A different kind of illness

by May 15, 2020 0 comments

With Covid-19 looming large, social justice, the signature tune of our Constitution,  still eludes scores of citizens in these troubled times

 Noble words like “justice”, “liberty” and “equality” in the Indian Constitution’s preamble — “We the people of India… do hereby adopt, enact and give to ourselves this Constitution” —  safeguard the staggering population of above 137 crore citizens amid adversities. Pitching real issues over rhetoric to improve our Human Development Index (HDI) ought to be sensed pragmatically. With a plan to impose lockdown 4.0 to wage war against the Coronavirus, the Government announced a Rs 20 lakh crore special economic package. This is equivalent to around 10 per cent of India’s GDP, which is the component of Aatma Nirbhar Bharat or self-reliant India. Further, the Prime Minister has stated, “Corona will be with us for a long time but our lives cannot revolve around it. We will wear masks, we will follow doh gaj doori (keep a distance of six feet) but we won’t let it derail our targets.”

However, stories of starvation are becoming the new normal. The migrant population is struggling to manage one meal a day. Unemployment and desperation are all around, be it in rural or urban areas. In the aftermath of the lockdown, distribution networks of crops are choked and sometimes the State Governments are clueless on how to move the food to where it is most needed. At the beginning of this year, the World Economic Forum reported that India ranked 76th out of 82 countries on the social mobility index. This precisely signals the sordid state of social justice. Reflecting on inclusive development, the United Nations (UN) has underlined the aspects of HDI, equality and justice in its ambitious 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) comprising 17 objectives. Nonetheless, the Corona crisis will upend the timeline and derail the development of prescribed goals. It has infected the SDGs at the very core.

The National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) has taken up the challenge to achieve the SDGs. Aroya Setu, the Government’s app, is enabling the machinery to identify potential Covid-19 cases in the country. However, the infection has claimed above 2,500 lives, rendered millions jobless and stranded people at numerous locations with empty bellies. This makes one question the achievement of inclusive development and social justice on the constitutional apparatus as 5.5 per cent of India’s total population is under the extreme poverty line and is battling the epidemic alone. Rights groups have demanded adequate social security measures for women and labourers on a war footing.

Social justice in India is in shambles. Sixteen migrant labourers, who were fatigued and fell asleep on railway tracks in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, were crushed to death. This human loss could have been averted if they had been promised free travel home. Millions are starving and the Public Distribution System (PDS) in many States is unable to address food insecurity as the gap between demand and supply is widening each day. To combat the Coronavirus, the nation is reeling under lockdown 3.0, which will extend into 4.0 after May 17. There are potential problems rising to counter the infection. The doorstep delivery of free rations and other essentials for vulnerable sections of society is yet to be intensified. When normalcy is limping back in a regulated manner, liquor shops have opened which contradicts the theory of meagre supply of essentials for the deprived. In a startling note, the Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies and the Supreme Court have asked States to contemplate online sales and home delivery of liquor.

Usually, the five southern States — Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala — consume half of India’s liquor and also provide major excise to the Government. In the wake of the opening of liquor shops in Delhi, the Government has imposed 70 per cent “special Corona fee” on the sale of liquor, aiming at enhancing revenue, which has been hit hard due to the lockdowns. However, there is chaos outside shops, forcing police to use batons to disperse crowds jostling to buy alcohol. In the melee, social distancing norms are grossly violated. Though the police had drawn chalk circles at the appropriate distances for people to stand in a queue, all their effort was in vain.

With Covid-19 looming large, social justice, the signature tune of our Constitution, still eludes scores of citizens in these troubled times.The Union Government has taken a $1.5 billion loan from the Asian Development Bank to provide social protection to the needy. Understanding that constitutional justice is non-negotiable, State Governments are on their toes to deliver basic amenities to citizens. The Maharashtra Government has announced free ration to the disabled for a month. The policemen, who are above 55 years of age in Mumbai, have been asked to go on leave. The Rajasthan Corona Sahayata Yojana is catering to the needs of the disadvantaged.

The Odisha Government is trying to bring out a whopping 4.86 lakh stranded migrant workers from Maharashtra and Gujarat. The Uttar Pradesh Government has brought back thousands of labourers from neighbouring States. The Government has started train services from the national Capital to various cities. The passengers are made to adhere to social distancing norms and stand inside circles marked on the pathway and the platform. They are subjected to thermal scanning and the trains are being sanitised. However, it still seems that there is a dearth of efforts to meet the requirements of the people in the time of crisis.

In order to achieve its SDGs, India cannot afford to leave anyone behind and there is no other way to end stigma and discrimination than through social justice and inclusive societies. Previously, abject poverty, lack of education, healthcare facilities, gender parity and the inability to reduce maternal mortality rates were the  factors due to which India failed to achieve its 2015 Millennium Development Goals. That cannot happen again.

 Currently, glaring instance of lapses in securing social justice worldwide cannot be ruled out, too. Older Black Americans dying in greater numbers is setting a disturbing trend in the social milieu, warranting a probe in socio-economic and racial justice issues. In Spain, older people were found dead and abandoned and elderly homes were not paid the required attention. In India, such community issues are yet to come to the fore. However, these issues of neglected social justice, human rights and unaddressed social insecurity are not new. It is not during Covid-19 alone, the issues of social unrest were also there whenever any major epidemic broke out in the past. When the Zika epidemic broke out in South and Central America among sugarcane workers, they were subjected to racial, gender and economic inequity. Women in El Salvador from Central America encountered serious barriers in exercising their sexual and reproductive rights.

The West African Ebola epidemic, which killed above 11,000 people, exacerbated the poverty crisis. The endemic was neglected as a social justice issue. Human rights violations were prevalent while dealing with the H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic and the Asian Flu. Similarly, the outbreak of SARS caused social exclusion of a racial minority — the Asian-Canadian group.

Social justice remains a distant dream. Millions were denied social, economic and political justice when epidemics were dealt with from time to time. There are several precedents of nonchalance in enforcing laws and initiatives during epidemics. The Indian Swine Flu outbreak in 2015 resulted in socio-economic inequities. Dana Majhi, a tribal from Malkangiri district of Odisha carried his wife’s corpse on his shoulders as he failed to get a hearse. His wife had died of Japanese Encephalitis and he walked around 10 km from the hospital with his wife’s body.

Social justice, equity and human rights are at the borderline. At this juncture, no one should be left behind and we must end discrimination through social justice and inclusive societies. The politics of epidemics is not the panacea. The approach to the epidemic should be holistic by bringing science, governance and social justice into one fold.

(Courtesy: The Pioneer)

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