The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, imposed a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus in the country from 25 March onwards. Prime Minister Modi proclaimed he was locking down the country in four hours’ time. Just like the demonetisation announcement, this was also made at eight in the evening. All domestic flights, trains, buses, and other forms of transport were suspended. The entire nation came to a grinding halt. This sudden announcement of lockdown without sufficient warning brought immeasurable hardship and suffering to the working population of India.
Nothing has been done about the dire situation that is faced by the mass of workers and poor people in India, which has been accelerated even further by this crisis. The death rate due to poverty is much higher in comparison with the death rate from the virus. The lockdown has particularly impacted around 40 million children from poor families.
The capitalist media and economists have euphemistically termed the recession a virus-induced economic crisis. But the world economy, as well as the Indian economy, was already in a very pathetic condition. Some banks collapsed, stock prices slumped and there was a stark decline in economic activity. The Covid-19 crisis just added to it – accelerated and speeded up the process.
The current crisis could lead to the first increase in child labour in 20 years. A report titled “Covid-19 and child labour: a time of crisis, a time to act” says that studies in the past have found that a one percentage point increase in poverty leads to at least a 0.7 per cent increase in child labour.
In India, more than 32 crores (320 million) students have been affected by the various restrictions and the nationwide lockdown. About 217 million children in the country — 158 million registered with the Anganwadis (Rural Child Care Centre) and 59.6 million students approved for mid-day meals at primary and upper primary government schools — are going hungry because of the lockdown.
This is the only wholesome meal children get in a whole day. Because of this lockdown, millions of children are going hungry in the country and making these meals unavailable is going to have serious health implications.
Pregnant and feeding mothers were also offered hot cooked meals six times a week in a few Anganwadis. Now even their health is at stake.
Though a few states distribute rations of raw food, this cannot be a replacement for hot cooked meals. Given the corruption and the bureaucratic bungling, there is a big doubt as to whether rations are reaching the children. Another problem with the takeaway ration is that the distribution is not properly done. It gets shared by other family members at home and children often do not consume the required amount of daily calories. Added to this, the quality of food grains that are being supplied is sub-standard – often full of germs, contaminated by pests or full of stone granules.
Ever since the outbreak of the virus, many workers have lost their jobs and are facing pay cuts. This vicious cycle has affected children. The worst affected are the children of the oppressed castes and working class. Even after the shifting of the lockdown many of them cannot afford to go to school and girls are particularly vulnerable.
Unemployment and caste
India has a long history of caste oppression but it is wrong to say that nothing has changed. The oppressed castes have always fought for their rights. Through industrialisation, many got to earn wages by selling their labour-power. Economic independence helped them with upward mobility. In spite of all this, the top 10% oppressing caste households own 60% of the wealth and occupy the higher positions.
According to ‘Wealth Inequality, Class and Caste in India, 1961-2012’ – a report by Nitin Kumar Bharti (2018) – India’s Brahmin community alone monopolises 48 per cent of national income, which is above the national average income. Other upper caste communities secure 45 per cent and Dalit, Adivasi, and other oppressed castes and groups together earn far less than the national average household income.
The American fighter for black rights, Malcolm X, said: “You can’t have capitalism without racism”. Similarly, in India and some South Asian countries, you can’t have capitalism without casteism. A section of the so-called upper-caste is also the oppressor class. There is an overlapping of ‘upper caste’ with the ownership of the productive forces.
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, slammed shut the economy on March 25th and said nothing about how the millions of Indians without any buffer to fall back on were to survive his plan. Migrant and frontline workers, who were of the oppressed caste, were the worst affected. They had to walk hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes without any money or proper food. Frontline workers were forced to work without protective equipment.
In the name of “social distancing,” untouchability is becoming the new normal. The oppressed caste people are becoming dependent, rendering them more vulnerable. The sewage workers, garbage pickers and other sanitary workers belonging to the lower-income group are treated without any respect. The lockdown has, in effect, made the caste atrocity worse. It sees wilful acts of violence inflicted on marginalised castes and makes them ‘invisible’ in the name of halting a virus. The increased dependency of this most deprived section is driving them further into old feudal relations which, in turn, reinforce caste rigidity.
Corruption and mishandling of funds
The prime minister’s CARES trust, formed by the cabinet on March 28, has Narendra Modi as its chairperson and senior cabinet members as trustees. This fund, formed amid the coronavirus crisis, will not be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG). Details about how and where the money is being spent are not known to this date. There is no information about the contingency fund of India. Scandalously, many government workers were ordered to pay a part of their salary to the Prime Minister’s CARES fund and Modi’s regime went to the extent of cutting down doctors’ salaries to donate to the relief fund.
