India: society, politics and the pandemic

Sergio Sister, 1970, hydrographic, greasy crayon on paper, 42 x 35 cm
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By SHALINI RANDERIA*

In India, the debate is between life or survival. Many poor people have said in interviews that they would rather starve to death from the virus.

1.

In India, the numbers regarding the coronavirus pandemic are problematic. There are two main problems with such surveys. First, the numbers only reflect the breadth of testing – the more you test, the higher the number of cases.

In India, it was decided to follow the same strategy that was adopted by most rich countries in the West: a lockdown rigorous rather than universal testing. It is a lockdown which was enacted without any preparation or prior notice on the part of the government. To this is added a problem that has nothing to do with Covid-19. It is necessary to ask how reliable the data are in general in the Indian context, especially those related to public health, which are admittedly difficult to collect, especially with regard to the cause of death.

In India, determining the cause of death is not a priority. When an older person dies, doctors write down "heart failure." While drawing up a death certificate with the cause of death is a requirement before cremation, in practice this is generally not done, especially in the countryside, where well over half of the Indian population lives.

The poor population is undernourished, their immune systems are weakened, and sanitation and hygiene facilities in informal urban settlements (favelas) are a problem. All this makes this population more vulnerable. One lockdown jeopardizes their very livelihood. Many are day laborers, who do not have any savings or social protection services, as they work in the informal sector. In case they are unable to work, they are less threatened by the coronavirus than by hunger. Perhaps in the case of Covid-19 the rich are more at risk. A history of diabetes, high blood pressure or heart problems makes someone a risk patient – ​​and in India these are rather diseases of the rich and middle class.

As far as detecting coronavirus cases is concerned, there is an additional difficulty: many poor people do not die in the hospital, but at home. Health statistics only account for cases of death that are communicated to the authorities. Even in Italy there were problems in defining the causes of death. The differentiation between those who die by Covid-19 and those who die com Covid-19 but due to another cause of death may partly explain the variation in statistics across European countries. The upward correction by 50% of the Chinese death rates in Wuhan caused an uproar. The following week, it was the turn of the British to correct their numbers. Everywhere one must be careful with statistics.

2.

It is interesting to note that, in India, the scale of the pandemic and the flattening of the curve occur quite differently from state to state.

Kerala state, which is in the south of the country, managed to compress the curve more quickly than other parts of India – and this despite the fact that this state had, at the beginning, the highest infection rates, which has the to do with the fact that Kerala has a large presence of foreigners.

Apparently, in Kerala, the death rate from Covid-19 is lower than in some European countries. Kerala has a remarkable public health system, with far more beds per capita and more medical personnel than anywhere else in the country. The transport infrastructure is also excellent, so that it is possible to reach a hospital in a short time. An additional factor is the literacy rate, which stands at 94%, the highest in India. Furthermore, the head of the state government, who belongs to the Communist Party, reacted very quickly: as soon as the WHO issued the alert in January, he decreed lockdown in the state and determined extensive testing of the population, long before the central government acted.

The Kerala government spends 60% of the state budget on public health and education. Daily press conferences have been held, in which the head of the state government and the health secretary clarify the measures that are being taken – quite different from Prime Minister Modi, who hardly speaks to the press. The population of Kerala is quite politicized. When the government and public administration do not live up to their expectations, the very next day there are protests and actions to pressure them in the media and public space. By virtue of their enduring popularity, communists managed for decades to disseminate rational discourses among the population and, along with this, a significant reliance on the natural sciences. It was in this context that the People Science Movement[I].

In times of a Covid pandemic, it makes a difference if you have a literate population, which cultivates a discourse based on science, in addition to doctors and politicians who know they are accountable in elections.

3.

In urban areas, the lockdown slowed the spread of the virus. The middle class is happy with this government measure, which affects them less as they are able to maintain the necessary physical distance.

A typical favela resident, on the other hand, lives in a house where three generations live, with six people or more in one room. In this situation, it makes no sense to talk about distancing or frequent hand washing. 160 million Indian men and women – that's more than the population of Russia – do not have access to safe drinking water. Many do not even have running water, do not have money to buy soap and do not have a bathroom in their homes. Still, in some places people have been able to produce unexpected forms of solidarity that protect them from the pandemic.

In the slums of Calcutta, for example, a scheme has been organized to provide water for bathing and washing clothes for those who need to leave the neighborhood under pressure to work. It was also ensured that everyone had access to masks and medical assistance.

However, for the poor, the lockdown it's a catastrophe. Carrying the brunt of the burden are workers in the informal sector, who are now out of work and have no savings. 80% of India's workforce works in the informal sector, a trend that only grows with neoliberalization, which leads to greater informalization of work. Suddenly, people find themselves without work, receiving no income either from the state or their employer and, as already mentioned, they have no savings.

