On June 8, India lock-lifted after 70-odd days of shutting down on account of COVID-19. As expected, there were traffic jams.
More of everything, in fact. Malls and restaurants have opened, and inter-state travel has resumed. It was as if the pandemic had not happened at all. It is an indication of how an official license gives the illusion that disease and death are happening elsewhere.
The lock-lift coincided with the average daily death toll jumping to 300, from around 50 a little more than three weeks ago. Because of the dire situation, the Modi government did not celebrate the first anniversary of power in their second term last fortnight.
The migratory nature of the labour demography is unique to India; no other COVID-affected country shares the plight to this level. And the government mismanaged it simply because there was no model available from the West. Nor a precedent
The economy is opening up simply because staying shut means a total collapse. The new middle class is already the lower middle class. Hundreds of thousands among the salaried workers have been laid off.
For those who have managed to hold down their jobs, the post-lockdown traffic jams may actually come across as a reassuring experience that they are returning to an old lifestyle, which the Good Mob had predicted would give in to a better, less-materialistic society. Remember all that talk about the new world order?
Return by road
Meanwhile, the Bihar administration said 1.2 million daily wage labourers have returned to the state by train and that 1.1 million have returned by road.
Similar numbers are likely to be valid for West Bengal, Odisha, and Jharkhand states from where labourers flock to the cities. If the lock-lift is to yield results, at least a good number of these people need to be present in the cities.
This will take time. This means India’s economic revival will be tortuous, to say the least. The migratory nature of the labour demography is unique to India; no other COVID-affected country shares the plight to this level. And the government mismanaged it simply because there was no model available from the West. Nor a precedent.
Not coming back?
According to reports, those who returned to their villages are not keen on coming back. From 12.8 million households, in April, asking for work in mass rural employment schemes, the figure has gone up to 36.1 million in May.
In the coming monsoon months, then, there is little prospect of the labour population braving the odds and returning to the cities.
As a result, urban India will face a crisis in sanitation and health sectors, real estate, and infrastructure development. The Indian business class will have little choice but be fairer to labour as a class and treat them better if they want to resume activities.
Despite the attending circumstance, from May to May, this has been a government on steroids. Modi, Shah, and Company forced through the abrogation of Article 370, which removed the special status of Kashmir, effected the ban of triple talaq, introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act that sparked a pubic protest and the related Delhi riots, presided over the collapse of the banking sector, issued warrants and warnings against ‘anti-national’ journalists and activists, (the latest being Vinod Dua), jailed a few, and imposed the drastic lockdown following COVID-19, that has so far killed over 7000 people.
The curious irony of the post-truth reality is that the measures that the government prides in are exactly the measures that its detractors are critical of.
Your idea of truth, clearly, is no longer the facts of the matter, but the a priori position you have adopted; in short, your truth is not what you have individually determined, but one that has been manufactured by your particular group.
Tyranny of the Good Mob
There is nothing new in this, but the division between groups in society is widening beyond mend. As is happening, for example, in the US — the violent riots over George Floyd’s death, the tyranny of the Good Mob in the New York Times, and the Philadelphia Inquirer over articles that articulated a conservative point of view — and the loud protest march in the UK.
A post-COVID India is looking at a technologically-enabled war of views, a kind of take over by Artificial Intelligence that has spread intolerance and righteousness like a behavioural virus. It is not likely to have happy results except for people like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dawsey.
The Modi government is most likely to pursue to advantage even a more divisive strategy as the Good Mob tightens its grip on social media discourse, an area currently outside the ambit of the State
COVID has accentuated inborn Indian insecurities and driven home like a nail the truth that each one is on his own.
This is why, in the times following lockdown, greed, and profiteering and the heartlessness at the bottom of it all are likely to resurface with renewed vengeance.
As the year careens down like a monster train, it is probably all you can do to get out of the way.
—C. P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India.