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

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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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South Asia

The two Punjabs

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Even in the midst of tensions between India and Pakistan, people to people linkages between both countries – with both Punjabs (Indian and Pakistani) as key stakeholders – have given reason for cautious optimism.

While cultural commonalities and the emotional attachment on both sides has been the driving force for Punjab-Punjab initiatives, the potential economic benefits of improved relations have been repeatedly reiterated not just by the business communities, but political leaders (especially from Indian Panjab)

In recent years, ties between both countries have steadily deteriorated. After the Pulwama terror attack in 2019, economic linkages between both countries have got severely impacted, and this has taken its toll on the economy of Panjab (India). India imposed tariffs on Pakistani imports, and revoked Most Favoured Nation MFN status to Pakistan in February 2019, while in August 2019, trade links via the Wagah (Pakistan) -Attari (India) land crossing were snapped after the revocation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. The suspension of trade ties between both countries has had a serious impact on the economy of the border belt of Punjab (India) with over 9,000 families being impacted as a result of job losses in the tertiary sector.

Developments of the past few months

The one glimmer of hope has been the Kartarpur Religious Corridor which was inaugurated in 2019 (in 2020 this was closed due to the covid 19 pandemic but re-opened in November 2021). The Corridor connects Dera Baba Nanak (Panjab, India) with Darbar Sahib (Kartarpur, Narowal, Pakistan) which is the final resting place of Guru Nanak (the founder of the Sikh faith). Devotees from Panjab (India) can pay obeisance at Darbar Sahib (Kartarpur) without a visa, though they do need to carry their passports. While the number of people crossing over, via the corridor, is way below the initial target of 5000, it has helped in promoting people to people ties as well as re-uniting a number of separated families. There has been a growing demand for easing out visa procedures for individuals over the age of 75 years and those from separated families (some of the individuals reunited at Kartarpur have been issued visas) which has been backed strongly by civil society organisations – as in the past.

 The phase from 2019-2022 has been witness to people to people linkages, especially with regard to religious tourism, but interactions between state governments of both the Punjabs, or what is referred to as ‘paradiplomacy’ unlike earlier years has been restricted. After the re-opening of the corridor in  November 2021, then Chief Minister of Panjab (India) Charanjit Singh Channi, and other political leaders from the state, paid obeisance at Darbar Sahib (Kartarpur), while also flagging the need for resumption of trade via the Wagah-Attari land crossing — though to no avail. 

There have however been calls for resumption of trade from sections of Punjab’s political class, business community as well as farmers from Indian Punjab. Pakistan which has been buying essential commodities including wheat at exorbitant prices could purchase the same from Panjab (India) and the Punjabi farmer could benefit by getting much higher prices for his produce.

Conclusion

In conclusion, even in the midst of strained ties between both countries, the Punjab has played an important role in trying to reduce tensions and build bridges between both countries, and the role of civil society, business community on both sides and the diaspora needs to be acknowledged. In the 75th year of independence while ties between New Delhi and Islamabad remain strained developments of the past few months, in the realm of people to people contact have given reason for hope as a result of the tireless efforts of civil society and some individuals committed to peace. The next stage of this should be easing out of visa regimes especially for certain categories of individuals – specifically those over the age of 75 who want to visit their ancestral homes. Resumption of trade via the Wagah-Attari land crossing will benefit not just Panjab (India) but other parts of North India and the Pakistani consumer. If both countries can focus on giving a greater fillip to people to people linkages and economic ties — with the Punjabs taking the lead – ties  between India and Pakistan could be less frosty.

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South Asia

The Need for Feminist Foreign Policy in India

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As more and more research is being done, there is a definitive link that connects gender equality with international prosperity and welfare; giving an equal opportunity for half the population can’t be just out of moral obligation. It is necessary for the economy and security of a nation. Currently, with resources that are in short supply, the way to maintain a good governance, growth in the economy, health, peace and security is to invest in women and girls. Various countries are promoting gender equality through development, diplomatic and security activities. Countries like Sweden, Canada, France and Mexico have adopted a comprehensive foreign policy that advances gender equality called “Feminist Foreign Policy.” India as a rising great power has to consider a more inclusive foreign policy.

