People's Stories Freedom

India’s Poor suffer most under Lockdown
by Palagummi Sainath, Pranab Bardhan
Project Syndicate, Democracy Now, Rural India Online
4 June 2020
India must follow Supreme Court orders to protect 100 million migrant workers. (UN News)
The Indian Government must urgently comply with a Supreme Court order to ensure the wellbeing of more than 100 million migrant workers, after coronavirus measures left them jobless, forcing them to travel long distances home, UN independent human rights experts said on Thursday.
“We are appalled at the disregard shown by the Indian Government towards internal migrant laborers, especially those who belong to marginalized minorities and lower castes”, said the Special Rapporteurs on the right to housing, Balakrishnan Rajagopal, and on extreme poverty, Olivier De Schutter.
Instead of protecting their rights, the experts maintained that the Government has not only failed to address migrants’ “dire humanitarian situation” but further exacerbated their vulnerability, “with police brutality and by failing to stop their stigmatization as ‘virus carriers’”.
After losing their income and with many migrants forced by their landlords to vacate their homes, the experts said many were living in intolerable conditions, hungry and without shelter, saying: “We hope the Supreme Court order will be promptly implemented and help to dramatically improve the situation of internal migrant workers”.
The Supreme Court has ordered the Government to properly register them, ensure free transportation and provide the migrants with shelter, food and water until they reach their homes.
Moreover, railway companies are mandated to ensure trains are available to transport them back to home villages, as requested by the Government.
Many internal migrants have also been assaulted by police for violating the sudden lockdown orders put in place by the Indian Government on 24 March, which, that took no account of the difficulties many vulnerable people faced in complying with them.
“While we applaud the Government’s efforts so far to provide ‘relief packages’ for people living in poverty, and to schedule extra train rides, these have been clearly inadequate and insufficient due to the vast majority of internal migrant workers not qualifying for relief packages, and the lack of coordination among state governments for the transportation of internal migrants”, the independent experts said.
Although the scale of the COVID-19 crisis in India is “testing the Government’s commitment to protect the rights of the most vulnerable members of society”, they maintained that by urgently assisting internal migrant workers, in compliance with Supreme Court’s order, “it will give the Government the opportunity to show its willingness to comply with its responsibilities under human rights law.”
The experts’ call, also conveyed directly to the Indian Government, has been endorsed by Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri; the Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health, Dainius Puras; and the Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes.
May 22, 2020
Amy Goodman from Democracy Now interviews Palagummi Sainath an award-winning Indian journalist and founder of the People’s Archive of Rural India, on the impact of Covid 19 in India.
India just saw its biggest spike in coronavirus cases in 24 hours with 6,000 new reported infections, as an estimated 3 million seek shelter from a powerful cyclone and tens of thousands have no work or food.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn to India, which is starting to loosen its nationwide lockdown and just saw its biggest spike in coronavirus cases in 24 hours. India, a country of 1.3 billion people, has reported more than 118,000 confirmed cases, more than 3,500 deaths. This comes as the most powerful cyclone to strike eastern India and Bangladesh in over a decade killed at least 82 people this week, forced an estimated 3 million people to leave their homes to seek shelter.
Meanwhile, a nationwide strike is underway today by many of India’s trade unions against the suspension of labor laws. Since the lockdown began in March, many hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have been left jobless, face dangerous journeys to return home to smaller villages across India, most of them by foot. Hundreds have already lost their lives en route home. This is a migrant worker.
MIGRANT WORKER: [translated] Our employers threatened us when we went to ask for help. They said, “Do whatever you like. We don’t care.” Our families are really worried. They’ve been calling us over and over for days. We don’t have any food or water here. On the contrary, we are being beaten when we ask for it.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Mumbai, India, where we’re joined by the award-winning Indian journalist P. Sainath. He’s the founder of People’s Archive of Rural India, or PARI, which focuses on rural India, where more than 833 million people live, speaking 780 living languages. But first, I want to play part of an interview by PARI with 11-year-old Paras Madikar. After the lockdown, his father lost his job as a driver, and the boy began selling vegetables to help his family make money.
