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Shramik Specials: NOT PERMANENT ARRANGEMENT, By Dr S. Saraswathi, 7 May 2020 Print E-mail

Events & Issues

New Delhi, 7 May 2020

Shramik Specials

NOT PERMANENT ARRANGEMENT

By Dr S. Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

 

The Indian Railways started “Shramik Special” trains to take back to their home States migrant workers, tourists, pilgrims, students and others who were stranded due to nationwide lockdown for more than a month. The decision taken on the eve of third extension of lockdown from 4 to 17 May is a great relief particularly to migrant workers who have no work and depend on government support for food and shelter. Census of 2011 enumerated 4 crore population as migrant labourers.

 

A status report filed by the Ministry of Home Affairs in the Supreme Court showed that a total of 22,567 shelters by State governments and 3,909 by NGOs were working in the country. The Government of Kerala, foremost in this regard, is running over 65 % of active shelters and relief camps numbering 15,541 for stranded migrant workers. Apart from these, employers and industries are providing food and shelter to about 15 lakh such workers in the country. Food is being provided to over 54 lakh people by Union and State governments and to about 30 lakh by NGOs.

 

Five Shramik Special trains were scheduled to run in the first batch from Nasik in Maharashtra to Lucknow in UP, and to Bhopal in MP, from Aluva in Kerala to Bhubaneshwar in Odisha, from Jaipur in Rajasthan to Patna in Bihar, and from Kota in Rajasthan to Hatia in Jharkhand.   One such special train left Lingampally in Telangana to Hatia in Jharkhand on 1 April even before guidelines were released by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Several such trains are expected to follow. The migrants will be quarantined for 21 days.

 

The trains will carry only passengers registered with the concerned State Governments and no other passengers. The arrangement is partly in response to massive protests of migrants particularly in Delhi and Maharashtra and their desperate move in many States to somehow reach their native places totally violating all lockdown norms. In any case, Union Government seems to be proceeding methodically in dealing with social problems arising from the outbreak of epidemic. There is no quick solution when the country is fighting multiple problems.

 

Shramik Special is no easy run. While many States are demanding special trains to transport migrant workers, Bihar Government is reported to have denied permission for arrival of the trains.  Protests have erupted in Chennai by “guest” workers, not provided transport in the first batch to return to their home States.

 

Tamil Nadu Government has identified 4.82 lakh guest workers of whom 3.2 lakh are in 4,228 accommodation centres and government shelters. But, there is no State-wise statistics or any information on the number wanting to go back or stay where they are. Situation is similar in all States while workers, restless and clueless about their future, become angry and unruly. In Kerala, it is claimed that there are 3.6 lakh guest workers from Assam, Bihar, Odisha, UP, and West Bengal staying in 20,826 camps spread across the State – all of them wanting to go back.  

 

Demands from State governments are of two types. Some want to send guest workers from other States back to their homes; some like Chhattisgarh want Central government to make arrangement to bring back their workers stranded in other States.

 

Running special trains does not end the problem arising from migrant workers. The evacuation exercise has to be carried on amidst chaotic conditions marked by protests of frustrated workers, and circulation of fake news and rumours creating panic. Clashes between migrants and the police are common as the situation itself is so uncommon. Providing food and shelter and other essential amenities to thousands of workers is a stupendous job unrelated to fighting the pandemic, and the task involves the risk of escalation of the disease.

 

The tragedy in the situation is that the prime concern of many political and other groups, which contribute practically nothing for controlling the epidemic, is to magnify the migrant problem. The situation continues to be explosive and has become the chief culprit in breakdown of lockdown rules and complete disregard for social distancing. It brought the migrants to the central point in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic. A medical mission is obstructed by a non-medical factor and has proved the immense importance of the social context and the readiness of political interests to make best use of social problems. Migrant labour is common in many countries, but internally it does not create a separate problem as in India.

 

PILs seeking Supreme Court direction to the Union government and concerned State governments to pay basic minimum wages to migrant workers and to self-employed workers like rikshaw pullers during the lockdown period have been rejected. The court declined to interfere with financial allocations of the governments.

 

The issue of migrant labour has become an extremely crucial issue for political parties to position themselves in people’s mind. The Congress Working Committee adopted a Resolution on 25 April (Thursday) drew the attention of the Central government to the necessity of framing a policy under which migrant workers could return to their homes if they wished and should be provided with health, safety conditions, food and adequate money till then, be allowed to return to their work after lockdown, and given compensation for loss incurred during the crisis period.