Because of Covid-19, for the first time the middle and upper strata of India are realizing that it is migrant workers who keep their cities running. The man who watches over the entrances to the gated community, who drives his car, the woman who takes care of the children and does the cleaning and cooking in their homes: they all come from outside the big cities. The country's entire construction industry relies on migrant workers. No modern building, bridge or street can be built without them. It is astonishing that these workers in the informal sector are as present in the eyes of politicians and bureaucrats as they are in public life: as invisible people. One of the reasons is the fact that, as migrants in their own country, they resemble foreigners, having neither voice nor political weight. As internal migrants, they must exercise their right to vote in the villages where they were born. Its economic contribution is practically not accounted for in GDP, because it is said that there are no reliable data – and with that we return to the question of numbers. Migrant workers work in all services, from urban waste collection to five-star hotels in large cities.

In short: without them, both the urban economy and the informal sector and the comfortable lifestyle of the middle strata would collapse. On the one hand, they cannot stay in the cities, as they are being driven out by the rich, on whom they are usually dependent. Even before the government decreed the lockdown, civilian militias were formed in more affluent neighborhoods to prevent domestic workers from accessing these areas.

On the other hand, for fear of the virus, migrant workers, who start to walk home and sometimes take their children with them, are often not allowed to enter their villages – when they manage to reach them. It should not be forgotten that in India “going home” can mean traveling 300, or even 1.000 kilometers or more.

4.

If these people are considered to be potential transmitters of the disease, then they should remain in the cities where they work. The schools were closed, so that it would be possible to accommodate them and provide them with what they needed.

A Food Corporation of India, the central government-owned organization that buys and stores food from farmers, currently has 77 million tons of grain! Even if in the last two months five kilograms of grain per person from each household had been allocated (which is the amount defined by the food subsidy program), less than a fifth of the stocks would have been consumed.

It makes no sense to keep stocking these grains, especially considering that a significant part is perishable. Soon we will have the summer harvest, and space will be needed to store it.

The central government has now announced that it intends to use part of the rice stock for the production of ethanol, that is, to make products for disinfection. But there was no distribution of the stock among the poor. Instead, under strong pressure from public opinion, cash transfers for part of the workers who were forced to leave the cities. Those cash transfers they had originally been instituted for rural workers, who, in turn, did not receive this assistance over several years.

As there are not enough tests, it is not known how many migrant workers have been infected with the coronavirus. At the moment, there is only a hermeneutics of suspicion. Everyone is suspicious of everyone else, each considers the other contagious. And it must not be forgotten that, in India, Covid finds the bodies of inhabitants of a country where tuberculosis is endemic. India has the highest tuberculosis rate in the world, a cough there is not primarily associated with Covid.

Further ahead, this year, the flu wave will still come. In July and August the rains begin and it will be the turn of malaria. Thus, there is a set of seasonal infections, which are endemic due to poor hygiene and lack of sanitary facilities. The country's poor will suffer, but we don't know if they will especially suffer because of the Covid pandemic. In the West, the debate is whether to save lives with a lockdown or save the economy. In India, the debate is between life or survival. Many poor people have said in interviews that they would rather starve to death from the virus.

India has the opposite demography to Lombardy. Only 6,5 percent of the Indian population are aged 65 and over, but 45 percent are under the age of 25. And it is worth remembering that India has only 40.000 respirators! Many older people in India do not live alone or in nursing homes (where Covid-19 has killed so many people in the UK or Sweden), but with their families, where the generation gap is more difficult than in Europe. . But, ironically, this very thing can be your salvation.

5.

The governing party, the BJP[ii], by Narendra Modi, has been setting in motion an aggressive policy of Hindu religious nationalism, in a style that we could call “Make India Great Again”. However, Modi is not an Indian Trump. He is much more insightful than Trump. Of course, there are parallels, for example in the cult of the strong male figure.

The BJP has become Modi's party, just as the Republican Party has become Trump's party, even if not everyone agrees with Trump. Moreover, in both countries, liberal principles have been undermined from within. Both similarly practice a politics of resentment and polarization. But more interesting are their differences.

Modi is an extremely smarter communicator on social media. But Modi does not publicly spread nonsense. Unlike Trump, he would never claim that you can deal with Covid-19 with a spray of some disinfectant. Modi knows how to sell his politics much better. And he has a party machine that takes care of social media, while Trump seems to tweet on his own.

From one angle, Trump is a very Indian figure, while Modi is definitely not. Trump distributes power and privileges among members of his family – for his son-in-law, for his daughter. This is reminiscent of the Indian arrangement of the division of power into dynasties and families. Modi, by contrast, has no interest in family politics. to the Trump. For a start, he has no children, and his wife, from whom he has been separated for years, plays no public role. For the rest, Trump has no political vision beyond staying in power and accumulating as much money as possible for himself and his family. Modi, for his part, has a clear political vision: it is about transforming India into a Hindu state.