PARAS MADIKAR: [translated] At 5:30 every morning, I go and get whatever vegetables I can find. And then I have to sell it. Those who want to buy, they buy it. Many people buy vegetables. Many don’t. I get very little time to study. I find little time in the morning. In the afternoon, after eating lunch, I again study for some time. I like going to school very much. My neck is hurting.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s an interview by PARI, the People’s Archive of Rural India. For more, we’re joined by its founder, journalist P. Sainath. If you can start off by talking about this boy, and even the founding of your archive, the kind of journalism you’re doing now? You were a well-known, major journalist, a mainstream journalist, but you felt that the people on the ground, the majority of India, were not being covered, their voices not heard.
P. SAINATH: Well, the average Indian national daily gives 0.67% of its front page for news of rural origin, where 69% of the population live. So, obviously — there is not a single newspaper, not a single national newspaper, not a single TV channel that has a national-level rural affairs editor or correspondent full-time, nor is there a full-time correspondent on the farming beat, nor is there a full-time correspondent on the labor beat. So, obviously, that gap is very huge. And we try filling it.
But I’d like to answer your thing about the boy, Paras Madikar. He was at school. He had never been a child laborer before. When they shut down the school, his father lost his job. His mother lost her job. Amy, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, India lost 122 million jobs in the single month of April — at an unemployment rate of 27.1%, now down to 24%, 25% — 122 million jobs. And those were nonfarm-sector jobs, like his father, who was a watchman, a Chowkidar, a security guard in a building; like his mother, who was a cook in a canteen. All these jobs went.
122 million jobs is three times what you’ve lost in the United States. 91.3 million were people who were small vendors, hawkers, tiny little stores, mom-and-pop stores. Many of those jobs are not coming back.
Paras Madikar, that boy, he is one of those children who was thrown onto the streets to earn something, because his school shut down, and you don’t get the midday meal anymore.
But it’s also very important for you to look at the large picture of what’s happening to these migrants. And it’s not just the migrants who are in trouble. You know, I think that COVID-19 has presented us — and, I think, much of the world — with a autopsy of the neoliberal policy of 28 years in India. I think it’s done the same elsewhere for other countries. We now know how fragile large sections of the population are, after all the boasting about 8% growth and 9% growth and stuff.
On last Sunday, the government of India passed an order. You saw that long march of the migrants, right? The government of India passed an order for a nationwide curfew between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. You know what that does to the migrants on the highway, the millions of people on the highway? They’re marching anywhere between 300 and 1,000 miles, Amy. And these people now can only march between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. in temperatures ranging — you know, in temperatures ranging from 103 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s what the the people on the highways are now doing. Imagine that kind of thinking. It makes rules to protect the beautiful people, and it has no part for the marginalized.
Look at how it’s thinking on hunger. We have not, in living memory, seen this kind of immediate, urgent hunger on the streets as has been happening here. This country is sitting on what the government says is 77 million tons of surplus food grain. I don’t use the word “surplus”; I think that’s a fraud. But it has 77 million tons of buffer stock. You know what it’s doing with that stock? It’s given permission — the government has issued permission last month to convert large portions of rice — I don’t know how many million tons — into ethanol, so that you can create large quantities of hand sanitizer.
OK? You’re destroying food grain to create hand sanitizer, which also involves large-scale use of water. And, of course, that ethanol will also go to blend petrol for fuel. I mean, this is the level of thinking when people are so hungry, when people are actually on the edge of starvation. We now know, after 28 years of this path of development, how narrow is the distance, how minimal the distance, between insecurity and hunger, and hunger and starvation.
The other thing they’ve done — what the states have done in response to this hunger and chaos and marches? We have reopened. You know what’s one of the first things to reopen, even before the so-called relaxation of the lockdown? Thousands and thousands of liquor shops. Maybe, you know, we’re being advised that you go on a liquid diet. I don’t know. But you have opened thousands of liquor shops. And the queues for those can be up to two kilometers, making a mockery of all the physical distancing stuff. But this is the way we are thinking. This is the way we are behaving.
So, I mean, you’ve lost 122 million jobs. People are terribly hungry. You have 77 million tons of grain piled up, and you’re thinking of creating ethanol from it. So, we really are — the migrants and others also are in a terrible, terrible state.
I also want to say that it’s not just the migrants. We, in the People’s Archive of Rural India, we didn’t discover labor migrants on March 26th after the lockdown, like the rest of the corporate media did. We cover them 365 days a year. We know who they are. We know them personally.