 

The Indian Constitution gives all citizens freedom to move to any State and has no system of State citizenship. It goes without saying that migrant workers may return to their work if their former employers agree. The arrangement is between the employers and workers and no government is bound to take care of their travel to the workplace after lockdown. Present situation is a national health emergency requiring humanitarian relief and rescue work and once the pandemic subsides, there is no crisis.

 

It is time to open our eyes to the status of migrant labour – most of them living under the mercy of contractors and placement agencies. Both agriculture and industry depend heavily on migrant labour for efficiency and economy. Many of these workers, who are employed as daily wage workers, are far away from their homes -- an unpleasant working condition that hitherto has not bothered anybody.

 

Hence, in the place of purely humanitarian considerations, a rights approach must be framed based on due recognition of the importance of the growing sector of migrant labour in our economy and granting certain rights and security to them.

 

The plight of migrant labourer, considered as a social issue, raises questions over the relative responsibility of State and Central governments or of the “host” or “guest” State or that of the employers and workers. But, this is not the time to assume positions on rights and responsibilities and play irresponsible politics. Questions of responsibility will remain to be tackled after the present crisis.

 

Migrant labour, an important component of labour market in India, has given rise to a huge humanitarian problem. The economic consequences of the exodus of these workers will have to be faced after the epidemic crisis. How many of them will be willing to return to their work is a big question. Shramik Specials cannot become permanent. ---INFA

(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)

New Delhi

5 May 2020

                              

Rescue Package: PLAN, NO MORE DITHERING By Dhurjati Mukherjee, 6 May 2020 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 6 May, 2020

Rescue Package

PLAN, NO MORE DITHERING

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

 

The continuation of the lockdown for another two weeks with minor relaxation may well be understandable given that the government is aware of the consequences of the pandemic spreading in a country which has poor health infrastructure, other than social distancing being a major challenge as a large section of city population lives in slums, squatter settlements, railway tracks etc. However, the looming economic crisis is extremely critical with the government not in a position to provide food to the hungry millions despite the country being self-sufficient in food stocks.

 

A recent paper of International Commission of Jurists has alleged the Indian government has fallen short of its ‘obligation’ to ensure that citizens had access to adequate food and that during the Covid-19 crisis there has been discrimination and violence against Muslims and dalits. Referring to the Global Hunger Report 2019, it found that 400 million informal sector workers were “at risk of falling deeper into poverty during the Covid-19 crisis amidst hunger pangs making deep forays into the Indian society”.

 

Detailing how Muslim vegetable and fruit vendors have reportedly been prevented access to neighbourhoods in Delhi and Rajasthan and beaten up, while Gujjar milkmen in Jammu, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab have faced boycott as well as physical violence, the paper points out to the governments’ failure to enforce the criminal law, including Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989. These, it said seek to prevent acts of violence and discrimination and that the lack of protection of food vendors is incompatible with India’s obligation to protect the right to food. The paper also rightly highlighted the obvious that millions of citizens are still living in deprived conditions in urban and rural areas and lack access to adequate food, health and sanitation facilities, shelter etc.

 

As is a familiar sight, migrant labourers and the poor are lining up twice a day for food to keep hunger at bay across States. People without work and money fear it is not the pandemic but hunger which shall kill them. Already 135 million people had been facing acute food shortage and now with the lockdown, 130 million more shall go hungry in 2020, cautioned Arif Hussain, Chief Economist, World Food Programme, a UN agency. Worse, an estimated 265 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the year end. It is a fact that from Honduras to South Africa to India protests and looting has broken out amid frustrations about hunger. In India, it is estimated that 368 million children have lost out on their midday meals and snacks in schools.    

 

Analysts observed that though the hunger crisis is global and caused by a multitude of factors linked to the pandemic, in India the lingering economic slowdown since August last year has resulted in interruption of the economic order and loss in income for countless millions due to other factors too such as climate change, violence, population dislocation and human disasters.

 

It is anybody’s guess when the 300-350 million Indians, who live below the poverty line, will be able to regain a semblance of dignity. The fractures and fissures in our civil society are widening and beginning to threaten the stability of our social existence. Also severe economic crisis has surfaced due to the country’s very poor health infrastructure, which has never received the priority it deserved. Wrong planning such as starting of bullet trains, modernisation of airports, random foreign travel of ministers and officials and Rs 20,000 crore plan of a Central Vista – is not going to help development of health infrastructure or improve lives.