The so-called 20 lakh crore (RS 200 million) stimulus package announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to boost the economy is nothing but an imaginary number. Rs 20 lakh crore was not a fresh windfall for the public. It was an aggregate of earlier monetary, fiscal and other policy measures already undertaken, along with many irrelevant announcements. Amidst this, Nirmala Sitharaman announced that all PSEs (Public Sector Enterprises) in non-strategic sectors will be privatised. In the strategic sector – Telecomms, oil and gas, mines and minerals, steel, defence, and financial services – there will be only one PSE at the minimum and four PSEs at the maximum, fully owned by the Government.
Less security, more brutality
Even during this unprecedented crisis the bosses were concerned about their profits and wanted to fill their coffers. Modi’s regime made their work easy by bringing in draconian changes to the labour laws. The health crisis is being used as a pretext to increase the hours of work, restricting wages to the bare minimum, reducing social security benefits, permitting the engagement of contract labour for any kind of work, easing norms for firing workers, clamping down on trade union rights and whittling down labour inspection. They are now proposing to suspend all labour laws with the exception of three.
In the name of protection and security, police brutality has increased during the lockdown. Two men – a father and son – Jeyaraj and Fenix in Tamil Nadu were physically harassed and killed by police officers in a lockup for not shutting the shop before the curfew. This happened during the time that anger was exploding worldwide against the killing of George Floyd in the US. They were then named the ‘George Floyds of India’.
Covid-19 has not been the only killer during the lockdown. There have been a lot of deaths due to bureaucratic bungling, policy paralysis and outright corruption. There have been at least 884 non-virus deaths and 335 of them were migrant workers. Deaths due to accidents during migration is 209. Death by financial distress and starvation is 167. Death by suicide is 125. Death by lack of medical care is 63. Quarantine centre deaths are 36. Deaths in crimes due to lockdown (not communal), 18. Police brutality or state violence cost the life of at least 12 and the list goes on.
Health and care
Even during this chaos, the government did not come forward to universalise the PDS (Public distribution system). Many women came forward to fight for their rights. Though the FCI (Food Corporation of India), has very little food stocks, tonnes of wheat was damaged as it was stored in the open at a government warehouse. Around 65 lakh (6.5 million) tonnes of grain went to waste in four months. Instead of feeding the poor, Modi’s regime let the food rot in storage.
There is a shortage of space in intensive care units (ICUs) and general wards. There is a lack of hospital beds and the fragile health infrastructure of India faces a major crisis. In order to meet the demand, health corporation officials ask the patients to be in self-isolation. But India is a densely populated landmass and most of the people live in tiny homes, so it is hard for them to be in self-quarantine. Many are not coming forward to test themselves because of social pressure and stigma created by the state.
Private hospitals are charging a fortune even for a small test. There are reports of non-availability of even basic medicines. Over 60 million of the population do not have access to any form of health care. Many more will not seek immediate health care for fear of the expense. These are also the most deprived living in densely populated areas.
There were reports of huge numbers of Covid-19 infection-related symptoms spreading. Even the official figure admits one-third of the Delhi population is infected with the virus. Chennai city in Tamil Nadu was widely infected, as well as Mumbai. And yet there are no efforts made by the government to address these problems. They are all keen not to go for lockdown again to protect their profits. But the lives of the majority of small traders and daily earners are all devastated already.
Layoffs, social pressure and building a fightback
Coronavirus lockdown has crippled global demand which has caused a historic spike in layoffs in India. Official estimates say over 80 million have lost their jobs and unemployment is now over 25%. But in reality, the actual figures are much higher. This has impacted the working class at various levels. Many had to accept wage cuts and some even worked without any pay.
Unskilled labourers and non-unionised workers have taken the worst hit. Domestic workers were not allowed to work for a few months, partially because of the fear of the spreading virus and partially due to the strict lockdown. They eventually had to go without salaries.
The measure of local government bodies, pasting stickers outside houses of people who may have returned from foreign countries or are showing symptoms of coronavirus infection is creating social pressure on people so that many of them are refusing to get themselves tested. The people who are self-employed and who are in small businesses are afraid of losing their businesses because of this. Covid-19 survivors have become the new untouchables. The government failed to create proper awareness as to how to treat the survivors.
Blood-sucking corporations, multinationals and the national capitalist class have made their employees work even during the lockdown without proper PPE. Even those with the symptoms are not spared. The government, without addressing these issues, started giving out weekly tasks. The prime minister asked the people of India to clap hands and light lamps to make the Coronavirus go away! The right-wing government has seen to it that gullible people follow it religiously. When the migrant workers were dying without food and transport to reach their homes areas, the Information and Broadcasting Minister, Prakash Javadekar, announced the re-telecasting of the serials of Ramayan and Mahabharat (Hindu epic stories) on government channel Doordarshan. This shows how inconsiderate the ruling government has been towards workers.
All sections of the working class including public, private and migrant workers, must unite as one class to fight back against this onslaught by the Modi regime.
New Socialist Alternative, Chennai