It is causing grave anxiety, unemployment, and can undermine the nation’s agriculture and industry sectors
On Sunday afternoon, an SUV tried to enter the sabzi mandi in Patiala. The Punjab police personnel on the premises tried to stop the vehicle. The driver veered into the barricades and tried to push on ahead. But since the barricade got entangled with the car, it got stuck.
Upon this, five Nihangs ( a Sikh sect, members of which specialise in traditional martial art) got out of the car and assaulted the more than half-a-dozen policemen who were present. A violent conflict took place in which an assistant sub-inspector was grievously injured. Taking advantage of the ensuing chaos, the offender left the scene and took refuge in a nearby gurudwara.
They were later arrested by commandos of the Punjab police. They recovered weapons and lakhs of rupees from the gurudwara. I could not help but think what would have unfolded had the perpetrators of violence been maulanas hiding in a mosque instead of Nihangs in a gurudwara. I suspect it would have led to a public furore. Sikhs and Muslims both are minority communities, but the incident reflects the kind of contradictions we live with as a society.
The national lockdown has led to serious unemployment issues. This has led to frustration and misery. This explains why some workers from other states came out on the streets in Surat on Friday, their helplessness and anger turning very quickly into violence.
The police responded with force to disperse them. It was migrant workers like them who fled cities and went back home after the lockdown was declared. Given their numbers, no action was taken against them. But the workers in Surat were smaller in number and so the police did not hesitate to take them on.
One could argue that the police was left with no choice. But the frustration and helplessness caused by this sudden unemployment can very well lead to violence in other places.
If the lockdown period is extended — some states have already done so — substantial efforts have to be made to give daily-wage workers assistance. This lockdown has become a cause for anxiety, hunger and restlessness among them. The government must be sympathetic to their plight.
Agriculture is the main source of livelihood for a majority of the people and the rabi crop is ready to be harvested. Workers will be required for the harvesting, which seems difficult given the lockdown and the norms on social distancing.
Even if harvested in time, the crop has to reach the mandis and farmers have to be given a fair price for their produce. For this, the supply lines will have to be opened up. Not doing this will create several challenges, the consequences of which could hurt us for a long time.
The shutting of industries and small-scale industries for a longer duration will harm not just the people but also the economy. Industrialists and entrepreneurs have voiced their fears, and demanded that they be allowed to run at least one shift daily. Air routes, trains and national highways will also have to be opened alongside.
This is not to undermine the scale of the health challenge. Some restrictions can be enforced to prevent the spread of the pandemic. For example, the number of passengers travelling in buses, trains and planes can be limited so that social distancing rules are not compromised.
This will not only restart the economic process but create a sense of hope for the future. In districts still free of the virus, the rules can be relaxed toa greater extent.
According to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), India cannot sustain the burden of a lockdown for much longer. The federation has also appealed to the government to advise district magistrates that they should take the help of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme for workers engaged in harvesting the rabi crop.
It has also suggested imposing heavy taxes on imports for the next six months to help the domestic small-scale industry get back on its feet.
It's obvious that while grappling with this pandemic, the government will have to find ways to deal with the economic crisis. As far as the communal virus is concerned, all of us, as a society, will have to fix it.
If we don't, then the future generations could well ask us whether even an enormous blow like the coronavirus was not enough to bring us to our senses and make us banish the communal virus forever.