 

Some experts believe the new Covid ‘Brahmanism’ uses age old customs such as social distancing with the low castes and poorer sections like dalits, adivasis etc. There is the standard middle class anxiety about contagion caused by the crowded lives of the poor, aggravated by the prejudice that Muslims are a dangerous and alien subset of the poor who need to be more rigorously quarantined. Coronavirus perhaps is a challenge that caste society was built to meet.

 

Faced with an absurd definition of poverty, the government’s inaction is well manifest. Though high levels of GDP were recorded in the past few years, it had virtually no effect on the struggling masses. Way back in September 2011, Justice Dalveer Bhandari had stated “not a single person should die out of starvation” and ordered distribution of additional foodgrains in 150 poorest districts. Poverty and hunger have even drawn judiciary’s attention but the situation at the ground level sadly hasn’t changed. The questions to be asked are: would politicians take turns to live for a few days in the households of the poor and try to understand the hunger, anger and anguish which is stripping the common man of the right to live with dignity? Have they tried to understand the root cause behind the suicide of around 2 lakh farmers who left behind tales of debt, poverty and sorrow? 

 

Regarding the condition of migrant workers, it cannot be denied they are struggling to survive the six-week lockdown in States, with governments not playing an active role in providing relief to an estimated 100 million workers. The situation may deteriorate further as lockdown may be extended further, aggravating the financial crisis. Worse, the country has no central registry of migrant workers despite passing legislation 40 years ago to establish such a database.

 

Additionally, 11 crore people engaged in around 6.5 crore MSMEs have not worked for a single day in April, while 8-9 days work was lost in March and some days will also be lost in May. Congress’ former Finance Minister Chidambaram rightly suggested the party’s proposal for Rs 1 lakh crore wage protection assistance to help MSMEs pay wages for April and Rs 1 lakh crore Guarantee Fund for these entrepreneurs to help them borrow. He also urged the government to announce a pay cheque protection programme, similar to the one announced in the US.

 

With the IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook stating that “first time since the Great Depression, both advanced and emerging market and developing economies are in recession,” the government needs to come out with a concrete plan without further delay.  Besides, former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan has recently estimated that India will need to spend Rs 65,000 crore, which is not much where GDP is Rs 200 crore, to help with food and cash for the poor reeling under the crisis.

 

Clearly, the government cannot dilly-dally any further and must focus on the poor and economically weaker sections and not just think of making things easy for business houses. India’s pathetic rescue package of just one per cent – compared to Japan’s 20% of GDP and that of US 10+6% of GDP – cannot tackle the problem of a country with a huge population and high density. According to economists, even Nobel Laureate Prof. Abhijit Banerjee, the RBI must print additional sums of money without bothering for the fiscal deficit and make available at least 3-4% of GDP for economic recovery. The government will do well to remember the adage: a stitch in time saves nine. ---INFA

(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)

New Delhi

4 May 2020

 

Life With Covid 19 THE NEW NORMAL By Poonam I Kaushish, 5 April 2020 Print E-mail

Political Diary

New Delhi, 5 April 2020

Life With Covid 19

THE NEW NORMAL

By Poonam I Kaushish

 

He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount, so goes an old proverb. Prime Minister Modi perhaps is in the same predicament: The lockdown has been extended again by two weeks. But, what after that? Is he merely buying time in the feverish hope that the curve will be flattened? That a  miracle cure or vaccine will appear on the horizon soon?

Questions which have no easy answers. The only thing one can say with certainty is the virus is here to stay and there is no going back to normality the way we knew it. That train has left the station. Yet there is going to be life after Covid 19 and it will be the new normal.

Certainly, the pandemic is the most tumultuous, most catastrophic and the most defining epoch of our lifetime. From the end of December 2019, when the first cases were reported in China to the middle of April 2020 when an estimated one-third of the world’s population is locked into their homes

As the lockdown continues it has been an unprecedented 42 days with no rulebook which told the Government what to do, when and how to lockdown, when and how to shut down the economy and when and how to re-open industry and businesses. Worse, as nations trade charges whether the virus jumped from an animal host to humans or was nurtured in a Wuhan laboratory,   it matters little as it has been deadly and devastating. Underscoring, the collective vulnerability of our world to a lowly virus.