Gender is hardly recognized or given importance when it comes to policy conversations, even though it plays a significant role in peace and security. It is often considered that it side-tracks the main problems with regard to international security and great power competition. However, there is no need for the contradiction between the two. A sign to see how far gender equality is embedded in society is to know the number of women in leadership positions, specifically in departments of security or even the academic study of security where the number of women is less.

According to research, women’s engagement in economics, politics, peace, and security procedures will result in stronger economic development, fewer human rights violations, and peace. Women empowerment is important for a country that aims to promote global security, increase the use of their foreign aid and continue to support stable and democratic allies. In the previous decade, numerous nations have adopted gender mainstreaming in their foreign policy. The critical areas of progress that have systematized gender equality are administration, strategy, and resource management. This comprehensive effort of bringing in gender equality in foreign policy is called as Feminist Foreign Policy. A foreign policy with a political framework focused on the security and safety of the marginalized community can be defined as a Feminist Foreign Policy.

The approach for defining and adopting a Feminist Foreign Policy will vary between counties and regions, depending on their lived experiences. However, that a conversation on Feminist Foreign Policy is an important one is under no debate, happening at a time when gender norms are evolving in our society. In the present-day scenario, there are countries around the world have laws preventing women from carrying out jobs in sectors like mining, manufacturing and construction, and millions of women live in countries where domestic violence is not punishable, gender mainstreaming in broader policy objectives and wider adoption of FFP can shape the future of our civilization.

In India’s foreign aid and assistance gender can be highlighted in bilateral as well as through multilateral institutions, directly impacting the neighborhood, as well as partners in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean and Pacific and Small Island countries.

In a historic feat, India was elected as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council on June 18, 2020.  Following that, India also became a member of the prestigious UN Commission on the Status of Women in September 2020. India committed to pay attention to its efforts on peacekeeping, peacebuilding and women’s inclusion. In August, 2021 India assumed a month long UNSC presidency where it ended with its first resolution being passed on the Afghanistan situation demanding that the territory not be used for training terrorists. India’s diplomatic framework has embraced tools for soft power. The strategic moves taken up by India can be seen as step towards uplifting women.

A feminist foreign policy would give India a chance to create a beneficial surrounding for peace, remove domestic barriers against women, and also help in building strong bilateral partnerships. With India being surrounded by adversaries along its borders, this approach would also allow India to show itself as a nation that gives importance to various issues; have a better performance in indicators and indexes that are curated to assess the development of countries and gender gap such as the Global Gender Index and Gender Inequality Index; set an example for other nations and contribute continuously towards women empowerment.

It could also be a starting point for an internal shift with regards to India’s domestic context, particularly in terms of preconceived patriarchal gender roles, in which women are seen to be inferior to men. Empirical research has mentioned that for a progressive social and economic development of a nation, gender equality is a requirement. By removing the prevailing barriers that restrict the participation of women and other communities that are marginalized, India would develop a more inclusive policy. Domestic policies need to have a gendered lens that can protect the marginalized. Without having a balance internally, a feminist foreign policy will not sustain.

An FFP will give a major boost to the country’s international relations when its committed to women empowerment and extensively build a stronger partnership with countries that have adopted feminist foreign policy, for example, countries like Mexico, Canada and Sweden or those that are supporters of gender equality. Thus, FFP would allow India to deepen its commitments and make an impact as an emerging power.

Giving importance to human security and gender issues, would put India in a better position to achieve its international power ambitions. India slipped to 140th rank from 112th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2020 – 2021. This is primarily due to the lack of political representation, absence of technical and leadership roles, inequal income, reducing women labour force participation rate, lack of proper health care and the literacy ratio gap between men and women.

A major boost for India would be a significantly better performance in the Global Gender Gap Index. This would lead to India becoming a role model for various countries. India can be an example by achieving gender parity in a variety of social indicators that is very important to assess a country’s development.

