Prerna Singh on India’s COVID-19 Welfare Response

Prerna Singh is Mahatma Gandhi Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Brown University. Singh is a fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, serves on the academic advisory board of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, the steering committee of the Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown, and co-convenes the Brown-Harvard-MIT Joint Seminar in South Asian Politics. Singh has published numerous award-winning books and articles on questions of human development, public health, ethnicity and nationalism. Her first book, How Solidarity Works for Welfare was awarded best book prizes from both the American Political Science and the American Sociological Associations. Singh has received fellowships from the Center for Advanced Study of Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, the Andrew Carnegie foundation, and the American Institute of Indian Studies. Singh is presently working on two book projects. The first, tentatively entitled Embedded Interventions: Vaccines, Viruses, and Public Health in China and India compares the differences in the popular uptake of vaccines and consequently the control of infectious diseases with a focus on China and India across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The second is a book on the potential of, and challenges to constructing an inclusive nationalism.
Nandeeni Patel CMC '21 interviewed Dr. Prerna Singh on October 5, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Prerna Singh.

India has recorded over six million cases of coronavirus, second only to the United States at present. India enacted one of the strictest lockdowns, shutting down all domestic and international flights and closed most workplaces early in the outbreak. Was an early and intense lockdown the right course of action for India? How has the decision of an early and strict lockdown impacted India’s poorest citizens?  

As you note, India was one of the first countries to put in place a strict lockdown. Initially, the strict lockdown appeared to be the right move from a public health perspective. In comparison to other large democratic countries, like the U.S., Italy or Germany, India had a similar version of stay-at-home orders to prevent coronavirus transmission where limited human contact can “flatten the curve.” From a narrow epidemiological public health perspective, it appeared to be the right move. But it was not thought through. The issue at-hand was that the government placed a strict lockdown, forcing factories and workplaces to close and leaving millions of migrants unemployed with nowhere to go. Migrant workers often work in the informal economy and partake in taxing manual labor. They have few savings or a social security net. It would have been a good idea for the government to have thought through the consequences of its actions. But the Modi government clearly did not. The extent of the tragedy makes it appear that the government did not care. There was no plan – no camps, no food, water, public transport. Thousands of migrant workers had no choice but to begin a grueling, dangerous, walk home or crowd into buses.  The epidemiological crisis ended up being a humanitarian crisis.

The real sadness is the human tragedy that accompanied the lockdown. The lockdown was a complete disaster for the most marginalized Indian citizens. Most of the minimal assistance that migrant workers received was from non-governmental organizations. Barkha Dutt, an independent journalist, shared these poignant, tragic, and heartbreaking images and stories of migrant workers who were walking back to their homes on these asphalt roads with the sun beating down on them. Horrible accidents happened while these migrants were going home. Many migrant workers died. There was a terrible train incident, where a train plowed through sleeping migrants. The preventable accidents due to lack of government care for marginalized citizens, compounded with the denial of medical care for basic illnesses like dehydration, caused a lot of preventable suffering amongst an already suffering population. 

When Prime Minister Modi announced the lockdown, migrant workers lost their jobs and subsequently had to return to their homes often on foot, with no means of public transport. This hardship imposed on migrants was widely covered in the international media. How was the government’s decision perceived in India?  What could the government had done differently, especially given the aggressive spread of the virus? 

The national government took a one-size-fits all approach with the lockdown and one that mimicked the response of advanced industrialized countries. But as we’ve discussed India had hundreds and thousands of often very poor migrant workers who were living and working in cities. Plus India has one of the highest population densities in the world. As income levels decline, particularly for the poorest of the poor, there are multiple people living in one room houses. The government did not take these realities into account. 

Stark failure of the national government, both in its inaction and lack of foresight, can be seen most clearly in the national government’s lack of coordination with sub-national, or state, governments. Migrants were trying to get back to their home states. However, several states shut down their borders. Evidently, the national government did not think about the needs of migrant workers and did not set up safe means of transport for migrants to get back home. There should have been coordinated action on the part of the national government to put in place a support system or social safety net for these migrants that included means for transport, food, medicine, and water. 

Social distancing in India is a luxury. Being six feet away from someone is a luxury. The question then arises who was this lockdown catered to? It is quite clear through the national government’s lack of thought to the plight of the migrant workers and the poor more generally that the lockdown was for the elite. The poor are disproportionately facing the economic consequences of the lockdown. As daily-wage laborers, losing work for this number of days is like a death sentence, or a sentence to debt and poverty which could eventually turn into a real death sentence.

The question about the government’s popularity, even after this crisis, is interesting. And several observers of Indian politics, including myself, are quite stunned. What exactly is going on? To be sure there are numerous anecdotes from migrant workers who want to hold the government accountable for its mishandlings, but it is not clear if this will translate into numbers in terms of opposition to the regime. Beyond the anecdotal evidence that is showing the tragic level of suffering of vulnerable populations, there are no hard numbers to prove that Modi will suffer in the next election because of his COVID-19 mismanagement. 

What are the effects of the lockdown on the welfare of children in India, particularly the effect of school closures on poor children and incidences of child labor? 

There will be severe downstream consequences to school closures in India, and the deficit will not be calculated equally across people of different socio-economic groups, and caste and gender. We should ask: What effect will school closures have on Muslim and Dalit girls? Literacy, school enrollment and dropout rates in India are much higher for females. We know that a mother being literate is the best predictor of a child being literate. Thus, when we think of the potential learning deficit that will result from this pandemic, for girls from marginalized communities, we are not just looking at their potential loss in education and income, but also their daughters’ aspirations and ability to gain access to quality education. This is going to be one of those moments that will have severe consequences for those who were already at the peripheral of society. These communities were suffering before the virus. The suffering from the pandemic is going to be that much more intense for communities that were already in pain. 