The sheer scale of human deprivation is frightening as migrant workers and poor trudge their never ending ‘walks to home’ as their jobs are taken away. Think: The economies of the poor are not based on the security of tenure, but on their daily earnings. India has over 410 million workers in the unorganised sector, the vast majority of whom are daily wagers making a little more than the prescribed official wages and often much below that.

Through this maelstrom the Government grapples with the immediate --- relief and rescue operations --- to the poor, workers, industry etc and evacuating those stranded in the country. Trains have started to run once again after more than a month as have national highways but only to allow special buses to transport those stranded home. 

How long can the mass of people go without daily earnings? Despite the economic packages, including Rs 500 each in crores of Jan Dhan accounts, and Rs 2,000 each for crores of farmers under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Yojna, without restoring normalcy for farms, factories, bazaars and mandis across the country, the misery of the aam aadmi is bound to grow further.

And God forbid if the economy tanks it will be a double-whammy for the poor. Unlike the 2007-08 global financial crisis, 2020 is primarily a health crisis, which has given birth to an economic shock. It has resulted in job loss, disruption of supply chains along-with slowdown in manufacturing and services activities.

Workers are back to their home in faraway places, lack of orders may eventually lead to massive trade contraction. Add to it disruption in air travel, fall in tourism, reduction in outdoor entertainment industries, rise in bankruptcy and NPAs. The Government needs to urgently put “economic antibodies” to save the economy from further disaster. Gradual opening of the economies and adjusting in the ‘New Normal’ is the need of the hour.

Alas, the contagion has exposed we live in a dog-eat-dog world with each country thinking only of its crisis. Sparring about who will make the first vaccine,  competing for medicine supplies, pirating protective equipment, masks and gowns needed for healthcare workers. What is alarming is that the numbers of those infected likely stem from under-reporting, and may probably rise alarmingly in the weeks ahead if we factor in asymptomatic patients and rapid tests.

What next? According to Harvard's professor of immunology and infectious diseases the only possible method for dealing with the epidemic may be multiple ‘intermittent’ social distancing periods that ease up when cases fall to a certain level and then are re-imposed when they rise past a key threshold. As time passes and more of the population gains immunity, the restrictive episodes could be shorter, with longer intervals between them.

Another epidemiologist of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control asserts that the policy on lockdown is not evidence-based. Instead, the right way is to protect the old and the frail only which will eventually lead to herd immunity as a “by-product.” It is paramount to build herd immunity while shielding the vulnerable.

However, not a few doctors fear that the flattening of the incidence curve would stop once the lockdown is lifted. Yet the lockdown cannot be a permanent solution. We need to work towards herd immunity produced by the infection that is our only hope. Recalling, that the 2009 HINI influenza epidemic came, stayed for 2-3 months and spontaneously disappeared. Why? As there was a certain level of herd immunity which was produced by the infection.

Undeniably, till date India has successfully controlled the virus’s transmission thanks to the Central and State Governments well-coordinated steps, mass public awareness with the help of digital systems, prowess in pharmaceuticals and a central political command. Yet there could be a rise in death and destabilization and complicated diseases.

We can learn rich lessons from South Korea and Taiwan which managed to control the devastation with the help of rapid tests and targeted solutions. Vietnam has recorded no death from the virus while China has taken help of digital technology such as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI-ML) to contain its spread in major cities in its mainland.

Undeniably, the post-epidemic stage will see the emergence of a new human being, whose daily behavior habits, thinking and sentiments will differ from what it was before the Covid outbreak. From being a ‘social animal’ to ‘being scared to go out in public places’. As social isolation intensifies amidst the social distancing and WFH (work-from-home) finds root, digital currency, shopping, gaming and OTT (over-the-top) television viewership will be the norm and air travel will go back to being a luxury.  

Besides, lifting of restrictions does not signal a return to the normalcy of our pre-Covid-19 lives. It is rather the beginning of a new normal --- a way of being that minimises the risks of the virus but allows us to live and earn our living, A new normal, which cycles between easing of restrictions along with aggressive public health measures when the disease wanes, and the application of restrictions when new outbreaks occur.

