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Why peace in Afghanistan is elusive?

Amjed Jaaved

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Afghanistan is commonly known as graveyard of empires. Several rulers tried to overpower it. , but in vain. They had to bite the dust. Genghis Khan lost a son during siege of Bamian. Alexander the Great had to beat hasty retreat. In the nineteenth century `Great’ Britain, at acme of the imperial power, invaded Afghanistan. It was humbled, marking beginning of the British Empire. They never again attacked Afghanistan taking refuge under their strategy of `Masterly Inactivity’.

Erstwhile Soviet Union rushed its troops to Afghanistan in aid of tottering Afghan government. In retaliation, the USA and its allies cobbled up Afghan resistance, mujahideen, to fight the Soviet forces. The Soviet Union had its nosed bloodied on Afghan soil. It retreated. Meanwhile, several component countries under Soviet umbrella rebelled. The Soviet Union broke into congeries of several independent republics, confining the Union to Russia.  A Taliban government emerged at the helm after Soviet departure. 

The sole super power, the USA, attacked Afghanistan to oust the Taliban. The ostensible reason was that the Taliban had sheltered Osama bin Laden, mastermind of 9/11 attack on twin tower of the World Trade Centre at New York. The Taliban had no answer to incessant aerial bombing. Their government collapsed. For a while it looked as if the Afghan invincibility has been proved to be a myth. After decades of fighting, it dawned on the USA that the Afghan intervention was a misadventure.  The Afghan war was the costliest war in terms of dollars and human lives. The USA stopped responding to SOS signals from Afghan forces, under intermittent attacks by Taliban. They held several rounds of talks with Taliban to negotiate safe exit. Why peace in Afghanistan is elusive? Peace in Afghanistan will remain elusive unless complex ground realities are understood. Shortly after meeting Pakistan’s foreign minister, Afghan president dashed to New Delhi with a situation update.

Taliban now well understand the stalemate situation in Afghanistan. They understand frailties of the government forces and the `invading ‘Americans. American soldiers willy-nilly perform duties.  They understand Taliban’s view that they are fighting a holy war to flush out invaders. Afghan troops too are not motivated to fight their own Muslim brothers. President Trump fumed and fretted when an Afghan soldier shot dead a member of a US army training unit in the southern province of Uruapan. Taliban showed their muscle in a sudden attack on Ghazni, and occupied the city centre, 150km from Kabul. It took four days of intense fighting backed by a number of strikes by American war planes to push them back. The operating budget of the Afghan national security forces is to the tune of $ 6.5 billion, more than twice the entire federal expenditure of Afghanistan. Trump may stop funding if American advisers and soldiers continue to get killed in action.

Like American soldiers, Afghan trainees too realize it pays to connive at Taliban presence and let farmers grow poppy. Afghanistan has become a kleptocratic state where every government posting and promotion depends on power and patronage. India fears that if the USA strikes an accord with Taliban, Indians manning spy stations in Afghanistan will be left in the lurch. Besides, Islamic state may emerge another challenge. China too is fearful of rising IS influence in Afghanistan. China, quietly wants access to the rich mineral and oil resources in Afghanistan. China’s National Petroleum Company has won rights to explore and develop oilfields in Amu Dariya basin in Afghanistan, which has enormous oil reserves. India has completed a dam in Afghanistan and constructing 11others. It wants Americans not to leave Afghanistan until 1922. Afghanistan wants India to accelerate work on various India-supported infrastructure projects, including the Chabahar Port and supply of NATO force equipment particularly four helicopters immediately. Pakistan fears India is entrenching itself in Afghanistan to support the rebels in Baluchistan.

China also wants peace and stability in Afghanistan so that there are no unsettling repercussions among the Uyghur’s in Xinjiang province. Russia and Iran are supporting Taliban with a view to counteracting the common enemy, the Islamic State, which is seeking a foothold in Afghanistan. US wanted India to send more troops to prevent a Taliban takeover or a civil war. But, India was nonchalant. Bitter lesson it is the USA, not the Taliban who are weary of the unending fighting. A Taliban commander quipped, `you have the watches, and we have time’. American mothers are no longer fond of contributing body packs to a pointless war.

