Lok Raj Sangathan recently interviewed Shri M.G. Devasahayam, former officer of the Indian Army & former IAS officer, about the Corona Virus pandemic and the brutal lockdown. Below we reproduce excerpts of the interview.
LRS: On the Corona Virus, do you think our government has acted swiftly and on time?
MGD: In early January there were a fair number of warnings. And by end of January it has already been declared as a pandemic by WHO and everyone had gone on high alert. However, the government and ruling party did not bother and they were pursuing the Citizenship Amendment Act. Throughout the country people were protesting against this divide-and-rule policy and the government was dealing with the protests in a very harsh manner. The government could have withdrawn the Citizenship Amendment Act and that would have sorted out the issue.
Besides, the government machinery was also busy in organizing a rally in Ahmedabad for US President Trump’s visit as well as busy in forming a BJP government in Madhya Pradesh by purchasing MLA’s. Neither the Home ministry, nor the Health ministry or the Prime Minister’s office took the Corona Virus issue seriously. No precautionary measures were taken. And the Virus was spreading in various places.
LRS: How did this nationwide lockdown come into effect?
MGD: A day before the lockdown was announced by Prime Minster on 24th of March, the situation was such that there were about 500 to 600 cases and very few deaths. It was spread out very thinly throughout the country. At that time, only 75 hotspots had been identified in the country. Hot spots were in various states and some states had very few, for example Tamil Nadu had just three. These 75 districts / cities, were only 10% of the 736 districts of the whole country. Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), which is responsible for healthcare, and senior government officials had recommended that we lockdown these 75 hotspot districts and prohibit all kinds of transport and intensify testing in a strict manner and prevent the virus from spreading. They also recommended giving greater freedom to the state governments to increase or decrease lockdown as required. This was on 23rd March, 2020. No one knows what happened in 24 hours. On 24th night PM comes on TV and announces a full national lockdown of the 135 crore people and that too giving just about 3 to 4 hours of notice!
LRS: How did this Nationwide Lockdown impact people?
MGD: The catastrophe started by locking down the whole nation, all industrial activities, business activities, all transport and all movements, everything in an as-is-where-is manner without any alert or preparations. Now from a health pandemic, it has also become a livelihood pandemic and a disaster. Millions and millions of wage workers, many of whom were migrant labourers, lost their jobs. Livelihood should have been retained to the extent possible, to help mitigate disaster.
If it were a pandemic, then the government authorities should have explained to the people as to what issues are involved, what people should do, what does physical (not social) distancing mean, why is it necessary, etc. As life is involved, people will obey without your using force. None of these happened, People were not given any time, any notice, no awareness, nothing. The police were simply let loose on the streets with the baton, beating everyone in sight. Completely cruel, riot type curfew was imposed on the whole country. Pandemic lockdown is a different cup of tea. The way it was implemented is horrendous. As a result of the nationwide lockdown announced on 24th March night, instead of containing the Corona Virus, it has spread.
We all know what has happened to our workers. They were starving, no one knew what was happening, they were treated as aliens and they were not given proper shelter. Even for those who were locked up in shelters, it was like slums, shanty conditions, unhygienic and without any sanitation. Millions of such migrant workers wanted to go back to their homes due to these intolerable conditions. And when they tried to go back, they were treated in a most inhuman manner, like beasts, without any kind of compassion.
LRS: Do you think the central government’s decision to impose section 144 CrPC all over the country was a right decision and has helped to stall the epidemic?
MGD: Health care is a state subject. Epidemic is a concurrent subject. Epidemic Disease Act 1897 specifically addresses how Epidemic should be handled. It gives all the powers to the state governments. Imposing Lockdown, restricting or isolating or quarantining people, shutting down shops and all kinds of powers are with the state government. Central government has been given only limited powers of regulating and controlling or restricting international travel by Air, sea or other means, checking passengers or subjecting such people to stringent regulations, testing, etc. In addition, drugs and drug related matters as well as medical education are central subjects.
