On 14 March, the disaster-management division of the ministry of home affairs, or MHA, decided to treat the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in India as an officially “notified disaster.” Ten days later, during an address to the country, the prime minister Narendra Modi announced a complete nationwide lockdown of three weeks, which would come into force mere hours after his 8 pm speech. Though high on its emotive appeal to the citizenry, Modi’s speech provided no details on what the lockdown implied for India’s workforce—over eighty two percent of which is employed in the unorganised sector.
Over the next few days, in the absence of any economic assurance from the government, and all means of livelihood at a standstill, the lockdown sparked an exodus of migrant workers from almost all urban centres in the country. It was only two days after the lockdown came into force that the government announced a financial package of Rs 1.7 lakh crore for vulnerable sections of society, including migrant workers. Meanwhile, the MHA clamped down on all inter and intra state transport simultaneously, leaving lakhs of workers who were already on the move, families and belonging in tow, stranded, without food, water or money. The humanitarian crisis facing the migrant population is yet to abate.
Reports of violence against women, and discrimination against marginalised groups also starting coming in as the lockdown progressed. On 9 April, a pregnant patient was reportedly raped by a health worker in a COVID-19 isolation ward in Bihar, and died later due to excessive bleeding. In another case, on 5 April, a pregnant woman was turned away by hospital authorities in Bharatpur, in Rajasthan, and lost the child. The family said that the hospital refused them admission because they were Muslim. Five days later, Harsh Vardhan, the union minister of health, had to direct states to be “mindful that the medical needs of pregnant women… are attended to.” Several news reports have highlighted the surge in incidents of domestic violence against women and children even as the government has been slow to take concrete measures.
On 9 April, a Gujjar family attacked their Dalit neighbours in Palwal, in Haryana, for not switching off the lights as asked by Modi in his address to the nation the previous day. The same week, in Uttar Pradesh, inhabitants of a quarantine facility refused to eat food cooked by a Dalit woman and said that they never took food from a person from the Scheduled Castes. On 11 April, in a district of Bihar, a tea-stall owner died by suicide as he was unable to make a living on account of the lockdown. This handful of accounts is barely representative of the social exclusion and marginalisation being faced by some of India’s most vulnerable groups.
It is pertinent to note that all such possibilities, like sexual violence against women or discrimination against the Dalit community during a national disaster, are already well documented and mapped under a legal framework. This is the Disaster Management Act, 2005, and its concomitant National Disaster Management Plan 2019. The NDMP is a policy direction for the government and has to be followed in the executive’s response system.