India’s record on women’s rights—or rather, women’s oppression—makes it far-fetched to quickly and successfully take on an FFP structure. Man-centric qualities are so profoundly instilled inside Indian culture that India has barely figured out how to achieve an adjustment of the arrangement of disparity at home. Subsequently, it does not have the credibility to take up feminist qualities in its international partnerships. An FFP approach may not just help India in cultivating imaginative ways of reasoning, yet in addition permit it to expand upon its traditional perspective on security, work with various representations, and develop strong bilateral partnerships.

Before adopting a Feminist Foreign Policy, India also needs to bring a change within the policies of the country. It is crucial for women to shape the outcomes and can’t just be receptacles, especially in peacebuilding, reconstruction and rebuilding. There are more women joining the Indian Foreign Service, but the Ministry has to make sure that they are taken up to the highest rank. The thought that women can’t handle challenging issues must be changed.

A feminist foreign policy would provide equal opportunity and basic human rights to women, girls, and other marginalised communities. A feminist foreign policy will aid India’s bilateral and multilateral alliances, as well as its attainment of great power status. For a feminist foreign policy to succeed, a country must first establish gender equality within its borders.

 Gender is clearly a significant factor in India’s development assistance. It must, however, be expanded to include other aspects of economy and security. Gender equality must be implemented within India. More women in government are needed.

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South Asia

Crisis in Sri Lanka and The India-South Asia Challenges: Way Forward

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Authors: Dr Aditya Anshu and Nipun Tyagi*

Lot of articles and theories which are describing the current state of Sri Lanka and major factors that contributed towards the deteriorating performance of Sri Lankan economy. The ongoing Sri Lankan crisis has been examined by experts from global economic perspective and regional security but India as a country faces multi-faceted challenges, which must be managed sensibly. The approach of India should be balanced and crafted politically as well as diplomatically to protect the strategic Indian interest in Indo pacific region and to counter the influence of China and its expansionist policy.

To believe economist and experts on Sri Lanka, the blame initially was colored upon the COVID 19 pandemic for economic fall and disparity that engulfed the Island nation. It was argued trade has been adversely hit, the foreign remittances from the tourist were near to none, which possibly caters biggest foreign currency deposit. To add, the series of deadly bomb blast in 2019 at Colombo could be direct possible connection towards the decreasing number of tourists in Sri Lanka. Hitherto no expert or possible specialist cared to argue the failure of Rajapaksa brothers far-right nationalist policy of last 10 years was creating a liability trap for Sri Lanka along with creating deep cleavage in peaceful multicultural society.

The ramifications of the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia are also creating difficulties and is one of the other prominent factors for the sluggish economic conditions of Sri Lanka. The Russia – Ukraine war has further exacerbated the economic calamity of the country as Russia is the second biggest market to Sri Lanka in tea exports. On the other hand, Sri Lanka’s tourism sector is heavily reliant upon these two nations for the tourist arrivals. As a result, the Ukrainian crisis has further created an adverse graph of already ailing economy of Sri Lanka. 

When Rajapaksa-led governments, liaising with extremist Buddhist ideology, entered with full majority in Sri Lankan political regime post 2009. This resulted in the end of over the ground ethnic persecution of Tamil and other minorities community. However, the persecution and intimidation continued in more subtle and systematic way for Tamils and other minority groups resulting division, hate and selective development. Being anti-minority became the symbol of jingoistic nationalism which helped Rajapaksa winning elections for next two decades.

On the Indian domestic front, Congress and other opposition parties are comparing Indian economy and its slothful growth with Sri Lankan crisis and blaming government for inflation, food crisis, rising unemployment and imbalance of economic situations. Significantly, inter-religion conflicts, caste division, income disparity and rising unemployment in India has been severely criticized by opposition parties and civil society groups drawing similarity of parallel class conflicts in Sri Lanka during the period of 1990 till now. The political parties alleged that ruling BJP is adopting the same Sri Lankan pattern to prosecute the minorities and ignoring economic turbulence which can be resulted for crashing Indian economy in the long run. But in view of scholars and academics it would be too early to comment on the opposition political parties assertion on government and about the Indian economy’s performance, nevertheless India needs to seriously monitor the situation with caution that is developing in Sri Lanka on various-fronts.

