Covid-19 Lockdown: Eroding India’s Soul?

Catherine Viens
Twitter: @ViensCatherine | Instagram: @cathev
Image: Simon Racicot (@racspacs52)

India’s federal system is in crisis. Since the beginning of the lockdown, the Indian states (provinces) have been struggling to receive support from the federal government in Delhi, a striking necessity in the context of Covid-19. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on May 12, 2020 that he would “take into account” the suggestions of the States’ Chief Ministers for the development of the subsequent lockdown measures. However, the continual contradictions in the Prime Minister’s speech suggest that the member states will still not be listened. Even more so, Modi’s attitude indicate that the authoritarian dynamics that have unfolded since he came to power will continue. If the member states are voiceless in front of the crisis, this is very worying for the future of Indian democracy and, especially, for the poor and marginalized communities of the sub-continent. 

Federalism Crisis

Following the lockdown measures announced on March 25, 2020, India experienced the largest internal migration in the country’s history with more than 40 million migrant workers forced to walk back to their villages. Indian writer and political activist Arundhati Roy has described the lockdown in India as one of the most gigantic and punitive on the planet.

If the central government has not proposed a concrete plan to assist this massive displacement of population, state governments were quick to organize transport, accommodation and food for migrants. However, this has turned into a major humanitarian crisis where thousands of people have struggled to get access to transport, prompting some people to choose walking instead.

WhatsApp Image 2020-06-23 at 20.30.26
Image: Pixabay

In a recent interview, Indian researcher and former Jawaharlal University professor Nehru Balveer Arora used the term “political distancing” to refer to the central government’s retreat from the negative aspects of lockdown in the country. He also claimed the existence of a crisis of federalism to explain the centre’s intention to place the burden on the Indian member states in the context of Covid-19 without giving them the necessary financial and political support. For example, the Prime Minister’s Cares emergency fund has not been deployed and the member states find themselves with a major shortage of money, as the Modi government has still not agreed to compensate them for the tax losses incurred.

A Second Lockdown, Another Set of Rules

In his speech on May 12, 2020, Narendra Modi finally announced his long-awaited aid plan. Phase 4.0 of lockdown will be characterized by “new rules and colours”. There are two important aspects to this plan. On the one hand, the announcement of a special economic package for workers, farmers, small and medium-sized enterprises and the craft sector. On the other hand, the Prime Minister said that “member states are now going to have a much greater say” in determining the extent of restrictions and flexibilities on lockdown. In other words, they will be consulted to determine which areas should remain locked down and which can be reopened. This cames after several requests from state governments for more autonomy in setting containment rules, but also from workers, industries and several political leaders at the local order.

However, the announcement of this aid plan was accompanied by a troubling rhetoric. First, the package that was proclaimed was fooled: the government stipulated an amount that represents almost 10 % of India GDP while analysts rather showed that it was a repacking of old schemed. Second, the Modi government maintains that it wants to put forward a “self-sufficient India based on five fundamental pillars: a strong economy, modern infrastructures, a system based on technological development, a vibrant demography that as India’s strength and source of energy, and the supply and demand cycle that drives the Indian economy : all of these emphasize the economic aspects. It is even worse if we consider the obvious lack of empathy for workers: despite the announcement of the Modi government’s aid plan, it has shown no compassion for the millions of people who have been forced to move in extremely difficult sanitary and environmental conditions. In addition, Modi used a discourse focused on the local level and support for poor communities by instrumentalizing strong keywords in order to be heard and to keep up appearences. The slogan “be vocal about local” was mobilized to refer to the importance of buying local and promoting Indian products on the global scale. Yet, the pullback to the local is mainly aimed at helping Indian corporations: it is not taking into account local needs. This can be understood by the disproportionate absence of a reference to Indian democracy and the necessary cooperation between the central and state governments to ensure a common but differentiated response to the various realities that characterize the Indian context.

On top of that, the focus on economic development is extremely alarming from an environmental point of view. Even before the pandemic, Modi’s government was already preparing to amend the Environment Impact Assessment in a way that would facilitate environmental approval for certain development projects by excluding some types of projects from the requirement to a public hearing. The pandemic simply made it easier for him to adopt this amendment. This process is the only way for local communities to have their voices heard when they are directly affected by development projects. Whether by directly attacking their lifestyles, livelihoods and displacement, projects are often extremely painful for communities. It is therefore a priority to recognized their agency and voices: local understanding of development must be included in the comprehension of India’s democracy. If the Indian government’s 5 fundamental pillars to become self-sufficiency are implemented, future central government policies might end up promoting industrial development and natural resources exploitation at the expense of social and environmental costs.

The Modi’s administration continues to add more and more rules to address the Covid-19 crisis in India. As we can read in an article, the Union Home Ministry – which is really close to Modi – gave 94 orders in 68 days under the Disaster Management Act. Under this Act, member states and local authorities can frame their own rules, but they have to follow broad and burdensome guidelines. In doing so, the government of Delhi still poses the risk that the authoritarianism of the state in India will be reinforced. State-imposed directives, power to industries, economy-oriented measures, no empathy for the poor and marginalized communities that are hit hard by the crisis, and an accumulation of restrictive rules are all reasons for the continuation of a strong trend. Indeed, the pandemic came at a time when there was another crisis in the country: the imposition of a Citizenship Act (CAA), that aimed at creating a national registry of citizens in order to subjectively expel from the country migrants considered “illegal”, had raised massive protests in India. From that point, one wonders whether the Covid-19 crisis is not benefitting Modi’s government, which can, for example, apply laws while silencing dissent under the pretext of protecting the health of citizens and the Indian economy.

Keeping Faith in Indian democracy

However, as Prof. Arora keeps mentioning : Indians must remember that their country is still a functioning democracy. The imposition of a lockdown gave more power and possibilities to control to the central government, but there is still space for resistance as Noam Chomsky says. In reminding us the historical role of students in leading campaigns against social injustice, the political thinker keeps faith in popular activism in India. The protests against CAA since December, culminating with the incarceration of  students activist such as Safoora Zargar, is both an illustration of the authoritarian governance of Modi and a good exemple of the India’s inheritance to protest with ethical dissidence and by civil disobedience. The resilience, strength, dynamism and solidarity of the Indian society showed in the past offers a glimmer of hope : they will fight.

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