As you said when you were introducing the subject, that — you know, you got a guy to say that “We are being beaten. We are running out of water. We are running out of food.” Amy, those — earlier, when migrants walked — they did walk long distances, even earlier, to go home — they would have tea stalls, little bus stands and stuff along the way, where they would stop, work for the evening, earn their way to the next 40, 50 kilometers, earn their way to the next 60 kilometers, to the next bus stand, where they would work in a tea stall.
All those tea stalls and restaurants on the highway are now closed under the lockdown. So you’re going to have a lot of deaths from non-COVID ailments, old Indian friends like diarrhea, dehydration, hunger, exhaustion. These sort of things are happening.
You know, let me give you one example. One example, the case of young Jamlo, a 12-year-old girl, Indigenous person, who had gone with a party of people from her village — not her parents, but with others — to work in the chili fields, in the red chili fields of the neighboring state of Telangana. When the lockdown came and everyone was thrown off their jobs and their work, Jamlo walked 140 kilometers. A 12-year-old girl, she walked 140 kilometers in three days. I spend a hell of a lot of my time walking about the countryside. I’ve never done 140 kilometers in three days and nights. And she fell dead 60 kilometers from her home, in exhaustion and from muscle fatigue.
How many Jamlos have we now condemned the migrants to, when we bring in a curfew that says you movement of individuals is strictly forbidden between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.? How many more Jamlos are we pushing over the edge? The entire process of what’s going on is so utterly barbarous and, you know, shows what we have made of people.
Do you know — let me tell you a little aside about the 77 million tons of food. Do you know how much that is, Amy, in the kind of bags we pack it? If economists, like Jean Drèze, calculated 15 years ago — because we’ve had that surplus for more than 15, 20 years — that if the 77 million tons of food grain, if the sacks were laid in a row, you could reach the moon and back twice. It’s twice the distance to the moon. So you could go and come back, and you would still have some more grain left over.
You could easily, if you chose, meet the people’s hunger. You could do that. The food distribution system under neoliberalism has not functioned — the stocks have not functioned to keep prices low. They are functioning to keep prices up.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what this means right now for India today. And also, if you can talk about the — you can talk about the prejudice, the racism being expressed, trying to use the pandemic against Muslims in India and against Chinese Indians?
P. SAINATH: Yeah. Well, it’s not just Chinese Indians, but all people from the northeast who look Chinese to, you know, so-called mainstream India. But two things have been happening. I do understand that there has been racism, that there has been sectarian propaganda in many parts of the world, not the least in the United States, where you had the great “kung flu,” right?
But I do not believe anywhere else it’s at this level of communal, sectarian prejudice, where television channels don’t cover the coronavirus, but cover said suspected Islamic conspiracies that planted it here, because there was an event by a small fundamentalist group, a religious gathering in Delhi, which turned out to be a super spreader. But there were many other events by other religions and other groups, etc., but this was an identified one. And there are millions of people receiving WhatsApp messages in multiple languages telling them — you know, say, quoting a district judge, a retired district judge, who can’t be traced — and there seem to be so many of them, because they seem to be in all languages — about how this whole thing was planned by Islamic groups to devastate India, Hindu India. OK? That’s one.
Second, fishermen in the east coast — and I want to make this point to your audience, Amy. Today we are talking about the migrants. There are millions of relatives of those migrants back in the villages they’re going. They are no less devastated. Yeah, the migrants are having it physically worse. But millions of livelihoods across the country were smashed by the way we organized and implemented our lockdown.
Fishermen in the east coast of Andhra Pradesh, my home state, they are — you know, there is, anyway, a fishing ban between April 15 and June 14 to conserve fish stock, because that’s the breeding season for the fish, now, which means that the two weeks preceding that are the heaviest fishing period. Those couldn’t happen because of the lockdown. And then, when the poor fishermen steal out at 2 a.m., 3 a.m. in the morning, at the risk of their lives, and bring back a few fish to eat, they’re not able to sell the rest. Either they sell it at one-fourth the price, or they’re told by customers, “Hey, we have seen on WhatsApp that these fish are from the east. They’re from China. And they’ve got — they’re carrying the coronavirus.” I mean, it is funny, but it is so bloody widely accepted.
