Following lockdowns and curfews imposed to check the spread of the pandemic in April 2021 in Mumbai, Delhi and other cities, thousands of workers have been paying exorbitant amounts to ride back to their native villages in overcrowded buses, trucks, and trains. They fear loss of livelihood, and worse, starvation if they do not get work in the towns where they migrated to in search of jobs. Hundreds of people have died in the third week of April in or outside hospitals all over the country due to lack of beds, ICU facilities and medical oxygen. The Covid pandemic situation has gotten completely out of control in April 2021 – a full year after the most stringent “lockdowns” were enforced in the country in March – April 2020.
As all of us would recall, the months of March to July 2020 had witnessed mass exodus of workers from towns and cities all over India, back to their native villages, following the lockdowns and closure of their places of work or loss of jobs due to retrenchment and bankruptcies. Workers and their families braved the heat and lack of long distance transport, hitching rides in trucks, even trudging hundreds of kilometres on the highways. It made clear once again the sorry truth that those who toil to create wealth in India have no security at all.
In fairness, it may be said that the pandemic which struck India and other countries in early 2020 was without precedent in recent decades. In the months since then, the Union and State Governments claimed that they were improving health care facilities, as well as taking measures to ensure supplies of essentials and improving the public distribution system. But the realities of April 2021 give the lie to their claims.
In fact, on January 28, 2021, Prime Minister Modi made a bombastic statement “India has saved the world from disaster. In early March 2021, the Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan declared that “we are (now) in the endgame”. On 4th April 2021, the Chief Minister of Assam went so far as to boast that “there is no Covid in Assam … no need to wear a face mask!!”
In the second half of March and practically all of April 2021, the BJP, Congress, and other established political parties went whole hog in trying to win elections in Assam, Bengal, Tamil Nadu and elsewhere. The pandemic situation was deteriorating rapidly, but the political masters could not care less. They had to ensure that they wrested political power in these states or retained it if possible. The Prime Minister and Home Minister addressed mammoth political rallies organised in various parts of Bengal, in which thousands of people were made to jostle with each other with no regard to physical distancing, wearing face masks or observing precautions to control the spread of infection. As late as 17th April 2021, Prime Minister Modi gloated that “(I) have never seen such huge crowds at a rally”, leading to a cartoonist lampooning him as “Emperor Nerondra” – a reference to Emperor Nero who is said to have played the fiddle as Rome burned.
The scenes of workers fleeing cities in droves for their native villages, as well as of desperate patients and relatives being denied critical medical care and oxygen are indeed heart-breaking. They ought to make the leaders of our country hang their heads in shame. But apart from shedding crocodile tears and blaming rival political parties and leaders, as well as labelling all those who correctly expose the sorry situation as ‘demoralisers, anti-national, unpatriotic’ and worse, they do precious little else.
Whether it is workers or patients, the people of our country are forced to fend for themselves in times of dire need and crisis. Which brings us to the questions – what kind of socio -political system is this? Are we living in a country where people are treated as humans? Even in ancient times, kings and rulers of India were supposed to protect the people and ensure their welfare as a matter of “dharma”. Which clearly means that the situation we are facing today is due to adharama on part of those who have been entrusted to rule our land. The serious situation we are facing us should make us think deeply about the kind of political system that we should have – one that ensures the material and cultural well-being of the people and not just the super-profits of a handful of super-rich.