Early on in his new book, Locking Down The Poor, social activist Harsh Mander vividly recalls the “human-made flood of hunger” he witnessed in Delhi after Prime Minister Narendra Modi locked down the country at a few hours’ notice in March to control the covid-19 pandemic. Although the move caught everyone, including the comfortably-off middle class, off guard, it was the poor who paid the harshest penalty.
As Mander and his colleagues went around the city, they saw snaking queues for food, most of which was being distributed by NGOs and private individuals. People who had once cooked meals in dhabas and restaurants every day to feed others stood with their heads hanging in shame, stomachs empty, at the mercy of the kindness of strangers. When sex workers, without any income for days, sought to obtain essential items on credit, male shopkeepers demanded sexual favours in return. There was despair in the air—the pandemic, as the subtitle of the book puts it, had shifted “India’s Moral Centre”.
No epidemic, as Mander writes, is “merely a biomedical phenomenon”, it is as much a social phenomenon. Yet, for all these poignant scenes of suffering, Locking Down The Poor makes a rigorous case for economic reforms, mining data and making specific if somewhat ambitious recommendations to help the unemployed tide over the crisis.
“I wanted to think through the heart alongside evidence-based analysis,” Mander says on the phone. He sounds weak, recovering from covid-19 after having presumably caught the disease from one of the clinics he set up with colleagues to help the poor get tested. After being detected with the disease, Mander insisted on being treated at a public hospital, where he spent days amid anarchy and mismanagement. “It was like hell,” he says about the episode. He was then shifted to a marginally better private hospital. Already suffering from a congenital heart disease, he says he has undergone brain damage now.
Yet, characteristically, Mander is devoid of self-pity or the urge to project himself as a martyr. Having spent decades in the service of society’s most disenfranchised, he is sober but not entirely pessimistic. “If the ruling government had shown elementary compassion towards the poor, the economy would have fared better,” he says.
The pandemic, Mander adds, showed up the crisis of a certain kind of urban planning, which neglects the fate of the majority who inhabit the streets of India’s cities. Recently, when he put out a word that he was looking for a driver, Mander says he received applications from all kinds of people, including former schoolteachers and hotel workers. “And now, the infection has reached the homeless,” he says, painting a morbid scenario of unaccounted and undignified deaths.
At the height of the lockdown last year, when Mander and his associates started the covid-19 clinics in Delhi, they tested 60-70 people every day; 15-20% tested positive. These were the wretched of the earth, people who are invisible in the eyes of the state as they don’t have identification papers to claim the benefits of free testing or treatment, migrant workers far away from their places of domicile and unable to avail aid.
For much of the book, Mander grapples with the problems of systematic exclusions of the poor and the government’s wilful negligence of duty. The administration can hardly claim it was unaware of the ground reality, he argues, since a huge number were already living in abject hunger before covid-19 struck. To, then, knowingly throw these lives into jeopardy by imposing a lockdown without sufficient warning amounts to criminal abdication of responsibility.
Mander also doesn’t mince words about the prime minister’s messaging in the wake of the pandemic. In his televised addresses to the nation, Modi had asked citizens to stay indoors, wash their hands frequently and practise “social distancing”. Subsequently, his requests included banging utensils from the balconies to express appreciation for the essential workers, or lighting diyas and candles.
Mander points out the bleak irony in each of these injunctions in a country where the poor live in congested slums, entire families forced to share a room and whole communities, one public bathroom. Most of the water to these areas is supplied by tankers, which many have to pay for, and which had ceased operations during the lockdown—water is in any case a precious commodity for these people, rationed carefully by the bucket. “And where would they have the means to buy soap?” Mander adds, “when they don’t even have the money to buy food?” As for the term “social distancing”, he, along with thinkers like G.N. Devy, believes that it normalises a “civilisational apartheid” in a country in which the caste system remains an endemic evil.
Much of the material in Locking Down The Poor is familiar, from the plight of the migrant workers to the persecution of Muslims due to the misinformation that the Tablighi Jamaat gathering was an epicentre of the pandemic. Mander, however, goes deeper into the malaise by pointing out egregious holes in India’s labour laws when it comes to implementation, the disastrously mercenary for-profit healthcare system that has showed its true colours during the pandemic (“money and social privilege”, he writes, “temporarily lost their protective functions” even for the middle class), and the fate of circular migrant workers (“hunter gatherers of work”, as sociologist Jan Breman called them), who have all but lost their trust in a government that, as Mander puts it, “threw them to the wolves”.
Yet, such a crisis of faith, however critical it may be this time, is not unprecedented in India’s recent history. In 2016, shortly after the calamitous move to demonetise high-value currency that resulted in dire loss of income and even of lives, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was elected with a landslide in Uttar Pradesh. There is no good reason, I tell Mander, to assume that the pandemic would be a tipping point for the government at the Centre either. So what lies behind the BJP’s staying power?
“There’s a kind of drug, much more lethal than heroin, that has been injected into the veins of our society,” Mander says. “That’s the drug of bigotry and hatred.” In the throes of this intoxication, he adds, nothing matters to most people any more—be it the state of public healthcare or services. “People are ready to believe that Muslims are spitting on vegetables on sale,” Mander says, referring to a wave of Islamophobic misinformation that surged last year. “The problem is not out there, it is within us.”