This is the vision that moves him and that he seeks to implement in the long term. It is true that part of the Republican Party, which is now aligned with Trump, defends a neoconservative position: general privatization and the elimination of regulations. Trump is executing, for this portion, what it has so far not been able to accomplish on its own. But it's hard to say what he actually believes, despite the constant tweets. Modi, by contrast, generally remains silent on major developments in the country.

6.

the so called Citizenship Amendment Act[iii] it is a refined law. At first glance, it grants refugee status to persecuted minorities from neighboring countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Sounds great, after all who could be against granting asylum, for example, to the Hindu minority who suffer under the Taliban?

However, it is interesting to note which countries are excluded: for example, Myanmar, since, if it applied to that country, the law would also have granted the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim group, the right to asylum and later to Indian citizenship. Thus, the right to Indian citizenship is defined based on religion: among groups from neighboring countries that suffer persecution, the law is intended to benefit Hindus, but not Muslims. It is a violation of the Indian Constitution, which does not discriminate against the granting of the right to citizenship on the basis of race, religion or caste, establishing that India is a secular republic.

O National Register of Citizens[iv] intends to register all male and female citizens in India. For this purpose, people are required to prove, based on documents, their place of residence and birth, as well as that of their parents. And also that they can prove that they settled in India before a certain date. Even I couldn't do that! I even have my parents' passports, who are now deceased, but not their birth certificates.

There are millions of Indians, even in the middle class, who do not have a birth certificate. They make do with school leaving certificates that act as proof of age. How could day laborers and migrants, who sleep in warehouses, under counters in shops or on construction sites, be able to have such documents at their disposal? The problem lies in the connection between the two laws: poor Hindus, who do not have any documents, can always benefit from the law that establishes the right to citizenship.

As for Muslims, who are mostly part of the poorest sections of the population in India, there is no way they can do it! As a result, millions of undocumented Muslims are suspected of being illegal immigrants. They are threatened with the loss of their rights or even deportation, even if they were born in India or their families have lived in the country for several generations.

7.

Apparently, the new law is meant to be an invitation for Hindu minorities from neighboring Muslim countries to settle in India. The impact wouldn't be that big, it's not about tens of millions of people who would like to immigrate to India. What is decisive is the symbolic gesture: the exclusion of Muslims for religious reasons because of an ethnonationalist vision of a Hindu-majority nation in which minorities do not have the same rights.

This view is not new, it has been around since the 1920's. It is the antithesis of the view of the founding figures of the Indian nation in the wake of independence from British colonial domination.

Ghandi and Nehru conceived of India as a multi-religious and multi-ethnic society. Indeed, the Hindu nationalist vision of the BJP formed parallel to the independence movement led by Gandhi and Nehru. Whereas Gandhi and Nehru's struggle was anti-colonial and anti-British, Hindu nationalists were pro-British and anti-Muslim. None of its members went to jail because they were not part of the independence movement. On the contrary, they sympathized with the British, whose politics fueled the polarization between Hindus and Muslims.

It was a Hindu extremist who assassinated Gandhi. He belonged to the RSS[v], a paramilitary, hierarchical organization of Hindu nationalists. One must not forget what the model of the RSS was: the National Socialists. Both its ideology and its organizational format are directly tributary of Nazi handbooks.

The ethnonationalist vision of the RSS is close to that of other nationalist movements of the first half of the twentieth century. It is the conviction that the nation belongs, in cultural and religious terms, to the majority group in society. In a sense, we have here a mirror of Pakistan's self-understanding as a Muslim nation.

Gandhi reflected a lot on violence and non-violence. For him, violence included verbal violence or the hateful thoughts themselves. And he connected violence with aggressive masculinity. So he began experimenting with political resistance tactics that were traditionally used by women in the domestic arena, such as the hunger strike. It aimed at a non-violent but by no means passive movement against British domination. For him, it was about moving away from violence.

This attitude was informed by an extremely interesting conception: violence is something that not only harms the victims, but also indelibly marks its perpetrators. It was about, in that respect, being morally superior to the British.

Gandhi believed that it should be clear that the violence of the British against the Indian people was something that did not do them any good.

8.

The BJP is not a fascist party. It is a meeting of all possible types. What unites them is the vision of an exclusionary nationalism, in which the majority, that is, Hindus, should have more rights than minorities.

It is interesting to note, however, that Hindus are not a homogeneous group. They find themselves divided by castes, languages, and even religions. Take my two grandmothers as examples. They didn't share the same sacred text and there wasn't even a deity in common that both worshiped! They did not attend the same temple. What united them was the fact that they were both vegetarians.

