Meenakshi Malhotra visits Harsh Mander’s Locking down the Poor contextualising it against the current scenario
Title: Locking down the Poor: The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre
Author: Harsh Mander
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Harsh Mander’s Locking down the Poor: The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre is a moving and poignant account of a crisis that he views as preventable. He gives us a detailed account of the havoc wreaked by the sudden announcement of a nation-wide lockdown in March. In early 2020, the first cases of Covid-19 infection were confirmed in India, and on 24 March the country’s prime minister announced a nationwide lockdown, giving the population of over 1.3 billion just four hours’ notice. It became obvious within a matter of days that India had plunged into a major humanitarian crisis.
In this stringent and harsh critique, Mander, a social activist, demonstrates how grave this crisis has been, and why it has had a lasting impact, from which the economy is still reeling. The author further shows us that this impact is the direct consequence of public policy choices that the governance made, particularly of imposing the world’s longest and most stringent lockdown, with the smallest relief package. The underprivileged were abandoned even as their livelihoods were destroyed and the blue collared work force were pushed to the brink of starvation.
Mander brings us voices of out-of-work daily-wage and informal workers, the homeless and the destitute, all overwhelmed by hunger and dread. From the highways and overcrowded quarantine centres, he brings us stories of migrant workers who walked hundreds of kilometres to their villages or were prevented from doing so and detained. His book can be seen as an expose that lays bare the callous disregard for basic needs during an emergency closure of a country where tens of crores continue to live in congested shanties or single rooms, on pavements with no toilets and no running water and no possibility of physical distancing, even though more than seven decades have passed after independence.
While the pandemic was a world-wise crisis which forced nations and countries to take emergency measures, Mander contends that the response within the country was a betrayal of the common people, the starving millions of India who live on the edge of hunger and poverty. Their increased precariousness, the author believes, was a result not only of a natural but a man-made, humanitarian crisis. It was the result, he says, of a short-sighted governance operating with a middle-class bias, who just refused to take into cognisance the ironies of pronouncements like “wash your hands” “stay home, stay safe”.
The author’s concerns here can be framed in the larger context of his anxiety and fears about the erosion of democratic politics in India. Speaking with the authority of an ombudsman wielding a blunderbuss, Mander backs his account with facts and statistics, observation and detailed reporting. Carrying out relief work in the unauthorised urban slums of Delhi, he sees the desperate situation of the people who are more threatened by hunger than the pandemic. That the government turned a blind eye to the omnipresent reality of hunger and poverty, was appalling to the author. Further, the alarming rise of domestic violence during the pandemic has also exposed the domestic space as a precarious location for many women in India and elsewhere. This fact has been well documented across a range of platforms and though this is not a primary concern in Locking Down the Poor.
The book concerns itself with hunger, the uncertain fate of migrants, daily wage labourers, the deepening class divides and many other issues of relevance. Mander points out the neglect of food security and the dismantling of informal labour rights, the wilful blindness of the courts and the state machinery which forced people into the space of their ‘homes’ regardless of the distress or human cost which has been colossal and disastrous. Commenting on the impact of the lockdown on the upper classes, Mander comments, “For the rich and middle classes, the lockdown was disorienting and a nuisance, but largely seen as necessary.” However, in the absence of safety nets, it was the poor who had to bear the brunt of the devastation that followed.
Thus, he writes that while the “appallingly planned lockdown offered zero protection to the poor, it placed the burden of the most destructive costs on their shoulders.” He also quotes journalist Ipsita Chakravarty who wrote in stark terms that “with the nationwide lockdown, the government drew a cordon around the bodies it wished to protect…pulling up the drawbridges to guard the chosen-those who could afford to stay in. On the bodies of those outside this charmed circle, the lockdown wrought havoc.”
Looking at the crisis of the first lockdown in 2020, after a gap when some time has elapsed, we realise that much of his critique holds true even now. The lack of foresight and proper planning became evident in the second wave as well, given the colossal tragedy of humongous proportions that unfolded in front of us and made all of us — rich, poor, middle -class citizens — mute victims and witnesses. A very comprehensive account of the impact on India of the Covid crisis, Locking down the Poor is also a chronicle of our times, of brutal exclusions that we practice unthinkingly on a daily basis. The book is in a sense as the blurb says a “ledger of our accountability at a time when the poor of India have been brought to despair and abjection by a callous state and an uncaring, unequal society”.
Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL