Accountability can’t be placed under lockdown

The BJP government at the Centre owes the country many answers on its handling of the pandemic

As it moves from a stringent nationwide lockdown to disaggregated and differentiated lockdowns, India has much to think about. It is coming out of a gruelling, bruising two months. This experience holds lessons for the rest of the long battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. It also reveals a lot about governance and planning, Centre-State relations, and the care and dignity that government policies accord citizens.

The hardest questions will, of course, be for the Bharatiya Janata Party government in New Delhi. It declared a total lockdown giving just a four-hour notice to the citizens, without consulting State governments. How should we judge it?

Language provides a clue. Any institution — a company, a cultural organisation, a political party or a government — is identifiable by its trademark vocabulary, by the words and phrases it uses most often. For the BJP government, these are “masterstroke”, “surgical strike”, “shock treatment” and “secrecy”. It thrives on sudden, dramatic moves — never mind the absence of planning.

A little over a decade ago, the author-activist Naomi Klein wrote a book called The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. It was a warning against ill-conceived shock actions for restructuring society, and how these could lead to disaster. Those promoting the “shock doctrine” take advantage of a crisis situation and of a benumbed population desperate for answers and trusting of those in charge. Yet the trust is never really repaid. Ever since that 8 p.m. lockdown announcement on March 23, I have thought so often of Ms. Klein and her book.

Delayed response

And it need not have been this way. The first three weeks of March were wasted by the Central government. On March 5, the Trinamool Congress wrote and urged that parliamentary committees be convened for emergency meetings to plan for COVID-19. On the same day the West Bengal government began creating isolation wards for future COVID-19 patients. The following day, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee set up quick response teams.

The Centre did nothing. It spoke perfunctorily about social distancing but ignored its own warnings. Repeated appeals to adjourn Parliament were ignored. After two weeks of trying, an exasperated Trinamool Congress finally withdrew its MPs from both Houses. In West Bengal, Ms. Banerjee had already initiated a partial lockdown when the Central announcement came.

The issue of guest workers

Since the BJP government acted so late in the day, it was expected that a detailed blueprint was in place. The issue of guest workers, for example, was an obvious one. In fact, on March 26 itself, Ms. Banerjee wrote to counterparts in other States requesting that they take care of stranded guest workers from West Bengal and promised reciprocal treatment for workers living in the State. In the following days, West Bengal sent ₹1,000 to each of the 4,00,000 stranded workers across the country, without noise.

What did the Centre do? On guest workers, it remained in denial. It used the National Disaster Management Act of 2005 to override State governments but ignored key provisions of the National Disaster Management Plan. The Plan clearly emphasises the critical importance of social inclusion during a disaster, to ensure the well-being of vulnerable groups such as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the differently abled, the elderly, women and children, and of course migrant workers (many of whom are covered by the other categories).

The Union Finance Ministry held three press conferences displaying insensitivity to human dignity. The Supreme Court has held that the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution is not merely a physical right; it includes the right to live with human dignity. The treatment extended to many underprivileged citizens, especially guest workers, was in complete violation of human dignity. The Central government told the Supreme Court that there were no guest workers on the roads and highways. This was at the very time that social media (and only one or two brave television channels) were full of visuals of workers trudging miles and miles. Guidelines for inter-State travel of guest workers were issued almost a month into the lockdown. It was all very callous.

We all know of the tragic Aurangabad incident that saw a goods train mow down 16 migrant workers. They, like millions of others on highways, were walking to their villages and collapsed in exhaustion on the railway tracks — too exhausted to hear the train coming. The Prime Minister, the Home Minister and the Railways Minister have been all but absent during this monumental crisis during which millions of poor guest workers have been abandoned. All this while the Minister was presiding over the Indian Railways with its daily ferrying capacity of 23 million people.

On May 1, the migrant worker trains began with much fanfare. Here too the Centre showed a cold heart. It sought to charge migrant workers, passing on the responsibility of collecting the fares to State governments. The State governments showed greater responsibility. West Bengal paid to bring home those stranded in Kota, Vellore, Chennai, and other parts of India. We welcomed back 1,50,000 of our people and did so ungrudgingly. All along the Railway Ministry was quibbling and haggling over money, blaming the State governments and sanctimoniously declaring that matters should not be politicised. It was surreal.

One would have thought the Centre was short of funds and State governments were awash with money. That is far from true. The sudden lockdown didn’t give the States a chance to prepare, and their revenues collapsed. In addition, the Centre, which already owes the States money, has been unwilling to help. The Central government owes West Bengal ₹61,000 crore, ₹36,000 crore of which is backlog dues. There is no sign of any money coming; only empty press conferences. How are States expected to pay for the re-opening and repair of their devastated economies?

The examples I have cited have been focused: the Centre showed delay in waking up to the COVID-19 situation and preparing for it; remained oblivious to the suffering of migrant workers; valued money over lives; did not support the States for even basic and essential welfare programmes; and ignored the dignity of ordinary, decent, hard-working and troubled people. The Centre has also not procured equipment such as test kits and not allowed States to do so. It finally sent test kits that didn’t work and needed to be withdrawn; bullied States and mangled federalism; and introduced a contact-tracing app without explaining it, without wider consultation, and without an ordinance or enabling legal provision. On all of these the Central government has to provide answers and has to be held to account. After all, in a democracy, accountability cannot be placed under a lockdown.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament from Bengal
Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party Leader (Rajya Sabha) & Chief National Spokesperson

[This article appeared on The Hindu | Tuesday, May 19, 2020]

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