Hinduism has no rituals, dogmas or unified texts and, unlike monotheistic religions, it has no institutionalization. So the RSS and the BJP need to produce a unified Hindu community in order to speak on their behalf.

Ironically, Hindu nationalism does something that is essentially foreign to Hinduism, insofar as it is an ideology that is oriented towards monotheistic religions and the Western model of the national state. In the end, it is the Westfallian model, which does not aspire to a multi-religious state, but to a state whose foundations are a monolithic religion, a single ethnic origin and a language that is spoken by the entire nation – the national language.

And that's exactly what the BJP wants for India: a Hindu-dominant culture.

The irony of this story is that the adoption of these Western models must establish a homogeneous and supposedly authentic cultural identity in a country that is extremely heterogeneous and that until today has never known such unity. Because of this, the party has been very successful in recent years.

In the 1920s and 1930s, as well as in the period after 1947, the year of Indian independence, Hindu nationalists were not very popular. The party that preceded the BJP[vi] has not won an election in decades. This only started to change in the 1980s. In the meantime, they managed to unite a good part of Hindu politicians in the party while simultaneously being able to polarize society on the basis of religious affiliation.

Hindu nationalists created boundaries within Indian society that had not existed for centuries. Now, in the coronavirus crisis, Muslims have been blamed for even the spread of the virus. The smear campaign in much of the media and on social media, in which there is talk of a “Corona Jihad”, has intensified religious polarization. Many Muslims feel threatened by the possible effects of the naturalization law and the challenge to their civil rights, which I spoke about above. In any case, we have to wait for the implementation of the law.

In India, laws are often selectively and arbitrarily enforced.

9.

The balance of transformations in India in recent decades is not unambiguous.

Until recently, significant economic growth, around 7% to 8% per year, alleviated the poverty of millions of people and gave them hope for a better life. However, the price of this growth was high: massive extraction of raw materials, which devastated entire regions, water and air pollution or the forced displacement of millions of people, just to name a few of the consequences, which affect the poorest in particular, destroying the basis of their living conditions. Added to this is the fact that the capital generated is not invested in education or public health, so that India's HDI remains as bad as ever.

I can give an example from my current research.

My team and I are taking care of the District Mineral Foundation (DMF), a network of funds created in 2015 whose money is to be applied to communities affected by mining in all areas where miners are working. An excellent idea! However, in many cases, the money from these funds managed by the government is not used as intended, that is, to correct environmental damage or create alternative forms of income.

We estimate that between 3,5 and 4 billion euros are sitting in the accounts of these funds. Entrepreneurs deposited the money, but the State did not use it. The money was not embezzled, it was simply not spent! How is this possible?

I also lead a research project within the Swiss National Science Foundation on the conundrum of unspent resources. We found that this problem is not unique to DMF funds, but apparently extends to state-run social assistance funds that target poor workers in the informal sector, including both mine and salt workers. There are all sorts of obstacles to preventing these resources tied to specific purposes from being spent. Sometimes there are bureaucratic problems, such as: “Ah, but they are migrants, they come and go from cities to their villages, so it is very difficult to locate them”.

After researching India for decades, I discovered that often the problem is not a lack of money, but money that is not spent! To date, not even a quarter of the sum available has been disbursed. This directly affects the fate of the people I write about in this text: migrant workers, who, as a result of lockdown, try to return to their homes on foot and without money in their pockets. In response to demands from NGOs we work with, which have intensified in recent weeks, the New Delhi government has mandated that a portion of the money be immediately distributed to mining workers in the form of cash transfers and that part of the money from the DMF be allocated to medical assistance in the mining regions affected by Covid. We have to wait to see how much of this accumulated money will be used and for what purposes.

* Shalini Randeria is director of Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (Austria) and professor at Institut de Hautes Études Internationales et du Développement (Switzerland).

Translation: Ricardo Pagliuso Regatieri

* At the request of the translator, Shalini Randeria prepared this article especially for the earth is round, based on an interview published in the Swiss weekly The magazine, No. 19, of May 09, 2020.

Translator's notes


[I] This is the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, or Kerala Movement for Scientific Literature, a left-wing organization founded in 1962 with the aim of disseminating scientific knowledge among the population.

[ii] Bharatiya Janata, or Indian People's Party.

[iii] Act passed by the Indian parliament in December 2019.

[iv] Identification system for Indian citizens created in 2003, implemented in the state of Assam in 2013–2014 and expected to be extended to the whole country in 2021.

[v] Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteer Organization.

[vi] BJP was founded in 1980 and stems from Bharatiya Jana Sangh, formed in 1951.

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