Pandemic reveals our apathy for millions losing livelihoods: Columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta on migrant crisis

File photo of Pratap Bhanu Mehta (Photo Credits: Youtube)

Former president of the Centre for Policy Research, renowned columnist and a professor at the Ashoka University, Pratap Bhanu Mehta interacted with India Today’s Rajdeep Sardesai on Friday as the two discussed India’s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak and the various images that have come to define it. As of May 15, India has nearly 82,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. This figure is inclusive of at least 2,649 casualties and 27,919 recoveries.

Referring to pictures of thousands of migrant workers enduring the harsh summer to return to their native homes, hundreds of miles on foot, Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta says that this pandemic has exposed the inner skeleton of our society. “It reveals how easily we can strip millions and millions of people of their dignity and livelihood and literally not care.”

“I understand the first few days but It has been over 50 days and we are still dealing with the problem,” Professor Mehta says adding that Indians who cannot survive without wages are being made to depend on the civil society.

Migrant workers’ crisis

Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta says that the people who have taken to the streets are hard-working Indians who have now been subjected to humiliation, to be made to beg for food. “What we need to be giving them, much more cash transfers, income security, some sense of that their future is not precarious,” he added.

“Unless you have a healthy, independent, educated population, you are not going to be able to sustain growth. The irony is that the only instrument we have used is the much-maligned NREGA to give labour bargaining power, keep them off starvation. John Dreze should be given a Bharat Ratna and a Nobel Price,” Professor Mehta said.

Labour reform

“Our current system, neither was it very good for labour nor for capital. The question is what constitutes reform. There is a draft proposal in parliament, a bill. But what is happening in UP, 12-hour working days, this is barbarism of the nineteenth century. The UP Ordinance simply says all labour laws stand suspended,” Professor Mehta told India Today.

Increasingly coercive state?

Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta says, “The lockdown has exasperated a tendency which was already rising. We are all going to be made to download Aarogya Setu, perhaps that is necessary but is there the appropriate legislative and legal framework that can hold the government accountable? We are moving to a one-way street. The state wants to say we will make citizens completely transparent to us. At the same time, the state’s accountability to citizens is actually diminishing.”


Politics of strong-men

“The pandemic has shined a nice x-ray on how complex things are. Supply chains, public health, economy, all of it together. The idea that some kind of omnipotent leader who one thinks is irreplaceable and could mobilize the kind of collective knowledge to act in this kind is in some senses, laughable. The societies that have come out of this well are societies that will have nurtured habits of solidarity, cooperation and checks and balances,” Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta said.

Demonisation of Tablighi Jamaat

In response to a question by Rajdeep Sardesai, Professor Mehta said, “Communalism has been on the ascent in India over the last few years. You have a national emergency, and the top priority of the government’s political and propaganda machine is to demonise a community and to unfairly demonise a community. What the Tablighis did was extraordinarily stupid but the fact of the matter is it was easier to construct a narrative because they were the only people you were testing. Lots of different clusters have emerged now.”

Will pandemic change nature of politics?

“Indications right now are that instead of resetting this politics, it is actually going to exaggerate the destructive tendencies that we were already unleashing. These are going to be a tough couple of years. Even if you are not an economic determinist, it is common sense to think that as the economics slowly sours, most of our social conflicts will actually break open. What is going to come out of that churn, we don’t know but I think right now, the disappointment in many of us is that this crisis has exaggerated the worst in us rather than taking us down the path of a better social democracy,” Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta concludes.

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About the author: Sohom Das
Founder of Tuccho.

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