On 24th March Central government invoked the Disaster Management Act 2005. This act cannot be used for a pandemic. Extending Section 6 of this Act, the central government has declared a national lockdown, without even consulting the states regarding their readiness and capability to handle it. To enforce the lockdown, government used the method of prohibitory orders issued by District Magistrates /Police Commissioners throughout the country. The entire enforcement of lockdown was handed over to the police and the situation on the ground was turned into something like a riot curfew, treating people as ‘criminals’ for ‘unlawful assembly’. With the result, people are facing four different types of disasters now. First disaster is the threat to one’s own life. Second is to one’s livelihood. Third is deprivation of liberty through complete repression. Fourth is loss of dignity which was totally trampled on. People were treated worse than beasts.
They have converted one disaster into 4 disasters. That is the governance efficiency of our central government!!
I will entirely put the blame on the central government, and that too at the doors of the Prime Minister’s Office. I don’t think PMO has even taken inputs from other ministries in the central government.
Disaster Management should always be decentralized. That is the fundamental principle. But instead of that they have centralized it all. This is the exact opposite of what should be done.
LRS: Can you please elaborate upon the terrible impact of this lockdown on our people?
MGD: So, as far as combating Corona virus is concerned, it is still a question mark as to whether the lockdown helped or not or how much. But the threat to livelihood, threat to liberty, threat to dignity are real. It is happening in front of our eyes.
Millions and millions are starving. And by one estimate of CMIE, about 15 crore people have lost their jobs. Almost the entire informal sector is in deep distress. The MSME sector which is the lifeline of our economy, contributing 40% of India’s GDP and employing bulk of its labour force, is on its deathbed, starved of cash, and without any meaningful relief from the government.
There is absolutely no respect for liberty. Everybody is put on virtual house arrest. What the central government wanted to do using CAA, they have achieved it using pandemic in a perverse manner.
As far as dignity is concerned, it is complete humiliation of people. Pandemic lockdown should not be enforced through police. It should be enforced through the social workers by mobilizing welfare/development department such as Panchayats, Rural development, Urban development, Municipalities, etc. who deal with people directly. They should have been deployed to enforce the lockdown with police support.
Instead the central government has given all the powers to the police. Police are simply beating people, arresting people, filing FIRs, seizing thousands and thousands of vehicles, collecting fines whose total amount must have crossed several crores by now. This kind of enforcement is not going to help.
Life without liberty and dignity has no meaning. These are very important aspects and have been emphasized in the Constitution of India. Nobody cannot take away democracy, liberty and dignity. There is a compassionate humane way of imposing these restrictions. It is not that people do not want to obey restrictions. But it must be done in a humane manner upholding democracy, liberty and dignity of our people.
LRS: Do you think the Lockdown has prevented spread of the Virus?
MGD: In spite of the brutal Lockdown, the physical distancing is not taking place. Left with no other options people are rushing all over – shopping areas, bazaars, transport areas and so many other places. Where is the distancing? My view as well as the view of many experts is that among 50 % people there has been non-compliance of distancing norms because of the wrong way the lockdown was planned, announced and enforced. Initially the infected count was in the range of 500-600. Everyday infected cases are going up, multiplying, and now it has crossed 1 lakh.
So, imposing these harsh draconian riot curfews has not produced the results it was supposed to produce.
LRS: Is the central government allocating and spending adequate funds for this Anti-Virus drive and also for reviving the economy?
MGD: The 20-lakh crore “economic recovery package” (10% of GDP) announced by the prime minister and detailed-out by the finance minister is a farce. I am in agreement with the views of former finance minister P Chidambaram and other experts that the actual fiscal stimulus works out to only around Rs 2 lakh crore amounting to just 1% of GDP, which is woefully inadequate. This is very serious because estimating the economic cost of the COVID-19 epidemic to be huge, NITI Aayog has proposed a massive fiscal stimulus of over Rs 10 lakh crore or 5% of the GDP. The package suggested includes income support programme of Rs 3.1 lakh crore to 6 crores for permanent and contractual workers in the corporate sector and 13.5 crore informal workers and contractors. The package envisaged includes absorption of a portion of NPAs in MSME sector, additional investments in healthcare and Rs 2.3 lakh crore capital support (preferably equity) to large corporates in a troubled asset relief programme. Not even listening to Niti Ayog is a big betrayal of people and the states.
