As the number of coronavirus cases continue to rise in India and the tally crosses the 51-lakh mark, international media is calling out Prime Minister Narendra Modi over what they call his “denial of India’s Covid crisis”.
The Guardian, in its 13 September editorial, said that while the pandemic is not Modi’s fault, he owns his government’s dysfunctional response. The national shutdown, it said, destroyed millions of people’s livelihoods. “Many of the most affected sit on the bottom rungs of Indian society, who were forced with no notice to leave cities for distant villages. Although the national lockdown has been lifted, local versions continue in many states.”
The lockdown, announced on 24 March to stem the spread of coronavirus in the country, triggered a mass exodus of migrant workers to their native places from different parts of the country. Some of them walked, others cycled to get to their destinations. There were several reports of migrant workers getting killed while on their way home.
The Modi government, however, told the Parliament this week that it had no record of the number of migrants who died or were injured during the national lockdown. According to data from June compiled by SaveLIFE Foundation, a road safety NGO, nearly 200 migrant workers died in road accidents while returning to their village homes during the lockdown.
The migrants lost their lives while walking, cycling and travelling in trucks and vans in intense heat, as well as in massive crashes involving state-organised buses, it said, blaming speeding and driver fatigue.
The Guardian editorial also said that Modi’s “short-sightedness will cost India dear”. It pointed out that while initially major cities, which have the best hospitals, were hit by the virus, now cases are taking off in rural areas, which have poor medical facilities.
“With tax revenue a fraction of normal levels, regional governments struggle to provide more than symbolic care or relief. This has been exacerbated by the central government’s refusal to send states the money it owes to them. The cash trail is deliberately obscured and Mr Modi should come clean about Covid spending to dispel concerns about corruption.”
India is only behind the US in terms of total number of coronavirus cases, but a CNN report said on Thursday that unlike President Donald Trump, Modi seems immune from criticism.
“Whereas other populist leaders are feeling the political heat from their handling of the pandemic — US President Donald Trump and his British counterpart Boris Johnson, for instance — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has largely escaped the scathing headlines and crushing opinion polls that have beleaguered his counterparts.”
The CNN report, by Vedika Sud and Nectar Gan, also questioned the timing of the national lockdown announced by Modi. It said most experts agree that the lockdown was imposed with not enough notice or planning.
The report said that some reasons the Prime Minister has escaped criticism is because of a weak, fragmented opposition and political observers pointed to the lack of critical coverage from India’s media.
“With the economy in tatters, Modi has continued to pursue the Hindu nationalist agenda which helped him win a second term. But critics have warned that it could further polarise Hindus and Muslims — the latter have already been subject to vigilante attacks in recent years.”
Earlier this month, The New York Times said in a report that the soaring number of Covid cases and a struggling economy have set back India’s ambitions of becoming a global power, lifting the poor and updating the military.
In the report, NYT’s Jeffrey Gettleman also pointed towards the “damage” caused by the lockdown. He wrote that the Indian economy has shrunk faster than any other major nation’s and as many as 200 million people could slip back into poverty, according to some estimates.
“Much of this damage was caused by the coronavirus lockdown imposed by India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, which experts now say was at turns both too tight and too porous, both hurting the economy and spreading the virus.”
The Modi government has insisted that the lockdown helped India’s fight against Covid. The Prime Minister had said in June that timely lockdown protected the lives of thousands and lakhs of India’s citizens. The Health Ministry also informed the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health in August that the nationwide lockdown helped save between 37,000 to 78,000 lives, according to The Hindu.
NYT said that many economists trace the root of India’s interlocking crises — spiraling infections and a devastated economy — to the moment when Modi announced the lockdown.
The report said tht after ordering all Indians to stay indoors, Modi shut down the economy with four hours’ notice on 24 March.
“Tens of millions of Indians lost their jobs instantly. Many worked in factories or on construction sites or in urban homes, but they were migrants from rural India.
Fearing they would starve to death in city slums, millions poured out of the urban centers and walked, rode bicycles or hitched desperate rides back to their villages, an epic reverse migration from city to countryside that India had never seen. That dragged coronavirus into every corner of this country of 1.3 billion people.”