A migrant worker family with their three month old child wait under a flyover for transportation to get back to their village during a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of new coronavirus in New Delhi, India. Image Credit: AP

India partially lifted its lockdown to contain Covid-19 recently. Around the same time, the average death toll rose by nearly 50 per cent. Two weeks ago the daily toll was around 50 to 60 people. That has now gone up to over a 100. It is not clear if the lifting of the lockdown will result in the wider spread of the virus.

Even if it did, under the circumstances one must wonder if it merits the same kind of intense concern that the West — the US and Europe — has justifiably displayed there.

As pointed out in these columns earlier, India is in a unique situation because of the attendant poverty factor. Primarily thanks to the lockdown, announced by prime minister Narendra Modi in good time, the COVID death toll at a little over 3400 compares well with the figures in the West, which is tens of thousands.

The Modi government pressed trains and buses in their service. And thousands have travelled home by these means. But many have hit the road before the services were made available


But, ironically, it is the lockdown that has put at risk the lives of millions of daily wage workers and their families as they reverse-migrate from the big cities where they work.

There are no exact figures available for those who have died of starvation and exhaustion. Nearly a hundred have been killed in road and rail accidents alone. Thousands are still on the road. Social media is awash with tears and angst of the middle class flagellating themselves over the tragedy — though it is hard to imagine them skipping a meal in contrition.

More on the issue

But the point they make is well taken. The virus has served, as never before, to underline the shocking poverty of the country. There is any number of images of men pulling makeshift carts with their wife and kids squatting in it, across hundreds of kilometres; of children trekking vast distances and falling dead; of women lugging trolley bags with their kids asleep on top.

The Modi government pressed trains and buses in their service. And thousands have travelled home by these means. But many have hit the road before the services were made available. Many, too, have no means to arrive at stations from where they stay, and so decided to walk.

It is 40C in the shade here and climbing. Drinking water is hard to come by out on the road. And the open sandals that most wears do not help in long treks. A BBC correspondent covering the story of the long march was so moved that he gave away his sneakers to the man he was interviewing.

Modi's new India

On May 12, Modi addressed the nation, announcing a Rs20 lakh crore package to stimulate the economy. Ever confident, he said COVID was a challenge and an opportunity. He promised a new India. One could have wept out of hope and despair.

The New York Times ran an article soon after, saying Modi’s popularity has ‘soared.’ The NYT, seen as a correct and fashionably chic journal in India, is traditionally a bitter critic of Modi. The Indian Progressive is enamoured of NYT, and its famed anti-Modi stance. But the latest piece seems to be a turnaround and was not widely shared for that reason.

The fact is that Modi’s speech was little more than a regurgitation of his stock vision — which coincides with the Indian middle class’s (left or right) dream of a modern India, good roads, good jobs, good patriots; An America with booming Vedic Chants.

This vision was further lent muscle to by the finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, when she, in the following days, described the nature of the allocation of the Rs20 lakh crore package, which in real terms of liquidity ingestion turned out to be around Rs8 lakh crore, borrowed from the Reserve bank of India.

The rest was mostly credit arrangements and schemes from the days of yore, all bunched together and decked up as the Covid-19 slayer-avatar.

India's structural reforms

The structural reforms included more FDI in defence-related research and manufacture and private participation in outer space activities. Substantial financial aid has been promised to small and medium scale businesses. These may bear fruit in the far and fraught future. Who knows? Little can be predicted or planned post-Covid.

But for here and now, the package only ensured free grain supply to the poor — and displaced workers — for the next two months. This would cost the government around Rs3500 crore. For 12 months it would cost less than Rs50,000 crore to feed the poorest of the Indian population.

If that is all it takes, indeed, why not supply for free basic grains to the Indian poor forever? The Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, recently reported that more than 38,000 metric tonnes of food grains have been damaged in the last five years, rotting away in the godowns of Food Corporation of India and Central Warehousing Corporation.

According to figures revealed in Parliament, in 2018-19 alone, 52,13,360kg of food grains were wasted causing an estimated loss of Rs72,033,224. Universal pay can perhaps wait in a poor country. Universal food need not.

It is easily possible to be charitable to the Modi government. Within constraints, they have managed the COVID outbreak well. Modi means, as ever, good, when he announced the package. He wants a prosperous India. Who can quarrel with that?

And if all goes well, at least some — not all; how would interplanetary travel help India’s ground realities? — of the measures should bear fruit. But not much of it is likely to trickle down to the long-marchers. Clearly, the thing to do is to build rural India, so that if the workers want to migrate to the cities, it will be out of choice.

For the present, if the ragged millions in their despair continue to flee the urban India of Modi’s dream and trek the melting roads in broken sandals, one must conclude that little has changed since Mahatma Gandhi led the country to freedom in 1947.

— C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India