Predictably, the pandemic fear has been afflicted by panic and hysteria. Whereby, people dread the worst is at hand. The time is ripe for a medical emergency. Our immediate future will be a combination of  “the hammer and the dance” --- hammer of successive lockdowns followed by digital dances in which one uses surveillance and testing to find and control outbreaks.

Crisis time calls for togetherness as we head into a cautious, rather than a brave, new world --- with Orwellian overtones. We must have courage and take a rational view at known facts and act accordingly. Time to lockout our fears and fix them, we have to there is no option. Towards that end we need ‘Effective Emotional Intelligence’ and care-mongering. What gives? ----- INFA

(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)

New Delhi

2 May 2020

 

Inter-State Movement: A WELCOME GHAR WAPSI, By Insaf , 2 April 2020 Print E-mail

Round The States

New Delhi, 2 April 2020

Inter-State Movement

A WELCOME GHAR WAPSI

By Insaf

 

Homecoming it shall eventually be. Through a notification on Wednesday last, the Union Home Ministry has allowed inter-State movement of stranded migrant labourers, students, and tourists among others. But the process rests on mutually-agreed terms between two States and they would need to follow strict guidelines: only asymptomatic people can travel; a second assessment of their health to be done on arrival in home state, buses must be sanitised and passengers maintain social distancing etc. Apparently, other than the labourers growing restlessness and that the lockdown will go into another extension, the go-ahead for ghar wapsi comes after many States found it difficult to sustain migrant labourers as their revenue resources are gradually drying up and the Centre is yet to be magnanimous. Sadly, the relief is half-hearted, rather impractical as the movement is solely to be through buses! The demand for Centre to start non-stop special trains is growing so as to spare lakhs of people the long and arduous journey. Imagine citizens from the south having to reach their homes in the north on road. Of course, it is far better than them having to walk thousands of miles as witnessed during lockdown I, but then isn’t it typical of New Delhi by now not to plan ahead, holistically and with a blue print.

 

Notwithstanding the deafening silence from Rail Bhavan, on starting special trains, States have begun getting their buses ready to ferry the people. Of the expected 8 lakh labourers, Rajasthan has so far started buses to get back 40,000 labourers; Uttar Pradesh is in a tizzy as it expects ghar wapsi (homecoming) of 10-lakh migrants, and is making arrangements; with 10,000 buses Maharashtra will be able to transport only 1.5 lakh migrants; Karnataka is weighing logistic arrangements but joins the chorus for special trains; Bihar, is yet to spell out if it will arrange for the return of 10-lakh people stuck in  Haryana, Gujarat, Delhi, UP and Maharashtra by sending vehicles to these States, but offered to take those who reach its borders to quarantine centres in their districts; Madhya Pradesh, Assam and Odisha have already started bringing back students et al. In the midst of all this, New Delhi needs to give a serious thought to running special trains, for its directive to States to ensure free movement of trucks/goods carriers to facilitate supply chain of goods and services may just get clogged in massive traffic jams from the very buses it has allowed. Sooner the better!

*                       *                       *                       *                       *                       *                       *

Maharashtra Dilemma

Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray is on tenterhooks. He needs to get himself nominated to the Legislative Council by 27 May to retain his seat as per law, which demands a CM or a minister, who is neither a member of Council nor Assembly, must be elected within 6 months of being sworn in. Uddhav took oath as CM on 28 November last after Shiv Sena broke ties with BJP and formed an alliance with NCP and Congress. With time running out to avoid a constitutional crisis, he had to reach out to Prime Minister Modi as Raj Bhavan was playing ‘mischief’. The Cabinet had on April 9, recommended to Governor Koshyari that Uddhav be nominated to Council, as elections to its nine seats, scheduled for April 24, were postponed by Election Commission due to COVID-19. But with Koshyari taking long to respond, the nagging delay had led to accusations of former partner BJP trying to create political instability in the State. Fortunately, Koshyari has eventually written to ECI asking for guidelines on polls, giving a ray of hope. But the ruling combine must be cautious, for there can be many a slip between the cup and the lip!  

