As India continues to be in the world’s largest lockdown to contain the Covid19 pandemic, the central and state governments need to adopt some important lessons to make the gambit successful. In just a few days, the lockdown has exposed the crevasses in India’s frontline defence for internal security that risks turning the shutdown into a futile exercise.
The nationwide lockdown is a security operation — perhaps one of the biggest in the history of India. A shutdown of this magnitude — with 1.3 billion people confined to their home — cannot be imposed without a proper security plan in place. The so-called ‘Janta Curfew’ can succeed for a day or two but for a lockdown that may run for weeks, perhaps even a couple of months, the government has to have a long-term strategy with some flexible tactical responses in place. What we have seen so far is a blanket imposition of what is essentially a curfew without any consideration for the natural impulses of the population, and their consequences.
To expect a lock, stock and barrel compliance from the population in rest of India is simply unrealistic.
Unlike in Kashmir, the population in the rest of the country has not witnessed weeks of curfews every year. The majority may not even know what a curfew means or how to deal with it. In the Kashmir region, the population has developed a resilience towards lockdowns. The same is true for the security forces, who have mastered the art of locking down an entire population — this includes tactics of imposing barricades at choke points, knowledge of trouble spots within an area and also finding means of allowing essential services. Thus, to expect a lock, stock and barrel compliance from the population in rest of India is simply unrealistic.
This is precisely why we are witnessing police forces across the country raining batons on violators of the lockdown. Videos have emerged on social media showing poor and hapless migrant workers being assaulted in public view by the police. The use of brute force may keep people confined to their homes in the short run, but beyond a point it may create problems of its own. The more severe the police action, the greater the chances of a breakdown of law and order in days to come. As it is, the anxiety and stress caused by staying at home in addition to the panic caused by the virus outbreak will tend to push the population into a corner, both physically and mentally. Against such a backdrop, provoking the population into defiance can cost the state dearly.
The lockdown should not become a collective punishment for 1.3 billion people. It is imperative that the firm hand of law enforcement should come with a human face. Mindless use of violence is avoidable, simply because there is no grave threat posed by individual violators who may very well be unmindful of the consequences of venturing out of homes or may just not be used to prolonged periods of shutdown.
It is imperative that the firm hand of law enforcement should come with a human face.
Clearly, the lockdown was not thought through sufficiently. By merely focusing on confining people to their homes, the state has ended up creating an unintended and unforeseen crisis. Hundreds and thousands of migrant workers are on major national highways, attempting to walk hundreds of kilometers without food and water, making efforts to reach home as they have lost either employment or shelter, or both.
Videos and pictures emerging from the streets bordering Delhi show that social distancing, which was the primary objective of the lockdown, has not gone to plan. These workers are not just at a greater risk of contracting the virus, but worse, once they reach their hometowns, they run the risk of becoming transmitters for an outbreak in remote corners of the country.
This crisis created by the exodus migrant labour raises a very serious question — has the lockdown already failed?
India is walking a tightrope with on this. Given the size of the population, community transmission in just dozen-odd districts will cause a humanitarian catastrophe. India has to make serious efforts to nip in the bud any possibility of community spread to avoid such a disaster. With a few thousand cases, death tolls in countries like Italy, Iran, Spain and others have shown the potency and exponential growth of the viral load.
India has to make serious efforts to nip in the bud any possibility of community spread to avoid such a disaster.
Thus, to ensure the lockdown is successful in achieving the desired objectives, the Ministry of Home Affairs should issue fresh standard operating procedures to all state police forces. These SOPs should take into consideration the basic fact that this lockdown is not for enforcing law and order but to ensure social distancing without disruption of basic human needs — of food, healthcare, and most importantly, shelter.
The SOPs should come with clear instruction to lower constabulary to allow movement of individuals for procurement of day to day essentials for their households. In a lockdown situation, a single overzealous officer can turn life into hell for the people residing in his area of duty. It should be clearly stated that the current lockdown is not a military curfew but a precautionary measure to avoid public gatherings and ensuring people maintain a healthy distance as they go about meeting their basic needs. Thus, the use of force is avoidable. Instead, filing cases against individual violators, sealing establishments who stand in violation could act as better deterrents.
Similarly, demarcations should be put on streets, as is being done in some parts of the country, to ensure social distancing is maintained during the relaxation period. This may result in a much needed behavioural change and this effort should be led by the police and local admin.
State governments cannot merely shut down borders and leave poor, hapless people wandering on the streets. People who have lost their livelihood are naturally bound to make a move for their villages so that they don’t have to bear extra expenses in paying rents and maintaining a second home. A nationwide operation for the movement of people stuck on state borders is needed, followed by a quarantine process. Jammu and Kashmir has already put in place quarantine facilities at the Union Territory border. People travelling into J&K are allowed in only after they agree to being quarantined for 14 days. Such facilities should be put in place on all state borders.
Jammu and Kashmir has already put in place quarantine facilities at the Union Territory border. People travelling into J&K are allowed in only after they agree to being quarantined for 14 days.
Srinagar district of Jammu and Kashmir was the first to impose a lockdown in India after the first positive case was detected. Yet ,the supply chain of the essential commodities was not affected, simply because the administration has learnt lessons from previous experiences of imposing curfew. For the supply chains to work unhindered, the tax invoice of goods carried in trucks or vans can be treated as a curfew pass. More so, the movement of goods can happen overnight, as it generally happens in J&K during curfews.
Most of the issues that have risen out of the current lockdown have been resolved in a much better manner in J&K. Central and the state governments should seek inputs from the administration of J&K to make the lockdown experience seamless.
The government plan must also take community participation into account. In a lockdown, every individual is a pillar of strength to the other. Without floundering the principles of social distancing, it is important to find out ways in which people can help each other. While the absolute isolation of individuals might be a desired-out outcome of the social distancing it cannot happen at the risk of leaving the poorest and the most vulnerable of our society at the mercy of God or that of apathetic policemen only waiting to use brute force.
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