In his speech on April 14, the Prime Minister extended the lockdown for an extended 19 days without mentioning any relief package for migrant workers. Following the speech, scenes of discontentment were witnessed in Mumbai and Surat as distressed workers took to the streets to demand that they wanted to go home.
Thousands of migrant workers remain stranded in makeshift centres across India. In one such local college in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad, 300 stranded workers have been living together. Mazed Hossain, one of the workers, said that they had been there for seventeen days. “I was trying to get back home to Murshidabad when I was brought here. We were not given food for the entire day. We have just got some cooked rice now, and there was no water either. I do not know when I will eat my next meal, so I have to run and eat this one,” he added.
It was generally expected that the Prime Minister would address the economic issues and grant relaxations for various sectors after considering the corona hotspots. It was clear that the lockdown has created problems that are bigger than the virus from the Indian perspective.
Certain business houses were preparing to start activity by 15th April. That was based upon the Industry ministry’s letter dated 11th April to Home Ministry which was widely circulated. But no such relaxation or package was announced in the PM’s address to the nation. Before the PM Modi’s address of lockdown extension, following the lack of consideration from the Central Government, the Congress working president also demanded that the Centre frame a “common minimum relief programme” for the people.
Sonia Gandhi addressed a CWC meeting via video conferencing and asked the Congress chief ministers to call for better coordination and funds from the Centre, including early distribution of states’ share of GST, for effectively combating Covid-19. She also said that the 21-day national lockdown may have been necessary but the unplanned manner in which it has been implemented has caused chaos and pain in the lives of millions of migrant workers all over India”.
Another essential point missing from Prime Minister’s address to the nation was the lack of testing in the country. Lockdown on its own will not save the country, but increased testing will. Narendra Modi’s two national addresses have done little to address this concern about India not taking the mass-testing approach. We need fast testing, cheap testing, easily available testing as well as a well laid out mechanism to quarantine a person the moment s/he is found positive, without letting her infect others, including medical staff and family members.
India’s official numbers of coronavirus patients are not believable and then there are those who have died of sudden pneumonia without being tested or counted as coronavirus deaths. The lack of widespread testing, as well as the lack of PPEs (personal protective equipment) for doctors, is a scandal. These 21 days were the government’s chance to fix these two problems. The responsibility lies with Central government more than anyone else, but state governments will also be put to test.
Sadly, the evidence so far suggests that the Modi government does not have the capacity to think through the details of planning and execution. This is turning out to be another demonetisation, with the typical Modi problem of mistaking theatrics for achievement. So far, the lack of testing has been covered up by the theatrics of clapping, banging thalis and lighting diyas while the migrant workers yearn for food and doctors are lacking personal protective equipment.