Ironically, after FM announced the farcical package, the CEO of Niti Ayog has taken a U-turn and is hailing the ‘reforms to sell the country’ as historic and revolutionary. So much for institutional integrity!!
Though the Reserve Bank of India has announced a spate of monetary measures to reduce interest rates and increase liquidity of banks to lend, it is not producing results in the absence of any worthwhile fiscal measures/initiatives from the central government. In the event, even the survival of the economy, let alone revival, is in serious doubt!
LRS: Are state governments empowered and provided with adequate funds to deal with the crisis?
MGD: The central government is releasing money to the states in trickles. After long delay they have just released Rs. 46,038 crores. They are yet to release the Rs. 30,000 crore GST arrears to the states.
India’s constitutional scheme bestows vast financial powers to the central government. With the states shouldering the burden of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, it was expected that the Centre would do its job and release money to them. So far, there has been little of that. Since the start of the lockdown in March to contain the spread of the disease, states have been clamouring for a relaxation in the amount of money they can borrow. This limit is set as per the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act at 3% of the gross state domestic product. Since the Union government has released little money and in fact even held back tax revenue due to the states, this borrowing would help states raise funds in order to fight the pandemic and tide over the severely reduced tax revenue as a result of lockdown.
At long last central government did accede to this demand but with stringent conditions. States can now borrow up to 5% – but only if they do what New Delhi tells them. Of the extra 2%, only 0.5% is truly unconditional, as per what the states wanted initially. However, after that states will only be allowed four increments of 0.25% if they meet specific conditions laid down by New Delhi. The final 0.5% will be awarded to states if they tick off three of four conditions set by the central government. These are: ease of doing business, privatising power distribution, increasing urban local body revenues and linking states’ food welfare schemes to the national grid of “One Nation One Ration Card”. This is absurd and militates against the fundamental of federalism.
LRS: Do you think our healthcare staff is provided with adequate equipment to work effectively?
MGD: As far as protective gear is concerned, initially they did not even have face masks and gloves for Hospitals and Primary Health Care Centres. They also did not have full coveralls. And then they manufactured these in a hurry and the quality is suspect. Due to this situation some of our doctors, nurses and other paramedical staff were exposed and infected by the virus and quite a few people have also died. Although more than 2 months have gone by after the draconian lockdown, we are still not fully prepared on the medical front.
LRS: What do you think of the role played by police and judiciary in this crisis?
MGD: The behaviour of police and judiciary is extremely distressing. They seem to have completely forgotten that a chapter called fundamental rights exists in the constitution. They have no regard for liberty, human rights and dignity which are the cornerstone of our constitution. They seem to think that the government can do anything and the judiciary has to just approve it. Unfortunate thing is that the judiciary also is toeing the government line and abandoning the basic responsibility of upholding the constitution and defending fundamental rights. What is happening now is worse than Emergency, of which I have experience.
LRS: Do states have autonomy and empowerment with financial and executive powers?
MGD: Whatever little federalism was there, they are finishing it off now. The central government wants to wipe out federalism. It wants to starve the people by denying them livelihood and if there is no money to feed the people where is the federalism? What are we talking about?
Furthermore, while starving the states financially, the Centre is pushing through devious and predatory amendments to the Electricity Act and Environmental Rules to remove whatever role states have in these critical areas. This, being done in a stealthy and dubious manner, will have far-reaching consequences for the integrity of India and its continuance as a union of states.
In the name of combating coronavirus the central government is imposing a completely totalitarian regime. This seems to be the primary agenda of the central government.
LRS: What is it that we should learn from this pandemic experience?
MGD: No one from the higher echelons of the Government seems to be interested in learning from this experience. The bureaucracy and the political leadership are extremely arrogant. They seem to imply that they know everything and they are not even allowing the bureaucracy to express its views. As far as the present bureaucracy is concerned, except a few, others do not want to consult their seniors who have already gone through this kind of experience. So, everything is like the blind leading the blind. So, I don’t think they are willing to learn any lessons. They are taking this as an opportunity to establish a totalitarian state in the country. And democratic governance is almost non-existent.
LRS: Thank you sir, for enlightening us with your insights.