Unrest Brewing in Lock(ed)down India

The lockdown has forced people to live without necessities of life, the imposed stress and possible scenarios require a conversation on mental health of the poor.

Unrest Brewing in Lock(ed)down India)

  Hindustan Times

For most humans the most important motivations in life are related to their physiological needs (food, shelter, clothing), their future security (financial security, livelihood, health) and social acceptance/interaction (respected by other people, friends and family). During the lockdown, the urban poor were the hardest hit economically but, more qualitative aspects of their lives have also taken a hit which has induced stress in a large proportion of the population. All three types of motivations in their lives have been affected, leading to undercurrents of discontent and anger throughout. This article will focus on the lives of urban migrants, how lockdown has made survival difficult and possible scenarios if this is not heeded to soon.

A ‘rushed’ necessity
CoVID-19 put the world in an unprecedented situation as the governments had not seen a pandemic of this scale in the modern times. Each country was experimenting with their own response strategies to fight with the virus. A common theme across all these strategies highlighted the need to physically distance the people by limiting the movement and controlling the spread of virus. To this end, a major part of the world saw complete government enforced shutdowns. India was also put into such lockdown by the Government on 25th March 2020, more than 50 days after the first case of CoVID-19 emerged. Through these 50 days, socio-political voices cautioned the government to be prepared for the economic devastation that will be caused without diligent guidelines. On 24th March 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a speech – announcing a 21-day nationwide lockdown with a 4-hour notice.

While several professions started adapting around the ‘work-from-home’ culture, all the economic activities involving physical labour bore the brunt of the rushed lockdown. Given that urban spaces have typically evolved as the hubs of economic growth across India, internal migration in search of better livelihood conditions is common. Daily wage workers, factory/shop workers/helpers, skilled labourers such as electricians, plumbers and carpenters, cab drivers, rickshaw pullers, etc., all of whom are commonly migrants from villages and smaller cities did not have a means of livelihood in a matter of hours, but were also denied any means of getting out during the lockdown.

The government failed to provide for the needs of the people and bumbled all policy measures.

Physiological Needs. The most fundamental biological needs are those of food and shelter. Most migrants move to urban areas and try to secure these basic needs. Due to imposition of the lockdown, the daily wage earners could not be in the position to fulfil these needs. The entire returnee population was utterly dependent on the government to provide for their rations – which were found to be insufficient, substandard and a disappointment after hours of being hurdled up around the ration distribution centres. With the loss of income and any financial remittance, rental needs could also not be fulfilled. The central and state government did request landlords to excuse monthly rents, but it turned out to be wishful thinking at best. Now, the free ration distribution for non-ration cardholders has also nearly been stopped.

Security. Livelihood opportunities are essential to help humans have an assurance of a secure future. According to an IMF report, 91% of people are employed in the informal sector in India – meaning that they earn their wages daily. With the lockdown, this is the percentage of people that were directly affected.

Several reports estimate a monthly expenditure of 3000₹/per person in urban slums, out of which many also try to save some money to send back home. The government did not do much for this section. The central government claimed that they transferred ₹ 500 to each of the bank accounts of female head of a household. Most migrant workers do not have bank accounts due to lack of documents or their accounts get frozen due to lack of deposit. Also, given the amount was debited to the female member of the family, the male member who migrated alone to the city couldn’t use that. Secondly, even if they can overcome hurdles of accessing a bank account, a monthly deposit of ₹ 500 is pittance when compared to the expenses of rent, ration and other basic necessities incurred in urban areas.

As they ran out of ration and any possibility of earning livelihood in the urban centres, the streets of India filled with people returning back to their domiciles – walking several hundreds of kilometres with essential luggage and children because all public transport was also halted for lockdown which continued well after 21 days. Returning home became the only sustainable way for several people existing in urban poverty. In the absence of any social security or transport, their only options were travelling distances of even over 2000 km on foot in scorching heat or packed like cattle on hitched truck rides. More than 400 people lost their lives trying to reach home.

The government has resumed NREGA work as an avenue of creating livelihood opportunities, but the worksites are not working for more than 2-4 days in a month. The paid wages average around 100₹/day and even those are not paid regularly.

Sociological Needs. The self-esteem that was dented by the forced travel back home was demolished by the behaviour of the administration and the police. Social distancing is mandatory according to the public guidelines issued during the lockdown. What couldn’t have been imagined though, was the inhumane implementation of this guideline that was observed on state borders in India. Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat lathi-charged and caned the returning migrants for being out during lockdown and for not following the social distancing norms while standing for hours queueing for rations. The role of police went from regulator to perpetrator of class violence.

The migrants when reached their villages they were denied the chance to meet their families. The state governments passed an order turning village schools into quarantine centres; it was mandatory for the migrants to spend 14 days in these centres. While this was necessary, the conditions in the quarantine centres were ghastly. The migrants were crammed into small classrooms without fans, proper sanitation, food or water. All social distancing norms were flouted in these quarantine facilities, and in addition to being unsafe, the conditions were so stressful that there were reports of suicides at quarantine facilities. There are WhatsApp messages circulating in the villages branding the returnees as Corona carriers, making people isolate them socially to the extent of boycott. The friends and family that they longed for all along, are still not there.

Loss of Dignity and Stress
Stress is one of the most under-discussed subjects in the country. This is more so for the poorer sections of the society. The urban poor/migrants/vulnerable sections were stranded without food, livelihood, forced to walk miles, met by the apathetic administration and had to wait days before they could finally meet their loved ones. The social and systemic boycott they have faced after this has produced unimaginable anxiety. The stress is showing in actions.

Most people are sitting at homes without any hope for livelihood opportunities. The food demands are being met by subsidised grains for families with ration cards. Coupled with that, the opening up of liquor shops is bleeding dry the already insufficient savings in families

Civil society reports that this stress is manifesting in ways that have never been seen before. Small quarrels are increasingly turning into bigger spats and verbal abuses into physical altercations. The societal construct forcing men not to exhibit sadness or frustration is resulting in rage getting channelled on the less powerful sections. The reports of domestic abuse of women and children are also increasing.

In the foreseeable future, this can take multiple forms. Riots of some form seem imminent- it could be food riots over limited resources or communal riots where the divisive political forces will use the rage of the unemployed for their own agenda. Kashmir has been reporting a high number of suicides since the movement restrictions were imposed in August 2019. There are reports coming in of migrants committing suicide due to loss of jobs and dignity.

Way Forward
The government needs to take corrective measures based on the current situation. Anganwadis can be equipped to host mental health counsellors on a permanent or visiting basis to educate and help without moving out of their villages. The stress imposed on rural dwellers is due to social and economic reasons. The social reasons can be worked out by the counsellors. The institutionalisation of such care at village level would go a long way in normalising therapy for mental health issues.

The state would have to work to provide relief in-situ as people can’t be expected to work their way back to the cities. Government employment under NREGA should increase for more days. Integration of cash payments and distribution of ration within the employment programme should be explored as a possibility. Cues may be taken from Kerala Government, where distributed kits went beyond ration to include essentials such as spices, soap, oil, etc. to ensure a dignified life can be upheld during these trying times.

It is necessary to hold the anger at this point as the poor protesting out of helplessness would be a blot on the rights giving democracy that India has prided itself as.

Avi Kathpalia is a public policy graduate from NLS, Bangalore and works on socio-political issues.