Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave India’s nearly 1.4 billion people just four hours’ notice that a total national lockdown would be imposed to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic on 24 March. Neither preparation nor provision was made for the needs of workers in the informal sector (90 per cent of India’s workforce), nor means for them to return to their distant homes. Mandar Oak, Peter Mayer specially for the East Asia Forum.
That lockdown set off the largest mass migration in the country since the traumatic events of the partition of 1947. Although India is far from being a ‘failed state’, its treatment of its most vulnerable citizens is evidence of ‘state failure’ that appears to be a direct consequence of Prime Minister Modi’s leadership style.
Much reporting has shown thousands of people surging around train stations such as the one in Mumbai. They were desperately trying to board trains headed to their native villages after suddenly finding themselves without work in the city.
Thousands of others, without money or transportation, set out on foot to cover the hundreds or even thousands of kilometres to their rural homes. Abandoned by their employers and devoid of any help from state and national governments, many say they are never coming back.
This lack of preparation once again reveals the blind spots of the present government — particularly its lack of understanding of the informal sector and the marginal sections of Indian society. Just like the demonetisation of high-value rupee notes in 2016, and the attempted ban on sale and consumption of beef in 2017, the lockdown decision was taken without fully understanding — or caring about — its implications for people living on the margins.
It is also reflects Modi’s penchant for drastic, bold and symbolic gestures, which was duly praised by a sycophantic media as his ‘surgical strike’ on the virus. Modi asked people for three weeks’ worth of ‘sacrifice’ and encouraged gestures of gratitude such as lighting candles, clapping to chase away the evil demon of the virus, or asking the air force to drop rose petals on health workers to thank them for their selfless work.
After continuing for ten weeks, the lockdown exerted a heavy cost on the lives of India’s poor and yet, there is no indication of the curve flattening. Tired of waiting for government help, many stranded migrant workers moved back to their rural hometowns in droves — threatening to carry the disease to the yet unaffected hinterland. By the beginning of June, the government then decided to gradually unlock the economy, leaving many traumatised workers in a dilemma over whether to retrace their steps back to the cities.
Why was India, with only the state of Kerala being a shining exception, relatively unprepared for the arrival of the virus?
One explanation is that Modi and his all-powerful Home Minister Amit Shah were looking elsewhere in the crucial weeks in February and March. Early on, there were widespread protests against the imposition of a Citizenship Amendment Act, widely seen as discriminatory against India’s large Muslim minority. Then there were the big celebrations of India’s Republic Day on 26 January. There were crucial elections in the capital territory of Delhi in early February. Soon after, there were preparations for a rousing reception for US President Donald Trump in Ahmedabad and New Delhi.
All of this demonstrates the sharp contradiction between Modi’s continuous efforts to centralise power, decision-making and the media spotlight in New Delhi, while simultaneously pushing the responsibility and burden of dealing with the pandemic’s social realities onto state and local authorities and the valiant local NGOs.
In early April, a centrally-determined list of containment zones classified by the severity of virus spread was announced. It drew complaints from various states that had better and more fine-grained information about local spread of COVID-19. It was only by the second week of May that the states were granted the power to determine the classification of zones.
Weeks after the lockdown was imposed, when special trains for migrant workers were finally authorised, the migrants themselves (their meagre savings long since expended on food) were initially asked to pay the cost of returning them to their states of origin. This sharply contrasted with the proposed treatment of overseas Indians, some of whom were flown home without charge — a policy later reversed following public outcry.
What is perhaps most astonishing in the hands-off approach of the government in New Delhi is that at the outset of the pandemic, Modi established PM CARES — an entirely new relief fund not subject to public scrutiny or government audit — which has received donations of over Rs 38 billion (US$500 million). Although it was announced in mid-May that Rs 10 billion (US$131.6 million) would be used to assist distressed migrant workers, it is difficult to find evidence of actual disbursement.
The global pandemic has been a major exogenous shock for every country. But what might be the implications for India? When the Black Death scythed the population of Europe in the late Middle Ages, the long-term effects were profound. Labour became scarce, wages rose rapidly, land became relatively devalued and rural social structures were disrupted. Technical innovations and capital-intensive developments took place in cities.
The current pandemic shock might not have such wide-ranging nor long-lasting consequences. Still, it is clear that restarting India’s economy will require tens of thousands of badly scarred workers to return to the cities. Employers and governments will have to offer significant incentives to induce them to retrace the bitter journey back to the cities.
Mandar Oak is Associate Professor in Economics at the University of Adelaide. Peter Mayer is Associate Professor and Visiting Research Fellow in Politics and International Studies at the University of Adelaide.