The first and the foremost issue which needs to be handled cautiously will be that of displaced migrants landing on Indian shores. The impact of the Sri Lankan crisis can increase the burden of refuges towards India. It will be very challenging for India to absorb the possible migration from Sri Lankan for food, shelter, and job opportunities; creating clusters in southern cites in which they can be deprived of basic human needs and rights. To cater women and children will not only be tasking for India but also can create a situation like Rohingya crisis. The proximity of Sri Lankan peoples to southern Indian states can help them to enter Indian territories which may disturb the sovereignty, regional stability, and could be the cause of national security of the country. “There is no accurate data on the number of refugees, but India has about 400,000 refugees including 238,222 recognized and documented refugees according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Report, 2021.

The second issue of concern for Indian government is to handle security challenges, regional security, peace and maintenance of law and order in India and South Asia. There are several reports which indicated the presence of Islamic State (IS) and other terror outfits active in southern states of India which can manipulate and employ the poor migrants landing on Indian shores for terror and illegal activities.  Investigation in a series of cases by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), a federal agency to counter terror has revealed numerous times about the strong presence of Islamic State (IS) in the southern states of India.  The Ministry of Home Affairs confirmed in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) of Parliament on 16 September 2020 about 17 cases registered related to the presence of Islamic State (IS) by in southern States of Telangana, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu resulting to arrest of 122 accused.

There is no doubt that deep set networks for terror finance, extreme ideology and human resources connected with Sri Lanka exist in parts of Southern India. It is already evident after the terror events of 2019 in Sri Lanka and activation of all these will spell potential threat to security of South-Asia in general and India in particular.  The IS and other terrorist organization may take the advantage of internal violence and fragile administrative capability in Sri Lanka and can become serious threats for India’s national security.

To extend further, it would be very dangerous for the country like India to have the political and economic instability in neighboring countries as near as Sri Lanka. This might trigger a ‘domino-effect’ in the region, creating socio-economic imbalance in South-Asia.  The recent political and economic changes in Sri Lanka have created a threat for India’s vision for regional stability and security in South-Asia region.  In 2014 government of India launched Act East policy focusing on boosting economic co-operation, building infrastructure for greater connectivity, improving important strategic & security ties, and Greater focus on defense cooperation with East and Southeast Asia countries. India’s ‘Neighborhood First’ policy towards Sri Lanka had resonated with Sri Lanka’s ‘India First’ foreign and security policy in 2020. Therefore, the role of India becomes very important as well as challenging, to help the Sri Lanka maintain its peaceful internal order and to counter the debt trap policy of China.

Geopolitical experts have also argued that India can make use of this opportunity to revamp its diplomatic ties with Sri Lanka, which have been at distant owing Sri Lanka’s proximity with China under Rajapaksa’s rule. It would be strategically and geopolitically important for India to extend assistance to Sri Lanka during this crisis times for a better and conducive atmosphere in southern Indian ocean area.

Sri Lanka’s economic collapse may be an opportunity for India to swing the pendulum back with massive financial assistance to Sri Lanka. This has been followed up with India’s four-pronged economic and financial assistance approach to Sri Lanka. It includes credit lines for the import of food, fuel, and medicines; currency swaps to boost foreign exchanges; modernization; and holistic investments, in the sectors of renewable energy, ports, logistics, infrastructure, connectivity, and maritime security.

As a friendly and cooperative neighbor, India must carry multiple role and responsibility for Sri Lanka’s political stability, economic recovery, and strategic security where with right-intent diplomatic strategy is the key to determining India’s geopolitical influence in the region to counter interventionist China and its not so friendly policies. We cannot ignore the fact that turmoil in Sri Lanka is always perceived to influence India. That was in a speech by the then US Defence Secretary Robert Gates in the 2009 edition of the “Shangri La Dialogue”, when he said, “We look to India to be a partner and net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond…”. It  is the time for India to come forward and prove it .

*Nipun Tyagi is scholar of Defense & Strategic Studies and Currently looks the International Office at Bennet University, India.

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