Over the next two weeks, India is about to emerge from one of the world’s harshest lockdowns to combat Covid-19 in a major way. The Union government this week announced that a third of all scheduled flights can begin operations starting May 25, even as Indian Railways will begin operating 200 train services from June 1.
In other words, the government is now ending its attempts at containing the spread of the disease by limiting the number of people who were allowed to travel through the country – which led to a humanitarian disaster for migrant workers left without wages or a way to get home.
On Thursday, Union Minister for Civil Aviation Hardeep Puri said that the government would have to be pragmatic. Even though most of India’s air traffic takes place between its big cities, like Delhi and Mumbai, which are Covid-19 red zones, Puri said that that flights would still be permitted between these areas.
“To have contact only between green zones is not feasible,” Puri said. He added that the middle seat on aircraft would not be kept empty – because it would not be sufficient to maintain a six-foot distance between passengers.
Puri also said that even if passengers are coming from a red zone, quarantine would not be mandated.
“I don’t know why we’re making such a fuss over this quarantine issue. This is domestic travel,” he said. “Positive cases will not be boarding the transport means at the point of embarkation. Even then if there are asymptomatic cases... we’ll deal with it... If there are one or two cases, we can’t stop the whole operation.”
The minister went on to say, “Someone asked me if I go to Kerala, then I’ll have to do 14 days there, then come back here, and do 14 days again, that’s not practical.”
That said, individual states would be free to apply their own protocols. Already, Assam has announced that it would be quarantining all incoming travelers, whether they arrive by road, rail or air.
Some of these rules do make sense, such as allowing states to decide how to deal with travelers instead of attempting to micromanage things from New Delhi.
Some rules are more debatable: just because leaving the middle seat empty would not ensure a six-foot distance between passengers, should the ministry dismiss the idea altogether? Should so much emphasis be put on Aarogya Setu, the government’s contact tracing app that is nearly mandatory for flying, despite questions about privacy and efficacy?
Yet unusually, in terms of government communications, particularly about travel, over the last two months, the ministry has clearly spelled out its position and said that it is open to questions and suggestions.
Puri admitted that he was making a pragmatic decision, mentioning that if he only listened to the health ministry, flights would not operate until much later. Beyond a point, he said, difficult decisions had to be made. He accepted that not everyone would be happy about the situation and that the ministry would use the experience to decide how to go forward.
Where was this pragmatism, this openness, this tilt in favour of the travelers’ needs over public health concerns, this willingness to learn, when it came to the migrant workers who have been wanting to travel home from the cities in which they were stranded ever since the lockdown was implemented on March 25? With the jobs on which they depended for the daily wages drying up, they had no way to put food on the table and pay their rents. The food programmes that the government promised have not worked efficiently.
Even when, after weeks, the Centre relented to their demands and started special trains allowing the migrants to return home, it created a process that punished them – forcing individuals to register on websites that didn’t work, apply to police stations for travel passes, get medical certificates and still often be left in the dark about whether they would be permitted to go home. These difficulties have led many to give money to agents and touts, only to be swindled.
Of course, the Covid-19 crisis presents no simple choices. It can be no one’s case that decision-makers in government have it easy. But, as we have argued before, the best way for the government to deal with this is by being transparent about how decisions were made, open to feedback about how policies have played out and most importantly, be empathetic towards the concerns of those who are impacted by policymaking.
From the very start of the Covid-19 crisis, it has been clear that the government of India’s policies have lacked compassion and transparency. But this spirit of empathy and pragmatism isn’t entirely missing – it seems to only be reserved for the well-off. The poor have been treated as mere economic resources, rather than citizens who can be allowed to make their own decisions.