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No Compromise In J&K

No compromise is a terse response from Jammu & Kashmir administration. On Monday last, the Home department extended the ban on 4G internet services till 11 May. Its reasoning being to curb uploading, downloading and circulation of ‘provocative videos, guard against rumour mongering/fake news, prevent the use of encrypted messaging and VOIP services for infiltration and coordinating terror activities, and defeat the nefarious designs from across the border to propagate terrorism.” It went a step further by telling the Supreme Court ‘The right to access the internet is not a fundamental right’ and thus the type and breadth of access for exercising the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a)...through the medium of internet can be curtailed’. The assertion came on Wednesday last in a case seeking restoration of 4G services on grounds that its lack was causing difficulties with patients, doctors and public ‘remaining in dark about latest information, guidelines, advisories and restrictions related to the COVID-19.” This too was dismissed as ‘misconceived’ as information ‘can be accessed via fixed line high-speed internet’. No signs of Acche Din!

*                       *                       *                       *                       *                       *                       *

Tripura Crystal Clear

There is no ambiguity in Tripura over the period of lockdown. Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb has told his people it would continue in some form or the other ‘till a vaccine against Covid-19 is invented.’ The message came after a marathon all-party meeting on Wednesday last. “It’s still a long way to exit lockdown in phased manner. It is impossible to resume inter-state bus, train or air services now. So, lockdown will remain. People have to accept it as part of our lives”, said Deb. At same time, he chose to give them confidence that while it’s a small State, the government has already taken initiatives to revive economy i.e. 50 of 75 industrial units at Bodhjungngar are already functional and work has started in primary sector because that is what will help the State. Additionally, there are sufficient food stocks including “76 days buffer stock of rice, 80 days stock of wheat, 42 days sugar stock, salt for 14 days, 17 days of lentil pulse stocks, 7 days diesel buffer stock, 9 days petrol stocks and 18,490 LPG cylinders....” Will others take a cue?

*                       *                       *                       *                       *                       *                       *

UP’s Adopted Cows

Holy cow! Uttar Pradesh doesn’t meet its target. The Chief Minister Destitute Cow Participation Scheme got takers but met only half the target. Of 1 lakh abandoned cows in the State, 53,606 got new homes with 26,586 farmers in all 75 districts coming forward to adopt them during the last financial year, 31 March-end. Yogi Adityanath had to start the scheme in August last, after cow shelters started overflowing following the ban on illegal slaughter houses which led to a spike in stray cattle. Worse, these bovines started destroying crops in villages and causing accidents in cities, which triggered public resentment and even protests in some parts. The way out was this scheme which enticed farmers with Rs 900 per month to those who came forward against an affidavit they would ‘look after them properly at home.’ Interestingly, the female bovines were preferred to males and farmers mostly picked heifers, milch or pregnant cows. As a result, male cows ended up in government-run shelters, where already 5-lakh are housed for past year-and-a-half. The government means business as each cattlehead has been ear-tagged before being given for adoption for monitoring. Given away but not forgotten. ---INFA

(Copyright, India news & Feature Alliance)

New Delhi

30 April 2020

 

Lockdown Panic: LOCAL BODIES TO ACT, By Dr. S. Saraswathi, 30 April 2020 Print E-mail

Events & Issues

New Delhi, 30 April 2020

Lockdown Panic

LOCAL BODIES TO ACT

By Dr. S. Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

 

Addressing a video conference with Chief Ministers on 27 April, a week before the end of the second phase of lockdown, Prime Minister Modi told them that the danger of the virus was far from over and “constant vigilance is of paramount importance”. More than a month has elapsed since India resorted to lockdown. The strategy has yielded “positive results” in the words of the PM to the extent that it has saved thousands of people from contracting COVID-19 infection.

 

In the midst of the second phase of the lockdown, some States have already expressed the need to continue it further as conditions are not normal. Goa, Odisha and Meghalaya, where COVID-19 attack is less severe than in most other places, are ready to face the inconveniences of the lockdown so that the fight against the pandemic is not abandoned till we are free of the disease.   Some States like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala are in favour of following the decision of the Union Government – the safest option. On the whole, no State Government presently seems to be keen on lifting the lockdown.

 

Cautious approach of the Chief Ministers is itself a big help to the PM to chalk out a plan for gradual removal of restrictions depending on local conditions. As a responsibility of the government, lifting of lockdown is more serious than its introduction and involves a thorough study of the status of the epidemic and factors conducive to its spread and efficacy of control measures. Return of a virus is always more virulent than its first entry. We have to take into account global status of the virus also while taking national decision.

