The staff of INHS Asvini hospital are showered with flower petals by an Indian Navy helicopter as part of an event to show gratitude towards the frontline staff fighting the coronavirus disease in Mumbai on March 3. — Reuters

Smoke, mirrors and Modi: A grand illusion of governance during Covid-19

Grand political statements may normally attract voters but in a crisis, they are poor substitutes for governance.
Published May 11, 2020

It is now 41 days since the Modi government told the Supreme Court that there were no migrant workers on the road any more. "They have been taken to the nearest available shelter", and 2.3 million were being fed, India’s Solicitor General told the judges, who — in a now familiar routine — took the government at its word.

It is evident that statement was anything but the truth.

In the absence of jobs, food and transport services, thousands of stoic and weary migrant workers, who once powered India’s economy, continue epic journeys home on cycle or on foot, over hundreds, even 1,000, kilometres. Parents carry children, drag luggage or balance bundles on their heads. The sick and the injured hobble along for as long as they can. Some drop dead of exhaustion or illness, either on the way or, tragically, after reaching home. One group was mowed down while sleeping on rail tracks they thought was empty of trains.

India’s 53-day lockdown, extended in varying measures, was among the world’s toughest, but while it may have slowed the count of known Covid-19 cases, it hasn’t flattened the curve, contrary to government claims, one of which said there would be no new cases by May 16. "What we are seeing is that the cases are increasing at a linear pace," the director of India’s premier medical institution, Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Randeep Guleria told Mint this week. "The major problem right now is we are not seeing a declining trend [as in Italy or China]."

Style over substance

Indians may have lit candles, banged thalis and watched awe-struck as jets streaked overhead, bands played and naval ships lit up in tribute to those on the frontlines, but it was hard to find the substance behind the style. The feel-good, choreographed events around the coronavirus increasingly appear to be a cover for poor planning, apathy and an opportunistic exacerbation of Islamophobia and reduction of civil liberties.

A virus may not provide advance notice before striking. In this case, India did get early warning but did not do enough. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was being sparse with the truth on April 14, when he said India started checking passengers for the virus before its first known case on January 21. By that day, as reported, only three airports had begun screening passengers (four more started on that day), and then only travellers from Hong Kong and China, although 20 countries had reported infections.

Mumbai residents clap and bang utensils from their balconies on March 22 to cheer for emergency personnel and sanitation workers who are on the frontlines in the fight against coronavirus. — Reuters
Mumbai residents clap and bang utensils from their balconies on March 22 to cheer for emergency personnel and sanitation workers who are on the frontlines in the fight against coronavirus. — Reuters

Despite warnings from its top medical research body that a lockdown alone would, at best, reduce peak infections on a given day by 40%, Modi’s government ignored for a month — as journalists Nitin Sethi and Kumar Sambhav Srivastava reported (here and here) for — advice from the Indian Council of Medical Research to urgently launch other interventions. These included door-to-door supplies of food and other essentials to the poor; district-wise infection monitoring; "fast reporting" to identify and quarantine infective clusters; mass quarantines for those in densely populated areas; and a rapid increase in hospital beds and intensive-care unit.

"This discussion has gone on for too long and no action has been taken," Naveet Wig, member of the prime minister's Covid-10 task force and the head of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences' department of medicine said in leaked proceedings of an internal meeting on March 29. "No. No. We will have to tell the truth."

Experts ignored

But the truth was never made public, and the 21-members of the task force were once again ignored when the government extended the lockdown on May 1, reported Vidya Krishnan for the Caravan. "Three months into the pandemic, as India struggles to contain growing cases, the sidelining of expert advice has become a trademark of the Modi administration’s response to the novel coronavirus," wrote Krishnan.

It is apparent that Modi’s government discarded any suggestion of meticulous planning and execution, settling on a scrambled, knee-jerk response that caused economic and social chaos. To understand what good planning, communication and execution can achieve, Modi needs look no further than Kerala, which reported the highest number of cases when the pandemic began. It has now destroyed the curve, with only four dead, a mortality rate of 0.79%, compared to India’s 3.4%: up to 93% of Kerala’s Covid-19 patients have recovered, compared to India’s 23%.

Instead, India currently struggles to comprehend a flurry of, often contradictory, orders and directives from Delhi, the confusion increasingly evident, as India tries to balance the imperatives of reviving a declining economy and holding down infection and death. The government's current struggle to achieve that balance is a consequence of previous blunders, which began with a four-hour notice for a national lockdown, stranding migrant workers nationwide without jobs, money and eventually food. Despite claims made to the Supreme Court that a couple of million workers were being cared for, Modi outsourced moral responsibility, asking India's people to "look after" those in need.

Narendra Modi lights a lamp on April 5. — @PMOIndia via Twitter
Narendra Modi lights a lamp on April 5. — @PMOIndia via Twitter

40 days of inaction

No trains or buses were organised for workers who wanted to return home but either could not or were not allowed to. The first trains started running after 40 days of pointless inaction, during which time workers in crowded accommodation risked infection, which they might carry to relatively unscathed rural India — up to 80% of positive cases are from urban areas. In Karnataka, the Bharatiya Janata Party government cancelled the trains, after real-estate companies complained there would be no workers, just when construction was about to restart. After a storm of criticism, the decision was rescinded. In some cities, bitter workers said they would not return after being spurned in their time of need. As I write this, migrant-worker unrest is rife nationwide.

Companies hoping to restart must struggle against a tide of arbitrariness that passes for governance. Many district collectors and police officials operate like local satraps, interpreting the rush of government notifications as they will. "Covid-19 notifications," writes Rahul Jacob, "have rained down like an unseasonal monsoon downpour." He points to 600 from Delhi and 3,500 from the states, quoting the think tank PRS Legislative Research.

Many companies, including those run by the government, say they cannot or will not obey government orders to pay workers during the lockdown. Unemployment has risen to record levels. Modi has urged employers "to be kind", but his government has done nothing — as many countries have — to reimburse or in some way assist companies in keeping employees paid, even if partially. Nothing has been heard from a special economic task force since Modi announced it on March 19. There was silence, too, on an economic stimulus package, except from the government’s chief economic advisor who said this week that "there is no free lunch".

Meanwhile, Modi’s government is pushing ahead with a grandiose INR20,000 crore project to build a new parliament building and redesign New Delhi’s Central Vista (instead, the Rajya Sabha announced spending cuts — of INR80 crore). In easier times, emotion and grand political statements may distract voters and pay handsome electoral dividends. In a crisis, they are noticeably poor substitutes for governance, subject as they are to diminishing returns and administrative anarchy.

This article originally appeared on and has been reproduced with permission.