The USA knows without Pakistan’s whole-hearted assistance, there is no end to Afghan imbroglio. Many a time, India tried to fish in Afghan hot waters. It offered to mediate with the Taliban. But, the USA rejected Indian overtures. India’s hand could have flared up fighting instead of dousing it. Undeterred by USA’s cold shoulder, India is still trying to carve out a niche in Afghan solution. It has sunk billions of dollars in Afghan infrastructure and hydroelectric powers. It built Chahbahar port in Iran to bypass Pakistan transit. Like Pakistan India too had influencer over mujahideen, belonging to Northern Alliance, It trained Afghan Northern Alliance fighters. India’s ambassador Bharath Raj Muthu Kumar, with the consent of then foreign ministerJaswant Singh, coordinated military and medical assistance that India was secretly giving to Ahmad Shah Massoud and his forces in Afghanistan.

The support involved helicopters, ordnance, mortars, small armaments, refurbished Kalashnikovs seized in Kashmir, combat and winter clothes, packaged food, medicines, and funds. These supplies were delivered circuitously with the help of other countries (Aeini and Farkhor air bases in Tajikistan) or throughMasssoud’s brother in London, Wali MassoudIndia opened four consulates at Kandahar, Jalalabad, Heratand Mazar-e-Sharif, besides its embassy at Kabul. India is using these consulates to stoke up secessionist movements in Baluchistan and volatile tribal belt. Current situation (January 2020) Afghanistan’s `president’ Ashraf Ghani won the Afghanistan election. He secured slightly over 50 per cent of the vote. Thus he avoided the need for a run-off election. His rival, Dr Abdullah Abdullah doubts fairness of the election result. President Ghani is rueful at being marginalized in US –Taliban talks. He has demanded a lasting ceasefire as a prelude to the talks.

He has expressed muffled ennui, if not a threat, that without a ceasefire or something akin to it, the Afghan government will have difficulty endorsing a US-Taliban agreement. Ghani’s problem is that Afghan forces are no longer enthusiastic about fighting the Taliban. When Taliban kill about 20 to 40 Afghan troops each day, emitting SOS, the US air force no longer scrambles for their rescue. During 2020, The US air force As for Taliban, they regard Ghani as also his government puppets. Ghani is being supported by India who is rueful at Pakistan’s crucial role in asolution. The USA initially called for India’s role in a solution. But, it is now mum about it. It rather lauded Pakistan’s role in resumption of dialogue, intermittently truncated by hardline demands of the stakeholders. US Air Forces Central Command said in a January 2020 report the US has dropped 7,423 bombs on targets in Afghanistan in 2019as against 7,362in 2018. The figure represents a dramatic increase in bombings in Afghanistan in contrast to 2009 when 4,147 bombs were dropped under former President Barack Obama. Besides, more than 60 civilians were killed or wounded in a US drone attack targeting a top Taliban splinter-group commander in the western Afghanistan province of Herat in January 2020.

At long last, the Taliban have agreed to a ceasefire for about 10 days. During this period, attacks on major cities and highways would be scaled back. Taliban are yet to decide whether they would keep ceasefire while about 13,000 American forces and thousands more NATO troops leave Afghanistan. The US is optimistic that the ceasefire would help strike a deal. War costs The US spends about $4.9billion a year to support the 320,000 Afghan National Defence Security Forces. The US and other donors provide about 53 per cent of Afghanistan’s annual budget. If US hold back the money, there would be no pay for the Afghan armed forces. Besides, many of the schools and hospitals would have to be shut down. The USA needs some plausible justification, like maintaining a counter terrorism presence, to continue the aid after the war ends.

The toll of war: A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post (December 9, 2019) reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the Afghan war. They kept making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and concealed unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable. Since 2001, an estimated 157,000 people were killed in the war in Afghanistan. Afghan civilians 43,074, Afghan security forces 64,124,Humanitarian aid workers 424, Taliban fighters3, 814 and other insurgents, U.S.contractors67 Journalists and media workers 2,300,   U.S. military personnel l42, 100,   NATO and coalition troops 1,145.

Other revelations: The documents were generated by a federal project examining more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.  Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking. ”If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction.2, 400 lives lost,” Lute added, blaming the deaths of U.S. military personnel on bureaucratic breakdowns among Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department. “Who will say this was in vain? “Since 2001, over 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were wounded in action.

