Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared on television yet again on Tuesday to tell Indians that they will need to stay at home until May 3. Extending the lockdown to restrict the spread of the coronavirus that began on March 25 with four-hours notice, Modi called Indians to be even more vigilant about staying indoors until April 20, after which areas that do not have cases may be allowed some leeway.
Over the last four weeks, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has appeared on television or on the radio several times to talk about the coronavirus crisis. Through most of these addresses, Modi has focused on telling Indians what they need to do – whether it is social distancing, banging pots and pans or lighting candles – rather than what the government is doing for them.
Tuesday’s speech was no different.
Modi began by acknowledging the hardships that Indians were facing because of the lockdown, including the people going without food, those distant from their families and those who are worried about their livelihoods.
His primary response to this situation was, “I bow my head to you.”
In his earlier addresses, Modi hardly had a world of explanation about specific plans to combat the pandemic. Mid-way through the lockdown, when it was clear that migrants were facing hardship and the poor were caught between police lathis and hunger, Modi appeared on TV, but only to askto Indians to turn their lights off and light candles in a coordinate show of solidarity.
This may have begun as a useful exercise to bring people together in a time of crisis. But when the symbolic actions turn out to be the only point of the message, and when candle-lighting and pots-and-pans banging get more advance notice than a national lockdown, it begins to seem almost like mockery.
Simply telling people that the government is doing its best is not good enough.
On Tuesday, Modi did make some references to the government’s actions these past few weeks. He claimed that India began its preparations before there was even one Covid-19 case in the country. Modi said it was not good to criticise other countries in a time of crisis, but also claimed that India was doing far better than many other developed nations.
Modi said that India has 1,00,000 beds and more than 600 hospitals to deal with Covid-19 patients. He insisted that the needy were getting relief from the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, a set of very limited measures announced two days into the lockdown. He called on authorities to allow harvesting season to proceed without a hitch.
But this was not nearly enough.
At the start of the crisis, it may have been understandable for the prime minister to focus on telling people what they need to be doing without giving them an account of what government was doing for them. But India’s first cases were reported way back in January, and the Centre had three whole weeks of lockdown to put in places measures to mitigate the massive pain caused by it as well as to ramp up its healthcare preparation.
The best way to reassure Indians would be to explain how the government has made use of the last three weeks of lockdown, a period during which Indians have endured indiscriminate state violence, tremendous economic distress, hunger and even scores of deaths.
Instead, Modi made some broad claims about government action and then moved on to giving his countrymen sevens instructions.
The prime minister did announce that his speech would be followed by guidelines on what would be permitted over the next weeks. Yet there is much more information that his government ought to provide to the people, if they are being asked to follow these rules and endure more distress through the rest of April.
Modi should ensure that those guidelines also come with his government answering the following questions:
- Can migrants who are stuck, either in their host states or shelters around the country, go home?
- If not, what is the plan to supply them with food and essentials?
- What are they to do if shelters are unhygienic or inhospitable?
- Will the Centre tell the police not to indiscriminately use violence?
- Will states universalise food rations, so that it doesn’t matter which state the needy are from?
- Will the Centre release excess food stocks lying in godowns?
- Will the Centre re-pay the states the tens of thousands of crores it already owes them?
- Will the Centre give block grants to states, since they are at the frontlines of this crisis?
- Will the Centre make it easy for states to borrow?
- What has the government done to strengthen healthcare capacity?
- What is the current stock of Personal Protective Equipment needed by healthcare workers and what has the government done to increase the supply?
- What is the current stock of testing kits, both RT-PCR and antibody, and what has the government done to procure and make more?
- What is the current stock of ventilators and equipment for oxygen supply in Intensive Care Units and what has the government done to increase capacity?
- How has the government planned to address firms that are running out of cash or laying off workers?
- Will the government announce a stimulus package for industry?
- Is the government planning an income support scheme?
- Will cash transfers be increased beyond the amounts already mentioned?
- Has the government worked with industry to plan for social distancing whenever the economy comes back online?