As the first phase of the lockdown in the context of Covid declared by prime minister Modi ends today, reports come in some of which raise optimism while others don't. The consoling set of news emerge from a few states including Kerala as they used the lockdown with clear vision and systematic execution and brought the pandemic under control to a great extent. Barring some hotspots, the overall situation in the country is also encouraging. For, it is no mean achievement that through the 21 days of lockdown, the number of cases reported are 14 per cent lower than anticipated. In that sense, the lockdown has done India good.
But there have also been complications that resulted from lack of sufficient planning and precautions in its implementation. One of them was the spectacle of thousands of inter-state labourers flowing back to their home towns. It was when those millions, used to working on daily wages, lost their jobs and could not find a square meal that they dared walk or cycle kilometers to get home. In the second phase of such mass mgirations, now there are reports of confrontations to get a meal. In one such 'refugee tent' on the banks of Yamuna, an elderly member of such a camp said, 'Before that virus gets into our body, we will die of hunger'. Even at such hour, for the central minister for food and public distribution Ram Vilas Paswan there is ample stock of grains in our gowns, and as per him there is nothing to worry for nine months.
There is no reason to disbelieve the words of the minister. Given the figures of food production and consumption in the country, it is highly likely that foodgrains sufficient for nine months are in stock. But still in the very first week of the lockdown, people had come on the streets demanding food! This in all probability is the result of viewing corona virus infection as a mere health emergency. The government was oblivious to the basic courtesies to be observed when the country was going into complete lockdown for 21 days in a row. Right at the time of lockdown announcement as a bomb shell with no notice worth the name, and made entirely ignoring the basic human needs including food, better informed quarters had warned about the risks involved. Lockdown would not only make a defence against the virus, it also has the makings for putting a country in economic and social strain. The millions of poor are now forced to pay a heavy price for the thoughtlessness of those in power in the form of this hidden hazard. Even now, the minister has said that food will be delivered to 81 crore beneficiaries. This means that in the country with over 130 crore of population, a major chunk of the people are not part of the public distribution system. The gravity of the food crisis will be more perceptible when we also read with it that the majority of the 'lockdown refugees' is made up of people without Aadhaar or ration card.
Some studies that have come out about the repercussions of the lockdown have also to be read with this. One of them is the report released by Oxfam recently, which cites figures from different countries and points out that at least 50 crore people will fall into exxtreme poverty. Oxfam also suggests various economic stimulus plans to overcome this crisis. Another study by Indian NGO Jan Sahas corroborate Oxfam's findings. What came out through a survey conducted among construction workers is that 90 per cent of them did not have any income for weeks. But since 94 per cent of these labourers do not have any clear documents, they are unlikely to be benefited by any relief funds. It is estimated that about 5.5 crore people fall in this category in India. If labourers in other sectors are also taken into account, the depth of the country's crisis will become evident. The central government has not yet formulated any stimulus package to come out of this conundrum.
Many of the chief ministers who talked to the prime minister the other day shared this concern and asked for more funds from the Centre. As a matter of fact, a few states including Kerala are tiding over this crisis using their own revenues. In a situation in which there has been a significant dent in the income of states, it would be onerous to continue this. Threfore, what the people would look forward to from the Centre - as we enter the second phase of the lockdown - are relief packages in co-operation with the states. Else, if the attempt is again to hold on to mere rhetoric, that is sure to plunge the country into series of food clashes and starvation deaths.