The U.S. government failed to curtail runaway corruption, build a competent Afghan army and police force, and reduce Afghanistan’s thriving opium trade. Since 2001, the Defense Department, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have spent between $934 billion and$978 billion, according to an inflation-adjusted estimate calculated by Neta Crawford, a political science professor and co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University. These figures do not include money spent by other agencies such as the CIA and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is responsible for medical care for wounded veterans. The documents also contradicted public statements from U.S. presidents, military commanders and diplomats who assured Americans year after year that they were making progress in Afghanistan and the war was worthwhile.  Military headquarters in Kabul as also the White House distorted statistics to portray the USA as a winner. 

Afghan government’s connivance at poppy cultivation International media has begun to question what would be the legacy of allied intervention against Afghanistan. Despite spending over US $ 9billion during past 18 years, poppy cultivation is rising. One may have reservations about Taliban’s monopoly of right to issue fatawa (religious edicts). But, there is a silver lining to the edicts. Mullah Mohammad Omar (1996-2001) outlawed poppy cultivation (in 1990s).He declared poppy cultivation to be haram, prohibited, under Islam. Subsequent Afghan governments made it permissible, halal, by collecting ushr (ten per cent deduction on poppy income). Government functionaries strike marriage of convenience with farmers to encourage poppy cultivation in vast swathes of land. According to a 2009 UNODC report on opium production, ushr generates around US$ 22 to 44 million a year.

The pictures of foreign soldiers posing in poppy fields confirm the allegation that the intervening force also is a shareholder in the booty. The US military is paying off the Taliban with bags of gold to prevent them from attacking vehicle convoys, proving that there is no real “war” in Afghanistan, merely a business agreement that allows the occupiers to continue their lucrative control of record opium exports while they construct dozens of new military bases from which to launch new wars probably on Pakistan to denuclearize it .Voracious readers may go through Paul Joseph Watson’s report, November 20, 2009, Afghanistan: Troops Guarding the Poppy Fields. The US government mulled to impose a tax under The Sacrifice Act of 2010 to meet the burgeoning cost of Afghan war (key debaters Dave Obey, Representative John Murtha, Barney Frank). Watson alleged the extra tax would be used for paying, nay `bribing the Taliban, paying off CIA drug lords, and protecting heroin-producing opium fields’. He added: `The Afghan opium trade has exploded since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, following a lull after the Taliban had imposed a crackdown’. According to the U.N., the drug trade is now worth $65billion.

Afghanistan produces 92 per cent of the world’s opium, with the equivalent of at least 3,500 tonnes leaving the country each year. This racket was secured by drug kingpins like Ahmed Wali Karzai, the beloved brother of former president Hamid Karzai, and other influential persons. The essence of UNODC’s policy is that there is a causal (apriori or cause-and-effect relation) between poppy cultivation and the ongoing insurgency. Afghan government handpicks pliable provincial governors for eradication of poppy. These governors feed fictitious figures to the UN agencies about their landmark achievements in rooting out poppy cultivation at its various stages. These focal nodal prodigies have created the euphoria that government-controlled provinces are poppy-free.

RAW’s nod: Aside from euphoric reviews, the factual position is that poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is flourishing by leaps and bounds. The governors are motivated more by self-interest than by national objectives. They are minting money from all quarters, including India’s intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing. The RAW is interested in turning influential Afghans against Pakistan, and planting insurgents in Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas, than in poppy eradication. The RAW understands that there is no single fail-safe panacea for eradicating the poppy curse. Exterminating the menace of poppy lies outside the RAW’s mandate.

Poppy, a cash crop: Aside from the RAW’s machinations, the problem of poppy cultivation calls for a closer look in a multi-dimensional perspective. Afghanistan has a predominantly agrarian economy. Opium production contributes35 per cent of Afghanistan’s Gross Domestic Product while cereal crops only about 27 per cent. There is no industrial structure to name, despite its tall claims, India has not been able to lay tangible industrial infrastructure to boost Afghan economy. Afghanistan is the one of the world’s least developed country and the poorest in Asia. In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, majority of the country’s population is concerned about physical needs (food, clothing and shelter).