 

Lockdown was commenced in India on this 24 March certainly not as a panic response at the very first case and also not as a late response when situation is out of control. First case was noticed on 30 January and steady escalation from 3 March. Initially, it was reported that even scientists considered lockdown as a “drastic public health measure” which could lead to “long-lasting adverse health outcomes.” Some sections were then in favour of “community and civil society led self-quarantine and self-monitoring” method as more sustainable and implementable strategy. 

 

Lockdown was finally adopted after a thorough examination by experts and not as a unilateral political decision. At that time, some degree of lockdown was already in force in many counties where the pandemic also entered earlier. 

 

Flattening the spread of the epidemic is the main purpose of the lockdown which gives time to health systems to cope up with the disease so that normal activities could be resumed. Reducing reproduction number below 1 (which is now 2 to 3) is necessary for control of the epidemic, and for this contact between symptomatic, asymptomatic, and pre-symptomatic patients with the rest of the population must be stopped. This is what lockdown aims to do. Common people misunderstand the objective of lockdown.

 

Each country may have its own version of lockdown. But, there are six major measures which include stopping of big events; closure of schools and colleges; self-isolation of symptomatic cases; household isolation; social distancing for all; and social distancing for 70+ age-group.  The logic of lockdown may vary from country to country, but the basic reason is common to all which is physical contact between individuals to an undesirable extent which facilitates transmission of infections. Human beings being human beings prone to social living and subject to virus attacks, isolation has to be legally enforced to fight infectious/contagious diseases. 

 

As one month of lockdown is already completed, it will be useful to review how it has worked and what has been achieved. A protracted pandemic like COVID-19 has already proved that soft handling will not work and stern determined measures are needed. It implies that people will have to bear the burden of inconveniences to free themselves and posterity from the deadly disease.

 

First of all, the whole world is presently dependent on non-medical ways of fighting the pandemic to prevent its escalation since no specific vaccine is made. It brings people’s understanding and willing cooperation into focus. Lockdown is a strategy that needs the support of the people. It is aimed at the affected and the unaffected unlike quarantine which is isolation of the affected and people suspected to be affected.

 

The practice of quarantine began in 14th century Europe to protect coastal cities from Plague.   Ships arriving from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing.  Frequent outbreak of Yellow Fever led to the Federal Quarantine legislation in the US in 1878 and paved way for federal action in quarantine matters which were dealt with by States. Under Public Health Service Act of 1944, prevention and transmission of communicable diseases from foreign countries became the responsibility of federal government in USA.

 

Pandemic diseases have to be centrally dealt with even in federal systems. To introduce questions of State rights and autonomy sounds premature politics. States are to be consulted to ascertain local situations and determine implementation techniques. Strategies like lockdown have to be centrally decided to be effective. There are grades and degrees of infection and therefore variations in lockdown details, but decision must be national. Inter-State coordination committees may be set up for purposeful joint action.

 

Decentralised administrative machinery well established in the country is a great boon in organising COVID-19 fight and implementing lockdown. The Health Department has constituted State and district level committees to audit causes of death. In Odisha, Sarpanchs are vested with powers of a magistrate to fight coronavirus and are asked to ensure strict compliance of lockdown rules, and other precautionary practices like wearing masks, hand washing, social distancing, zero tolerance to spitting in public places, etc.

 

There are over 2.6 lakh village panchayats in India with over 30 lakh representatives, one-third of whom are women. There are about 5,000 urban local bodies. Besides these official bodies, thousands of voluntary organisations and Resident Welfare Associations with elected members are functioning. They are all alive and active, and concerned people do have trust in them.  Panchayat presidents command some respect in their villages. In times of crisis like the present wave of pandemic, these institutions may be used to promote people’s cooperation which is the kingpin in the success of lockdown measures.

 

A milder form of lockdown named “Stay at home order” is adopted in many States in the US.   Work from home has become common in India wherever possible as a support system to lockdown.

 

India’s lockdown is said to be one of the most severe forms that could adversely affect its economy and is difficult to follow. There are several instances of violations, but not all are due to hardships in observing lockdown. Photographs of people crowding in markets, moving around without masks, and gathering in large numbers for some festival show a mixture of ignorance and a common tendency to disregard rules and regulations particularly on roads.

 

Local bodies and associations must gear up to fight lockdown panic to defeat the pandemic. ---INFA

(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)

New Delhi

28 April 2020 

 

 

 

 

 

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