AMY GOODMAN: Sainath,I wanted to go to your comment that COVID-19 presents us with a autopsy of 28 years of neoliberalism in India.
P. SAINATH: Well, one, as I said, it’s shown us what these policies on food — it’s like, for instance, for 35 years, we’ve all accepted — right? — that healthcare is something to be bought, sold, traded, and that health insurance equals health. This is neoliberalism. We have a country where the maximum amount of the health system is in private hands — I mean, where the maximum expenditure on health is from poor people, from their own pockets. That’s one, on the health.
On the education system, now what happens — all the rich schools and the colleges and private universities will switch to “online education.” What happens to the tens of millions of children in government schools where you’re lucky to have a decent blackboard? What happens to them? So the education system is smashed. This was also the pushing of so-called affordable private schools. All this stuff came with neoliberalism. So we’ve been smashed on the hunger front, on the education front, on the health front.
And we now face a very serious crisis in the coming monsoon crop season, because after 25 years we promoted, like anything, cash crop for exports. If we repeat cash crops in the coming season, you’re going to have starvation.
Because worldwide, as you know, income and consumption growth have crashed. Nobody is going to have huge orders of sugarcane and cotton. That’s not going to happen. Even the previous season’s stocks are piling up. We are desperate in the People’s Archive of Rural India, appealing to farmers, “Grow only food crops, or you and your families are in very serious trouble.”
May 21, 2020
The Tragedy of India’s Poor, by Pranab Bardhan. (Project Syndicate)
By imposing one of the world’s harshest COVID-19 lockdowns before preparing adequately or consulting with lower levels of government, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has inflicted unprecedented damage on India’s economy and on the poor, who live hand-to-mouth at the best of times.
According to some estimates, more than 120 million people lost their jobs and incomes immediately after the lockdown was ordered on March 24. And about half of the country’s population of 1.38 billion is likely to have been impoverished, with many approaching starvation levels.
Shortly after the lockdown started, India’s finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, announced a relief package amounting to under 0.5% of GDP. The program consists primarily of extra food rations, and merely frontloads pre-existing small income grants for farmers, while offering a pittance in cash assistance for women with bank accounts tied to the government’s financial inclusion program, known as Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana. And survey data suggest that only about half of India’s poor women have Jan Dhan bank accounts.
Then, after seven excruciating weeks, Modi announced with great fanfare on May 12 that his government would adopt a rescue package worth 10% of GDP. But while this sounds much better than what came before, a closer examination reveals that the amount of immediate relief for the poor remains minimal.
That “10% of GDP” includes all the liquidity enhancements announced over the previous three months by the Reserve Bank of India. Worse, most of these funds remain unused, because commercial banks have been unwilling to lend them on to private-sector firms.
The banking sector’s stance is understandable. It has been obvious for years that India’s economy suffers from deficient demand, which is why it was in a prolonged slowdown before the pandemic arrived. Now that the lockdown is inflicting deep economic losses, an increase in bank lending would most likely do little more than add to the stock of bad loans.
To be sure, the latest rescue package includes a credit guarantee (not actual loans) for 4.5 million microenterprises and small and medium-size businesses (out of a total of 63.4 million across the country). It also includes working-capital assistance for farmers (though many do not have the Kisan credit cards required to receive it) and street vendors (though only for about half the ten million in urban India), and a budget increase for rural public works. But, again, while these measures could help to restart disrupted production and supply chains, they will not solve the staggering demand problem (except possibly from the rural works program).
After weeks of callous disregard for the plight of tens of millions of migrant workers, the government has now announced two months of grain rations. These workers have been hungry and homeless since suddenly losing their jobs, and, with public transportation locked down, many had no choice but to walk hundreds of miles with luggage and children to their villages. Hundreds died on the way.
In general, the government’s response has largely excluded hundreds of millions of daily wage laborers and urban workers. A substantial increase in cash assistance to all these people – with or without bank accounts – would have gone a long way toward boosting aggregate demand.
Likewise, the government could have done more to discourage major non-farm employers from shedding their workforce, such as by offering a significant wage subsidy for workers on their payrolls (as many other countries, both rich and poor, have done).
The Modi government has also ignored the pressing need for a large-scale transfer of central funds to near-bankrupt state governments that have been covering most of the spending on health care, agriculture, and social protections, and have little capacity to borrow at low cost. Instead, the government’s decision-making remains over-centralized, with little participation by local governments and communities, resulting in confusing and conflicting administrative rules.
