Despotic India

On March 24, when Modi ordered a complete lockdown of India’s population of 1.3 billion (“there will be a total ban on venturing out of your homes”), the country had 536 reported coronavirus cases and 10 deaths.

As of Sunday, with Modi having decided to extend the lockdown indefinitely, India had 9,204 total cases and 331 deaths.

India’s death rate in 2018 was 7.3/1000, meaning 9.9 million people died that year, or roughly 27,000 people per day.

Thus, the pandemic so far has (officially) killed about 1% of the number of people who die every day in India. Somehow, I find it hard to believe that this warrants the chaos that has been visited upon the population:

Mr. Modi announced the lockdown, which includes a ban on interstate travel, with just four hours’ notice on Tuesday, leaving the enormous migrant population stranded in big cities. Jobs lure at least 45 million people to cities from the countryside every year, according to government estimates.

Many of those migrants are fed and housed at the shops and construction sites where they work, and as businesses closed, hundreds of thousands — if not millions — were suddenly without their homes and a regular source of food. […]

Soup kitchens across Delhi are unable to cope with the demand, which aid workers estimate has tripled. Fights have been breaking out. The government has given the police no explicit policy for dealing with stranded migrants, and many officers have lashed out.

“In the absence of a clear policy, the migrants have been left to the whims of police. And there are instances where the police treat them inhumanely,” said Ashwin Parulkar, a senior researcher for the Center for Policy Research in Delhi who studies India’s homeless population.

Usually, the homeless are fed by India’s array of religious institutions: Hindu temples, Sikh gurdwaras and mosques. But now, everything is closed, and shelters are feeling the strain. […]

Mr. Kumar said most homeless people he encountered had known nothing about the coronavirus, and had awakened one day to find the police shooing them off the streets, ordering them to practice social distancing — a new catchword in India, as in most of the world.

“But where do the homeless go?” he asked.

The country’s entire train system has been shut down:

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 25, Indian Railways took the unprecedented move of suspending passenger trains across the country until April 14.

It was the first time in 167 years that Asia’s oldest rail network had been suspended.

Now the railway network has decided to convert as many as 20,000 old train carriages into isolation wards for patients as the virus spreads. […]

Normally, Indian Railways runs more than 20,000 passenger trains a day, on long-distance and suburban routes, from 7,349 stations across India.

The lockdown has put nearly 67,368 kilometers of track out of use — enough to circle the equator 1.5 times — and left thousands of passenger trains sitting idle. Freight trains, or goods trains as they are called in India, remain operational.

The global mass hysteria has triggered a panicked response from India’s politicians:

Just across the river from me in the hamlet of Penha de França, the Harvard Medical School professor Vikram Patel was caught up in the melee. Along with his neighbours, he was assaulted by the police while queueing to buy provisions. He spoke of “the constantly changing announcements on social restrictions, the abandonment of government responsibility to secure supply chains, the threatening of desperate people with military-style responses, and the crushing of small businesses which define rural life in Goa”. These were the decisions of panicked politicians. Planned and phased reactions, he told me, would have been much less disruptive and damaging.

The tumult in Goa was only a microcosm of the rest of the country. Just over 4,900 Covid-19 infections (and 137 deaths) have been registered since India’s first case on 30 January, but numbers pale in comparison to tuberculosis, which has killed hundreds of thousands of Indians every year for decades, without triggering any draconian curfews. Patel pointed out that this astonishing death toll had never occasioned any panic. In his view, the abrupt actions in this case “suggests that those advising our government have omitted the first lesson of public health, which is that context matters”.

Those singular circumstances look increasingly daunting, with no obvious solutions in sight. The majority of India’s workers, 85%, are in the informal economy. Their livelihoods have been ruinously disrupted, and prospects look increasingly bleak in the global recession the IMF has already called “a crisis like no other”.

To quote Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, it appears that Modi has rediscovered the 20th century’s “most radical vice: social engineering – the notion that human beings can be shoveled around like concrete.”

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