Poppy cultivation is the main avenue of physical security. There is a symbiotic relation between the people’s needs forsook-economic security and poppy cultivation. Majority of population is preoccupied with how to survive by ensuring food security by getting employed in poppy cultivation. Yet, they find it difficult to make ends meet. The UNODC’s observation that about 14 per cent of Afghans are employed in poppy cultivation does not reflect the real life situation. The agricultural-production system is mostly dependent on seasonal rainfall and poor water-management. As such, productivity per hectare is low. The centuries-old traditional cultivation system impedes their economic progress. The system if pivoted on salaam that is cash advance given on security of future crop yield. Poppy is the favourite crop by way of security rather than wheat, black cumin or some other crop. Afghan government could veritably be termed a poppy syndicate because of its lack of interest in poppy eradication. The governors look like custodians of poppy-growing lands. How could this coterie axe its own interest? 

Mr. Amjed Jaaved has been contributing free-lance for over five decades. His contributions stand published in the leading dailies at home and abroad (Nepal. Bangladesh, et. al.). He is author of seven e-books including Terrorism, Jihad, Nukes and other Issues in Focus (ISBN: 9781301505944). He holds degrees in economics, business administration, and law.

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South Asia

COVID-19 in India: The bright and the dark sides

Amrita Dhillon

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photo: interaffairs.ru

Many fortresses have collapsed and the invisible enemy has entered everywhere. Indians are at the doorsteps of one of the biggest threats looming. Indian government along with the state governments have announced a 21-days lockdown and requested all the citizens to stay at home, however, few of the essential services like groceries, pharmacies are open. 

It’s not easy for any country to let its economy stand-still and bear losses every single minute but India took that decision ultimately to protect hundreds of thousands of lives. A stand-still economy has bought days of despair and paralysed commerce across various key sectors throughout the nation but ultimately it will be protecting the bread-earners of the society.

Listening to Prime Minister Modi’s speech about the lockdown, he rightly said when countries like Italy which ranks next to none in health facilities cannot manage with the Pandemic, Indian infrastructure and population will have a great fall of the time. 

What will Lockdown do?

It is for the first time in history that such a huge mass of 1.3 Billion has been asked to self-quarantine themselves. This may not completely stop the virus from spreading but slows down the rate it was expected to create havoc. It will help flatten the curve and break the chain which is most important at this stage and that is what all other countries which have lockdown are trying to do. 

If we look at the figures, of the first 100 to 1,000 cases in Italy and the United States then we will find it took seven days in Italy to reach 1,000 cases with a rate of increase between 37%-90%, and Ten days in the United States to reach the first 1,000 cases with a rate of increase between 31%-58%. Whereas in India, it took 16 days to reach 1,000 cases with a rate of increase between 10%-29%. 

Moreover, after this big disaster, a country with a massive economy like the United States didn’t ask for a complete lockdown in their second-largest state New York till 25,000 positive cases and 250 deaths. By a lockdown, India still a step ahead of the first world countries.

What Indian government is doing other than lockdown?

Meanwhile trying to set up isolation wards to increase their capacity, Indian railway has turned its train coaches into hospitals and have asked their manufacturing units to make beds etc. to fight the problem.

India has also started private testing for this which will reduce the pressure on government hospital where testing is free for the public. Private testing cost (4,500 Rupees/$60) may seem very high to people but currently, the testing kits are exported and thus costing heavily. But by approving Indian companies to prepare locally which is estimated to be in the market from two to three weeks the cost will be reduced. 

However, The cost is still low if we compare the cost of private testing labs with the UK which costs 375 pounds and the United States labs which costs anywhere between $900-$3700.

India even brought its people back and providing hotel etc. to people where they could not. These cases would have been less if people took government advice of home quarantine seriously.

The Ugly Side

It will be wrong to compare India with First world nations which have the advance infrastructure and abilities. As per the healthcare capacity, India till now has dealt with the crisis pretty well.

Despite being one of the major economies, India still struggling with third world issues, for instance, 70% of Indian lives in rural areas or slums where they do not have options to self-isolate themselves into a pristine environment. Rather, they live amidst the fear of contamination by their neighbour or the people they’re sharing public toilets with.

Another issue is the healthcare facilities, which is not same in both urban and rural India, in small villages, or small cities far away from the commercial hustle may barely have a hi-tech hospital with isolation facilities. Which is another migraine for the government and local administration, as recently after the lockdown was announced many of the labourers and migrant workers moved back to their villages amidst chaos and panic to starve in big cities due to lack of their daily wages.

