Uki Research Collective, a Guwhati based researchers’ group, has exhorted the Assam government to take some relief measures for the working class people during the nationwide lockdown, which has been declared as a preventive measure against Coronavirus.
The group in a statement issued by conveners Ankur Tamuli Phukan and Gaurav Rajkhowa said that the state government must provide food and essential supplies to the economically vulnerable section of Assam during this crisis.
Here is the full statement:
Beginning with an outbreak in China some months ago, the Covid-19 pandemic has presently spread to over 180 countries, with countries like Italy and Iran amongst the worst affected. Until a few weeks ago, one held on to the faint hope that India might be spared the devastating the diseases has taken on many societies across the world. But criss-crossed as India is by global networks of trade and travel, this was not to be. But as the spread of the virus abroad and the resulting travel restrictions forced many foreign travellers to return to India, a number of cases began coming to light.
In the last week or so, there has been an alarming rise in the number of cases across the country. The government maintains that there is no local transmission of the pandemic yet; but there are already documented cases of persons with positive symptoms being found on trains and another in Pune of a person testing positive despite having no history of foreign travel. From global trends it is evident that only a small percentage of cases require hospitalisation, and few cases require intensive care and ventilator support.
That being said, in a country such as India even such a small percentage could place an unmanageable pressure on India’s already weak public health infrastructure. And the rapacity of private healthcare providers has ensured that wellness and disease are weighed on the scale of profit and loss. All of these are cause for grave concern.
It is evident that the government expects this outbreak to take on pandemic proportions in India. As the prime minister made clear in his address to the nation, we must all prepare for a long struggle in the days to come.
The ‘janata curfew’ on March 22 was one such effort to create awareness. In a bid to control the spread of the virus, a number of states have already initiated emergency measures. As many as 30 states and union territories have now announced public lockdown until the end of the month. Similarly, railways and bus services have also been temporarily suspended.
According to experts, complete lockdown and extensive testing of suspected cases remain the best ways to control the spread of the virus. We are hopeful that with the announced lockdown will also be supported by increased testing, with the government ensuring that adequate numbers of kits are made available free of cost or at nominal prices.
These efforts must also be accompanied by massive campaign to spread awareness and combat instances fake news and miracle cures that are being propagated through social media. We believe that India will stand shoulder to shoulder with the international community in the struggle against this ominous threat.
Without any confirmed cases in Assam, it has not yet been considered necessary to establish a complete lockdown. Many, however, fear the worst is yet to come. The neighbouring states of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland have already sealed their borders, and Meghalaya has also closed down its tourist hotspots.
The threat of a local outbreak due to the virus travelling across state borders has caused much apprehension across towns and villages in Assam. The state administrative machinery has presently mobilised a response, with efforts being made to increase awareness and bolster medical infrastructure.
Directives are also being issued to dissuade public gatherings. It would not be inaccurate to suggest that a complete lockdown is imminent. Such sweeping measures seem harsh but the situation, no doubt, demands a swift response.
That being said, one cannot deny that these restrictions on social gathering, travel, and business will bring economic life to a standstill. And the most affected in such a situation are always the toiling workers and peasants.
On the one hand, some sectors of industry have not ceased production, exposing workers to risk of infection. On the other hand, they are also the ones who suffer most when measures such as lockdowns affect casual employment and create delays in the agrarian cycle. Even the procurement of daily essentials becomes difficult in such times.
Lockdown measures in various states across India have forced thousands of migrant workers to return to Assam. At the same time, street vendors are being forcibly evicted across the city, leaving them without any source of income to support them through the uncertain days ahead.
Organisations representing street vendors in Guwahati have appealed to the administration to provide them a compensation of Rs 500 per day, but are still awaiting a positive response. Besides the vendors, there are many workers and peasants in the unorganised sector who have been unable to make any such representation.
With an eye on how the disease has spread in various countries, one can expect the present restrictions to be scaled up in the days ahead. In this time of crisis, the government of Assam must rise to the occasion and abide by its duty to the people.
Alongside the restrictions on movement and public gathering, the government must also fulfil its responsibilities towards the economically vulnerable sections of society by safeguarding their health and economic wellbeing.
We demand that the government implement the following measures:
- The government must undertake to provide food and essential supplies to the poor and economically vulnerable sections of society.
- The government must undertake to provide for adequate testing and treatment facilities for the economically vulnerable sections of society. The government must set up arrangements with private laboratories and hospitals to allow for free testing and treatment for the poor.
- Production operations in tea estates across Assam must be ceased by government order. An emergency fund to support the daily and medical needs of tea garden workers must be jointly set up by the government and tea estate owners.
- The government must provide a weekly allowance to all workers in the unorganised sector whose source of earning has been disrupted due to restrictions.
- Disbursements under established schemes such as old-age pensions, etc must be temporarily increased to support the most vulnerable sections of society, including the elderly.
- The government must direct banks and microfinance institutions to defer repayment of loans, etc until the end of the crisis.
We are hopeful that the government will undertake on an urgent basis these essential steps to secure the health and well-being of the working classes of Assam, who find themselves to be the most vulnerable section of society in this time of uncertainty and crisis.