons can become fertile breeding grounds for incubation of COVID-19.

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In a week’s time, most states had filed their replies and on March 23, 2020, the chief justice’s bench, on the last day when in-person hearings were held in the chief justice’s court, passed an order directing the states and Union Territories to form a three-member committee headed by the chairman of the respective states’ legal services authorities and the home secretary and director general of prisons of the respective states being its members, to determine which class of prisoners can be released on parole or an interim bail for such period as may be thought appropriate.

To avoid any ambiguity with regard to the implementation of the order, the court also noted that as an example the states and Union Territories could consider the release of prisoners who had been convicted or were undertrials for offences punishable with up to 7 years imprisonment or less. I was fortunate enough to have been present on March 23, to have witnessed this compassionate step, taken at the right time, with the appropriate amount of guidance and foresight into the days that the nation was going to witness, by the Supreme Court of India.

Similar compassion, however, for the oft-forgotten classes of persons living amongst us seems to be missing during the present lockdown, with hurried steps being taken post facto and not in anticipation, as the Supreme Court did on its last day of sitting for in-person hearings, proving itself to be indeed worthy of being the sentinel on the qui vive for justice.

Fuzail Ahmad Ayyubi is advocate on record at the Supreme Court.