Governments on both the state and central level announced free food and requested house-owners to waive the rents for migrant workers. However, in a tech-haven like India, an ugly reality shows that a section of people and government are still not on the same digital-virtual-page.

Another similar story popped-out from the heart of the nation – New Delhi, where police found a group of around 2,000 people were hiding inside a mausoleum, out of them, many tested positive with COVID19. Moreover, many of the same group have travelled to different states and few of them have been tested positive. It is said, many non-Indians are found inside the group who may be one of the potential carriers of the deadly virus. Though it’s all about time which will tell where these migrations will take the toll of Coronavirus impact in India

Indeed the bigger problem is not the rural working labour population of India, a bigger threat came out of the incoming overseas crowd. Many Indians have found hiding their overseas travel information, including celebrities who tested positive later and met many people after their arrival. It is an arrogance, where NOT the government but so-called ‘educated and ignorant Indians’ to be blamed for.

How to fight this Pandemic

First of all, it is not only the government’s fight all the Indians are the foot soldier to this war against Corona. As the Prime Minister said, it’s a 21-day war and the best medicine is self-isolation.

Government is doing its part. But if we are comparing the response with the American or European governments, then its fault on our side, globalisation comes with a price and an open democracy like India are always at the receiving end of such prices. Indians need to drop their obsession with the Western media certifications. Media is one of the most responsible pillars for this fight against the pandemic and it need to act accordingly.

It’s a global problem and we all need to step up to fight this, religious organisations and corporations should come in front and equip the foot soldiers at the time of the pandemic. Those volunteers inside the non-government organisation who are distributing food owe us applauses.

 From our partner International Affairs

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Coronavirus, Critical Geographies and Geospatial Revolution: Redefining Epidemiology

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The subject of Geography has often been understood and considered as the Gazetteer with names of countries and information about them but this stream of knowledge has turned out to be the most important addition to our meaning and metaphors of our daily life from driving a car to identifying the critical hotspots/clusters of any disaster . ‘Space’ forms the kernel and core of geographical knowledge thus encompassing the phenomenon of body politic and social fabric in its entirety.  In contemporary times  with emerging  paradigms of ‘space episteme’, this intersection and contestation of topos with  the active political space  in the public discourse   has been righty  epitomized by Edward Soja as “spatial turn” of  this century. World has changed drastically in the spheres of climate, production, consumption and behavioural patterns with the imbalances and negative feedbacks being observed in the environment which prompted some scientists to propose  present epoch as “Anthropocene”Geography studies this changing  interaction of environment with the human responses in its comprehensive theoretical and scientific mechanism and subsequently modelling the impacts and patterns of this dynamic trend .Diffusion of diseases and the related outbreaks have also been modelled and the pathways tracked thus helping the world and regional health agencies framing policies an strategies  for mitigating the impact and spread of diseases. As currently world has been in the grip of deadly and sporadic pandemic disease named by WHO as COVID-19 and the virus as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) by International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses,geographical knowledge coupled with temporality of the incidence and spatial prevalence of this global health threat has proved to be the guiding light amidst the dark frontiers of  novel epidemiological characters of this outbreak

Geospatial Science and Public Knowledge

In this age of big data, the need of “Big Geospatial Data” becomes equally important given the complexities and dynamic nature of bio-physical and social interfaces. In the same vein geospatial knowledge has helped in the real time information delivery and public understanding of Coronavirus spread around the world. Most of the geospatial data platforms have been in the forefront currently for the data visualization, monitoring and concurrently its reach to the common people at any place of world and any time. WHO has provided the situational dashboard updated every 15 minutes providing a real time perspective for officials and users with easy-to-view visual interface using Geographical Information System  (GIS Science)  on region and case wise spread.

(WHO Novel COVID-19 Situation Visualization)

The enhanced and sophisticated real time information can be viewed through Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) . ESRI Disaster Response Program and ESRI’S ArcGIS Hub including the in-depth information from various operational dashboards with interactive data view providing key understanding and monitoring of global and feature datasets related of the virus and public knowledge.

