Migrant disaster in Covid-19 lockdown: Silencing NGOs has proved costly

Topics Coronavirus | Lockdown

The failure to assess how migrant daily-wage workers would react to a sudden lockdown suggests that the present government may be on a journey without maps. How else does one explain its inability to formulate a plan to protect this hugely vulnerable section of the urban population?

Planning inputs should have come from the bureaucracy, political parties and from NGOs and civil society organisations working in the informal sector.

The bureaucracy failed to alert the government to the possibility of the tragic migration back to the villages. Worse still, as migrants walked, carrying their belongings and small children, they were beaten up, baton-charged and frog-marched on interstate highways and occasionally sprayed with chemical bleach like dead animals by an insensitive system.

Did the government seek the views of the bigger states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, West Bengal, Haryana, and Delhi which receive a large number of migrants or the states which send them, like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa? With the Modi government’s opaque functioning no one knows if these stakeholders were consulted.

Had Prime Minister Modi taken the Opposition into confidence on his plans to control the pandemic, he might have had useful inputs from parties, such as the Left parties, that are more sensitive to the marginalised. Perhaps even his own party’s MPs from the affected states might have given him some inkling of the disastrous consequences of hasty decisions. Admittedly, the Bahartiya Mazdoor Sangh, the trade union front of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has been critical of the Modi government’s labour policies for leaving out unorganised sector workers from the ambit of social security programmes. However, its influence over the government is no match for the corporate spell over it.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has no grassroots cadre of its own relying entirely on the workers of its mother organisation the RSS. The RSS has a huge cadre – it holds meetings everyday with about 70,000 shakhas (literally, branches or basic units) across India. Could it be that the RSS is so focussed on wooing the urban middle classes, that it has no time for footloose labour?

The RSS has experience of dealing with disasters ranging from cyclones and Tsunamis to earthquakes. But in all these natural disasters its relief intervention came after the event.  It has also been efficient where religion is involved. Thus its supporters are good at preparing temporary shelters and proving free food to Kanwariyas ferrying holy water from the Ganges to their village, for example. It is perhaps at a loss on how to deal with unfolding policy disasters which do not have religious overtones.

NGOs and civil society organisations could have been key in bringing the policy sensitivity required in the government. However, the Modi government has deliberately blocked all channels of communication with them, squeezed their funding, especially from abroad, and increased their compliance requirements disproportionately. It is estimated that NGOs in India today have more reporting compliance requirements than private companies that receive foreign revenue and remittances.

Volunteers prepare meals to be served to the homeless and daily wagers at a shelter amid the nationwide lockdown, in wake of coronavirus pandemic, in Thane | Photo: PTI

Restrictions on the funding of NGOs and civil society organisations increased after the 9/11 attacks in the US as governments the world over took special measures to prevent terror financing and money laundering. However under the guise of this objective, India, and many other governments, throttled NGOs and civil society organisations critical of their human rights record and development agenda.Guidelines of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) were used for ‘policy laundering’ -- legalising increased NGO surveillance and regulation.

It was the United Progressive Alliance government which drew up the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) in mid-2010 to comply with the FATF guidelines. Some of the NGOs were seen as being “political” in nature. The Modi government extended this policy further cancelling the licences of nearly 24,000 NGOs between 2014 and 2017.

The NGO space was thus opened up to be occupied by in-house NGOs and front organisations of the RSS. However, RSS-affiliates have failed to populate this space effectively because they lack the democratic perspective required for protecting human rights, and because they are uncritical of the state’s development agenda. Their raison d'etre is ideological advancement of Hindutva into all available interstices in society and to silence voices that challenge them. In this contest their competitors have been deemed “urban Naxalites” and with the State invoking the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) against them. The suppression of Dalit assertion from Bhima Koregaon to Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh is also a reflection of this.

The result is that the State’s civil society link is broken beyond repair. The Manmohan Singh government was only able to keep up a dialogue with civil society because of the creation of the National Advisory Council (NAC) under the Congress party pressure. The NAC played a role in nudging the government to pursue the interests of the poor and ensure transparency, accountability and democratic governance. The NAC can be credited with the formulation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and minimum wages, The Right to Information Act, several pre-legislative consultative processes, Lokpal, Grievance Redressal Bill and the Whistle-blower Protection Bill.

The Modi government has no such advisory body and the RSS cannot fill that space. There was no Aruna Roy, Jean Dreze, or a Harsh Mander to advise Prime Minister Modi that food, shelter and financial support for daily-wage earners had to be planned before announcing the lockdown. The Modi regime has lost out on the social wisdom that could have prevented the unfolding tragedy. This wisdom neither exists in India’s stultified bureaucracy nor amongst professional politicians.

When they are most needed to aid the government efforts to control Covid-19, NGOs and civil society organisation stand financially starved, organisationally weakened and demonised. They have, however, begun addressing the fallout of the policy haste of the government by running voluntary kitchens for the stranded migrants. However, their slender means may not be enough to deal with the consequences of possibly the largest post-Partition migration within India. 

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