Anna Chinta Chamatkarah”. “Vubhukshitah Kim Na Karoti Papam”. Loosely translated, both these expressions in Sanskrit would mean ‘A hungry stomach knows no bound’ and ‘A hungry person can commit any sin’. India’s working class, currently under a lockdown, seems to be training themselves for a life-threatening battle with the authorities guided by these age-old homilies.
With no work, no money, no food and no transport to claw back to one’s birthplace, they are being forced to make a big sacrifice for the rest.
It is time we decoded the compulsions to relax the already battling economy with a host of factors, some of them man-made and a few more like the COVID-19 pandemic which has been released by a distraught nature on mankind. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to close the shutters may be recorded as a headline in future history books of our nation.
But it also runs the risk of being reduced to a footnote if urgent steps are not taken to relax the lockdown and allow the sweating masses to earn their livelihood as they face a Catch-22 situation. It must be noted that the freedom to work from home cannot touch a farmer, a petty trader, the Mathadi workers in the APMCs across the nation, the newspaper vendors, daily wage workers in cities, auto and taxi drivers, the ubiquitous push cart vendors supplying items of daily needs including ready-to-eat snacks, and finally the construction workers building houses which they can never dream to call their homes any time soon but considerably contributing to the gross national product of our nation.
There are signals that the lockdown may be extended by two more weeks, especially when some state satraps who had earlier warned the violators of lockdown with shoot-at-sight orders having now upped the ante with ‘save lives now, can save economy later’ prescription. Really?
Where were the concern for lives when the police in India’s most populous state played Holi with a mass of fleeing workers not with traditional colours and pichkaris but with disinfectants and waterjets? India’s ‘patient zero’ consisted of about fifteen lakh foreign returnees who came back to India from abroad during the 45 days period preceding the lockdown.
In accordance with the WHO prescription, our success in controlling the spread was dependent on tracing, testing and treating these humongous citizens. It was assumed the authorities would use this 21-day lockdown corridor to reasonably satisfy themselves that none of these returnees became the transmitters.
However, the present picture does not seem to be a satisfying one. Given the limited number of testing kits at our disposal and the difficulty in acquiring more from abroad, can we reasonably expect this task to get over with a 15 days’ extension of lockdown? Besides, when the lockdown is national, every state is following its own protocol in tracking, detecting and isolating these suspected carriers.
Some states are not even publicising the district-wise position thereby keeping the public under constant fear of the dreaded virus. As we delay in our effort to ‘test, test and test’, the Stage 2 of the pandemic is now morphing into Stage 3.
Transparency demands that the authorities lay bare the facts and figures before the nation to seek justification for any extension of the lockdown, if that is the thinking now. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to take the current and past leaders into confidence on the future course of action to face this cryptic virus, anyway, has proved his statesmanship and his desire for adopting a consultative approach. There is no doubt that the social and economic impact of the shutdown, presently in operation, is going to be many times more than any event in living memory.
But then when the nation continues its war with the invisible enemy, strategy demands that we do not force a battle with our visible family members and friends. The Nation, by taking away the livelihoods of nearly 130 million working class populaces, is effectively creating a famine-like situation for these less fortunate souls. We do not have the benefit of hindsight and history.
Our war rooms have no manual or blue books to guide us in this war. Only our combined strength and grit can help sustain the war against the invisible enemy. In this uncharted journey, we cannot afford to belittle anybody’s self-respect and the will and right to live. Yes, we are dealing with so many unknowns at a time. Our scientists and researchers are under immense pressure to find or stumble upon a solution.
Till that happens, let us not create a wedge in our society by barring our own countrymen from survival by denying the right to engage their hands which keep all of us ticking and alive. If we fail to rescue them from this existential crisis, we would be converting our own people into Rohingyas in their own land. The world is not going to be the same after lockdown. There will be new structures, processes, disciplines and new manuals for the industry.
We have to learn to continue our daily occupation with social distancing at its core. All non-essential commuting can be suspended. Trains can start with half the load. Shops can open with lesser service staff. Units can reconfigure to produce with denuded strength. White collar workers must continue to work from home for some more time. Equipment can be redesigned to reflect the new work ethos and procedures.
To support all these innovative processes, the regular salary earners including the pensioners paying income tax, must voluntarily come forward to take a haircut till the economy is restored to pre-pandemic position. There are thus umpteen possibilities. We can keep the human beings under a lockdown. But we must take care to ensure that humanity is not locked down. The writer is a former Chief General Manager of the Reserve Bank of India. Views are personal. Syndicate: The Billion Press