ESRI ArcGIS Hub

The another platform were the expert epidemiological analysis of COVID-19 hyphenated with the public health analytics has been maintained by Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) with its own GIS operational setup mapping the similar trajectory in real time. Below is the snapshot of the site

Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University (JHU)

In India MapmyIndia Maps and Move app enabling users to locate, view and reach testing labs nearby and subsequent isolation and treatment facilities. Users can have the first-hand account of the facilities and can add reviews of the centres there and helping other users with updated and critical knowledge regarding the conditions and status of quarantine and isolation facilities MapmyIndia resources are designed for early detection and isolation of infected persons which are crucial in respect of spread of this disease

With the use of this metadata and imagery creating a robust GIS and comprehensive geo-databases in an analysis-ready format thus opening a new path for redefining epidemiological studies in concert with the pathways and vector based differentiations across the world. With the use of data mining and machine learning algorithms like Python and Anaconda  with the integration of geographical knowledge, it can help us in the accurate and reliable prediction of threats and stresses whether related to health or environment. Google Earth Engine uses this algorithm based geographical and environmental variables for predicting and subsequently providing the effective management strategies for the better and sustainable bio-physical and social environment.

Critical Geographies and Coronavirus

There has been an overarching ‘complexity turn’ within the geographical studies and it forms the essential pivot when it comes to the health landscape of any region as put forward by Anthony Gatrell .This has turned out to be the potential paradigm for social sciences having transformed much of physical and biological sciences with dissolution of binary divides whether media/socio-cultural, structure/agency, institutional/individual, environment/social etc..There is an immediate need to move beyond the traditional epistemes of geographical analysis and to explore further the added value of critical geographies for our research in health inequalities, disease ecology, and spatial diffusion. Many examples of critical geographies can be cited from the fact that institutions, organisation and governments have undermined the character and configurations of ‘geography’ when it comes to health infrastructure and individual healthcare facilities thus coronavirus has laid bare the response and system of approach of countries around the world. There are widespread inequalities when it comes to the healthcare geographies around the world, thus arising a need for global and uniform approach of healthcare governance in consonance with the changing contours of political and economic landscapes around the world. Critical geographies deconstructs the hegemonic geographies of the world in the lens of radical perspective and the consequent geo-economic and geopolitical undercurrents which is needed for the current disarrayed healthcare system of the world .At last keep resisting the virus and the injustices around your geographies.

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The Myth and Reality of Social Distancing in India: Challenges to fight COVID 19

Dr. Manasi Sinha

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Authors: Dr. Manasi Sinha and Pratyush Bibhakar

“Social distancing”—The Way out :A nasty and deadliest Spanish flu that started spreading around the world infecting and killing over 50 million of world’s population during world war I, was contained to a large extent by following measures now known as “social distancing”. This social distancing may be understood as creating a safety net by maintaining physical distance between two or more people so as to prevent or control or ‘flatten the curve’ of the transmission process of virus/flu. In the wake of uncertainty looming over safe and effective measures to eliminate pandemic COVID 19 which is the biggest, trickiest and deadliest war on humanity ever, many countries across the world are now implementing measures like “social distancing” in form of prohibiting mass gatherings, restricting entry to public spaces, shutting down schools, colleges and in some places a total lockdown is enforced by keeping people stay indoors.

India’s Strategy against COVID: However, in an unequal social system that thrives on stratification of class and communities, differentiation of labour, status and capital, social distancing may not be a successful strategy to get by. In an unequal stratified system like India, social distancing turns out to be a ‘privilege’ available only to the upper-class well-off Indians. For people at the lower strata, social distancing stands unbearable, as more than fighting a disease, they fight against hunger, wage and shelter in their daily lives. This may magnify their miseries and distress substantially. In the midst of21 days nation-wide lockdown in the largest democracy of the world, India has just witnessed how it has been tumbling not only in executing its strategy of social distancing to fight the growing coronavirus pandemic, it also has failed larger chunk of its mass–around 85% of this constitutes the informal workers— mostly migrated ones, who are the worst hit in absence of  a contingency plan to fight and survive this situation.

In line with following global strategy of enforcing strict lock downs, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 24th March 2020 had announced a 21 days lockdown to contain the spread of COVID 19. A ‘Janta Curfew’ was initiated two days before on 22nd March to prepare Indians to fight the long battle against coronavirus outbreak. As the lock down continues, a total of 1251 COVID-19 cases  (including 49 foreign nationals) have been reported in 27 states/union territories  in India as on  30th March 2020(Source: Ministry of Health & Family Welfare (MoHFW).