According to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech, the Indian government launched several welfare schemes including Jan-Dhan accounts (money transfers to the poor), support for farmers through changes in the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act and Essential Commodities Act, and the One Nation-One Ration card initiative. What are the goals of these initiatives and have these initiatives succeeded in achieving their aims over the past few months? 

I have two questions. Are these too little, too late? Will these schemes be made accessible to all Indian citizens? As I have mentioned, the government could have done a lot of things differently in the early days of the pandemic and lockdown. These social welfare schemes are obviously needed, but they are a drop in the bucket. I find myself asking - Are they too late? Are they sufficient? Are they equally accessible to all Indian citizens? The BJP has actively, enthusiastically, and brazenly espoused a vision of India, in which not all Indian citizens belong equally. If you look at when COVID-19 hit India in the beginning of 2019, Indian cities were in the throes of an unprecedented social mobilization that had brought thousands of people streaming onto the streets of cities to protest the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Registry of Citizens. These are proposals that solidify the BJP’s Hindu nationalist vision of India. 

The Indian Constitution, enshrined in the wake of India's independence from British colonial rule, specifies that India is a secular state. It institutionalizes a highly inclusive form of Indian nationalism that was at the root of India's national struggle. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and members of other religious minorities are all equally members of India. Although Pakistan’s foundation emerged from the two-nation theory, India actively rejected the idea that it was a Hindu nation. That is the vision of India that the BJP has been trying to erode and has done especially actively and violently since its 2019 reelection. In August 2019 the BJP abrogated the constitutionally enshrined special status of Kashmir, and instituted what is essentially an occupation by the armed forces and shut down the internet. In other parts of India Muslims have been targeted and lynched by vigilante groups associated with the BJP. The National Registry of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act explicitly targeted Muslims, their membership in the Indian nation, and their constitutional status as Indian residents or Indian citizens. Thus, when we talk about these social welfare schemes which were implemented in the wake of COVID-19, we must put them in a broader context.  How confident can we be that these schemes will be equally distributed across members of different ethnic and religious communities? The institution of schemes, in many ways is the easy part of policymaking; where the rubber hits the road is the implementation of these schemes. Are we going to see the poorest of the poor, including those who are not from the dominant ethnic group, receive these benefits? 

What is the biggest challenge India faces in assuring the success of its COVID welfare programs?  

The test of these schemes will be the extent to which they can prevent the poorest of the poor from sinking further into poverty and misery. This would require access to employment and medical insurance. There is a saying in Hindi, “roti, kapdaa, aur makaan,” which translates to access to food, clothing, and shelter. At this moment the poor need these basic essentials, they need employment, they need social assistance. The extent to which these welfare schemes will provide these and ameliorate the public health and humanitarian crises the pandemic has created will determine their success. This question is just as much a moral question as it is an empirical question.

There is also another question: is the success of Indian welfare dependent on capacity or will? There are certain things that are just inexcusable, like not instating measure for migrants to safely leave cities and return to their native places. There simply was not even a policy to address the plight and return journeys of migrant workers. There was no system in place, no policy to address their plight. In this instance, the question of capacity does not arise. The question of capacity comes after the question of will.  Here there appears to have been no state will.

Regarding the question of capacity, economist Lant Pritchett has come up with an astute depiction. He says that India is not a failing state, but a flailing state. The Indian state has a solid “head”.  The head refers to policymaking bureaucrats, technocrats who are good at putting policies into place. The head does its job. India, however, is also a flailing state, because the head is not connected to the limbs. Limbs refer to the infrastructure and ground capacity in this context. Pritchett essentially concludes that the well-functioning, intelligent head has limited connection to the rest of its body. Thus, India is not exactly failing since India sometimes has excellent policies. Rather is flailing because it unable to implement those policies. 

In this case, in the highest echelons of power, the question is whether was there even a will to draft good policies. Was there even the desire to care for these people that were going to be the most affected by this lockdown? Was it that the state’s infrastructural limbs ‘flailed’ or did the “head” just not think or care about these vulnerable sections of the population. 

Looking ahead, India has planned many economic initiatives to revive its economy, the most prominent being the Aatma Nirbhar Bharat campaign. How should this campaign for greater self-reliance be interpreted in terms of India’s engagement in the global economy? Has the pandemic altered India’s program for greater self-reliance?  

India registered one of its largest single contractions of the economy. The Indian economy was in trouble prior to the pandemic, and the pandemic has only made things worse. How bad will the consequences be? How much of a hit is the Indian economy going to take? And what sectors are going to be the ones that suffer the most? To me it seems impossible to give a prognosis for the Aatma Nirbhar campaign in the context of India’s public health and economic situation. We have barely begun to understand the situation. Most observers of the Indian economy are painting a dire picture, but we don't know how bad it is going to be yet. 

The extent to which a scheme will work depends on what the economy looks like and which parts of the economy need help. The BJP is good at coming up with grandiose ideas. Before the pandemic, Modi was traveling around the world and cozying up to Trump. This international projection of India's power in the world has been a key component of the Modi government's image. The Modi government is good at crafting a savvy political image through its affiliate media outlets. But it has been much less forthcoming in terms of hard facts. And given that uncertainty we just don’t know how the Aatma Nirbhar campaign will fare. 

Nandeeni Patel CMC '21Student Journalist

Ganesh Dhamodkar, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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