In a country with a chronically underfunded health system, the immediate priority should have been to invest in a massive public-health program, particularly at the primary-care level. A government focusing on what really matters would have launched a decentralized program for testing, contact tracing, and quarantines, while providing special protections for vulnerable populations, such as those over the age of 65 (a mere 6% of the population). This would have allowed for a cautious early relaxation of the lockdown for the rest of the population, who could return to earning a living.
Weighed against the scale of the looming disaster, the government’s fiscal response has been pitiably small, still amounting to a mere 1% of GDP or so. Modi and his advisers are probably worried about the government’s perceived fiscal rectitude in the eyes of the credit-rating agencies (what some call “Modi’s fear of Moody’s”). But not even a high credit rating will stop – let alone reverse – the capital flight currently gripping India; a fiscal chastity belt at a time of economic collapse and widespread destitution is unlikely to help.
Of course, in the medium term, the bill for a larger rescue program must be paid. This would be painful – but not impossible – with the help of public borrowing, a drastic reduction in subsidies currently benefiting the better off, and a significant increase in taxation. Given that India, a country of extreme wealth inequality, taxes neither wealth nor inheritance, and under-taxes capital gains and real property, plenty of untapped revenue sources are available.
A “corona levy” toward an overhaul of the country’s public-health system would also be timely. Needless to say, vested interests will vehemently oppose any new taxes. But there is no better time than a crisis to overcome such resistance.
The great political paradox of contemporary India is that despite all the hardships that Modi has visited upon the poor, he retains considerable popularity among them. A significant portion of the electorate seems to have bought into his fiery rhetoric of muscular Hindu nationalism. (And he certainly hasn’t been hurt by the opposition’s fecklessness.)
Hardly anyone now remembers that in February and March – crucial weeks for pandemic preparation – Modi’s party was busy spewing hatred against minorities and dissenters, even as the virus was raging in a neighboring country.
It is hard to accept that Modi’s popularity will remain untarnished by the problems arising from his clumsy mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis. But if the past is a reliable guide, his hammy bravery against the virus and other elusive enemies may continue to work for him politically, even as it leaves tens of millions of Indians worse off.

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Albanian Psychologists Prohibit Anti-LGBT “Conversion Therapy”
by Ryan Thoreson
Human Rights Watch
May 20, 2020
Albania’s Order of Psychologists has announced that it will prohibit members from offering “conversion therapy,” or pseudo-therapeutic attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
The decision effectively bans conversion therapy in Albania, as registered therapists are required to be members of the group in order to legally practice.
Albania’s prohibition is a welcome development, even if discrimination against LGBT people in the country remains high. Studies have shown that efforts to change sexual orientation and gender identity are ineffective, and may foster anxiety, depression, suicide, and other mental health problems.
The World Psychiatric Association has criticized these fraudulent therapies as “wholly unethical,” and the Pan American Health Organization has warned that they pose “a serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people.” A wide range of medical associations in places such as Brazil, Hong Kong, India, Lebanon, Turkey, South Africa, and the United States have similarly condemned these practices.
Therapies that purport to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity may also constitute serious human rights abuses. These efforts often involve discrimination, restrictions on movement, and physical and sexual abuse, and may at times amount to torture or other forms of ill-treatment.
In recognition of these facts, many countries have begun to proscribe these efforts, especially in psychiatric and medical settings.
Malta, Ecuador, and Germany have used criminal law to regulate the practice, punishing violators with fines and imprisonment. Other countries, like Brazil and Taiwan, outlaw it via professional sanctions. Lawmakers in many countries around the globe are considering bans on the practice, including in Australia, Canada, Chile, France, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, and the United States.
As countries debate the scope of conversion therapy bans, one thing is clear – conversion therapy is widely recognized as ineffectual and psychologically harmful. In addition to banning the practice in psychiatric and medical settings, countries should take steps to educate mental health professionals and the public about the harm that it causes, provide support to survivors, and work to lessen the stigma that drives people into conversion therapy.
Albania’s decision should spur medical and mental health professionals in other countries to take a strong stance against conversion therapy, and to formally condemn it as a dangerous and discredited practice.

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