The Ground Reality: While the infected numbers do not project a grim picture compared to other countries that are struggling to contain the virus, concerns growing in India, as nearly 85% of India’s population (roughly 120 million) appears to be stranded without basic security of food, wage and shelter. Migrant workers forms majority of this population, who work in construction sites, drive taxis, work in restaurants, staff factories, work in saloon, houses etc. thus often employed in low paid hazardous jobs. This informal workforce is also deprived of any social security benefits including paid leave etc. and they thrive on low wages. As such, they succumb to inevitable cycle of poverty, hunger and death as the city shuts down. COVID 19 pandemic is setting up similar ground for these people. In absence of availability of basic needs walking home for hundred miles  remains an only option left for them. They prefer to leave the city, they have lived for all their lives as it no longer shelters them and feeds them; itno longer brings hope of surviving poverty, hunger and their daily mundane needs—the city of dreams turns hostile and deeply inhospitable. As they set forth, many of them are stranded in big cities or stuck midway and are struggling to keep themselves safe and healthy. On 28th March, Saturday tens of thousands of workers flocked at various city-bus stations in efforts to reach home. In Anand ViharInter-state bus terminal, New Delhi, several migrant workers including women stood in a long 3 km queue for hours carrying their baggage with kids in hope of returning to their relatives and families in different parts of the country. “For two days the ration guys were not giving us any food, we were hungry for two days. So, we decided, ‘let us go to our parents’,” said Raju, a 24-year old migrant worker walking from Noida, a satellite town of Delhi, to Agra, nearly 200 km away. As such, this mass exodus becomes a potential blow to India’s coronavirus containment strategy as it presents a miserable scenario awaited in coming days. As on 30th March 2020 the situation got worsened further killing around 20 lives.

As other countries across the world havei nitiated measures to support their citizens, voices from civil society in India already mounting up pressure on the government to provide immediate cover of social security measures including cash transfers for daily wagers, informal sectors and migrant labourers particularly women who have little social and community support and therefore remain most vulnerable.

Existing Measures:

As ground reality remains challenging, diverse measures are taken by the Central and state governments to control the mass exodus of daily-waged workers. To fight against this deadliest pandemic, Indian government extended its support to protect the poor people hit by this lock down, by unveiling $22.6bn stimulus plan. The plan seeks to provide direct cash transfers and food security measures, thus offering relief to millions of people at this critical juncture. Further, the centre decided to provide three meals a day to more than 100,000 people living in 1500 shelter homes for the urban homeless across the country. There are directives given to all the states and union territories to use State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF)to make arrangements for temporary accommodation, food distribution, clothing and medical facilities to the downtrodden ones particularly the migrant labourers. Some Indian states like Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Delhi have speeded up their initiatives to meet the basic needs of migrant workers by scaling up monetary assistance and providing ration facilities to the homeless.

However, panic continues and migrant workers still on their way back home because of two more reasons: First: the lock down triggered a wave of panic making hundred thousand of homeless workers frightened and terrified in absence of any administrative assistance and coordination from  government machinery. Second: with the expensive private healthcare and insufficient and unavailability of public health care facilities, the fear psychosis persists amongst these migrant workers making them non-complicit of ‘social distancing’.

The Anticipated Calamity and Lessons: Considering the gamut of India’s population and its diverse nature including these migrant population, immediate steps are required to provide a contingency plan for the migrant workers—who form the backbone of India’s economy. Failing to respond quickly to address this problem may lead to a worst situation that may further claim deaths of millions. As tens of thousands of migrants are in limbo and are not distancing themselves from others–they are prone to get infected quickly and in large numbers. After days of journey and returning to their villages, they may carry the symptoms of corona virus and may spread it among other communities, resulting into the dangerous III phase in which the pandemic advances towards community transmission across the country. Although the number of COVID 19 cases are still low in India as compared to other countries, experts have already warned against community spread as they think this may result into increased need for health facilities and India is yet to be equipped to facilitate and strengthen its health care sector. The existing measures like ‘Janata Curfew’, ‘Social distancing’ ‘21 days lock-down’ that India has opted for, may possibly protect its upper class people who could afford to stay inside home, however, the same is a fallacy for people at the lower strata because of the precarious life they live in. A calamity like COVID 19 may be taken as an experience to introspect upon a combination of development agenda, a contingency plan and management of strategies that India should keep as a stand by formula to mitigate any future crisis like this.

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