Government’s initial COVID response betrayed its own road map for “biological and public health” disasters

A homeless man, along with several others, was evicted from the banks of the river Yamuna by the state government of Delhi on 15 April, and bussed to various makeshift shelters. The homeless people in Delhi took shelter wherever they could find it amid the nationwide lockdown to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost a month into the lockdown and the humanitarian crisis facing the most vulnerable groups in the country is yet to be resolved. Altaf Qadri/AP Photo
22 April, 2020

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. 

Under the Act, the National Disaster Management Authority is the apex body responsible for framing policies and enforcing them to prevent and control any disaster. The prime minister chairs the NDMA while four other members advise him. 

The act provided the mandate to establish the NDMP 2019, which was framed under section 11 of the act. It is meant to provide “a framework and direction to the government agencies for all phases of disaster management cycle.” It meticulously lays down the protocols for every ministry and department on how to respond to different kinds of disasters, including earthquakes, floods, heat waves, chemical, nuclear and biological disasters, among others. 

In addition, the NDMP clearly stipulates that any disaster-management system, which would include warning, evacuation, relief and rehabilitation, must give priority to what the plan identifies as “vulnerable groups”—Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, women, children, elderly and persons with disabilities. Accordingly, “to remove any ambiguities” the NDMP “assigns specific and general responsibilities to all ministries and departments for disaster management.” 

Consequently, as per the NDMP, the ministry of labour is recognised as “a lead agency” in a “biological and public health” disaster and mandates that the ministry should be involved in “overall disaster governance.” Similarly, the ministry of social justice, and the ministry of women and child development, or WCD, are also designated as among the “lead agencies” in all disasters. Their responsibilities included providing “guidance on preventing, checking and investigating discriminatory approaches” in the government’s response system, among others. 

Just a week before the MHA notified the COVID-19 pandemic as a state disaster, Rajiv Gauba, the union cabinet secretary, had sent an advisory to almost all central ministries and departments asking them “to build up a comprehensive and robust response system,” to the novel coronavirus. The advisory listed out a set of “specific tasks” for each ministry to act on. The ministry of labour and employment was asked to examine how it could repurpose its existing infrastructure for the general public, as quarantine centres and as isolation facilities. The ministry runs around 145 hospitals across the country that cover the health expenses of government employees who earn less than Rs 21,000 a month. The advisory to the labour ministry was silent on the need to explore measures for economic stability for India’s workforce in the case of an outbreak of the virus or the enforcement of containment measures.

 The WCD ministry was asked to “facilitate utilization of Anganwadi workers and supervisors in surveillance and other community-level activities” and “mobilization of Self-Help Groups(SHGs) to create awareness.” The ministry of social justice was not given any directions. 

In fact, an examination of the advisories, orders and press releases, from the highest executive offices involved in managing the outbreak, between 17 January and 9 April, revealed that all three ministries—labour, social justice, and women and child—were conspicuously absent from the decision-making and planning process of the government’s strategies to tackle the pandemic. As per the press releases on the website of the press information bureau, the central government did not include either the minister or secretaries of the ministry of social justice in any deliberations or execution at any stage of the COVID-19 response during this period. Representatives from the WCD ministry and the ministry of labour were involved in some meetings, but their role was limited to expanding the network of health facilities available. Not one of them was included in any of the top executive bodies handling the COVID-19 response. 

The NDMA, chaired by Modi, currently includes GVV Sarma, member secretary, Kamal Kishore, a technocrat with expertise in disaster risk reduction and recovery, Rajendra Singh, a former director-general of the Coast Guard and Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain. As the apex body under the disaster-management act, the authority’s job includes the approval of a national plan that would work as a blueprint to respond against a disaster; issue guidelines to state authorities, central ministries and departments to coordinate enforcement and implementation of disaster policies; and recommend fund allocation, among others. The authority is assisted by a national executive committee which is currently headed by Ajay Bhalla, the home secretary, as its chairperson. The committee executes the operational orders of the NDMA through district magistrates. In a time of emergency, under the law, the prime minister can take control of any or all of the NDMA’s responsibilities. 

Between13 January—the day the first case of the new virus was reported outside China—and 24 March, Sarma issued three advisories to the chief secretaries and administrators of the states and union territories. The first on 17 January followed by two more on 4 February and 5 March. None of the advisories asked the states to prepare for the consequences of the pandemic on the livelihoods and social inclusion of vulnerable groups. All the advisories were primarily focused on directing the states to maintain social distancing, examine hospitals and quarantine facilities and monitor international travellers. 

Sarma issued the NDMA’s first order, which would be binding as opposed to the advisories, only on 24 March. The order asked the states to take strict “measures for ensuring social distancing.”  Safeguard measures for vulnerable groups during the lockdown again completely escaped mention. 

On 24 March, following the NDMA order, Bhalla, the home secretary, in the capacity of the chairman of the national executive committee, ordered the states to enforce the lockdown strictly. He issued guidelines that listed essential services that should remain open and functional, unhindered and with minimum manpower. The guidelines also listed the laws—the disaster-management act, the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, and section 188 of the Indian Penal Code—which the states could use to enforce the lockdown. The list of essential services was soon followed by two other addenda, on 25 March and 27 March. So far, the MHA has issued five addenda to its original lockdown order issued on 24 March. 

The addenda reveal a lack of foresight and some bizarre oversights in the planning for the lockdown. For instance, the government exempted the police, home guards, civil defence, fire-emergency services, prison and disaster-management offices in its original order but said nothing about allowing transport exemptions for the staff who would man these offices. The next day, the addendum was updated to include transportation. Among the list of exemptions to several government offices, the first order did not mention the Reserve Bank of India and many other financial regulators like SEBI. Similarly, while the original order had allowed the sale of essential products, it said nothing about logistics—warehousing and transportation—which again the ministry corrected through addenda. Even the addenda showed a chaotic decision making process with no clarity—eventually, the government had to clarify that all goods carriers were allowed in the lockdown, a measure that could have easily been implemented in the first go. And as recently as 19 April, a representative from the MHA announced that non-essential goods would not be supplied during the lockdown, during a press briefing. 

The NDMP requires all the agencies involved in risk management “to assess the needs of all the marginalised sections and particularly the vulnerable groups [women, children, SCs, STs, elderly, persons with disabilities].” It categorically specifies that agencies involved have to ensure that “vulnerability mapping exercises” are conducted “to identify properly all relevant factors.” But  government communication available in the public domain—from 8 January, when the ministry of health and family welfare, or MoHFW, held its first meeting on the outbreak with various stakeholders, including the World Health Organization, till the end of March—contains no such directions. 

While the government started monitoring the outbreak in early January, it was being done at the level of the MoHFW and was more in context of screening incoming travellers from China. But, according to a press release issued by the ministry on 12 March, the prime minister had been monitoring the situation since 31 December—that day China first approached the WHO with “pneumonia of unknown cause.” 

However, institutionally the prime minister’s office got involved in the outbreak management in early February. According to a press release issued by the MoHFW, on 3 February, PK Mishra, principal secretary to Modi, held a meeting to review the situation, and the quarantine of 654 Indians evacuated from China over the previous two days. The meeting had been called on the directions of the prime minister and was attended by Ajit Doval, the national security adviser, PK Sinha, the principal adviser to the prime minister, Gauba, the cabinet secretary, Bipin Rawat, the chief of defence staff, and the secretaries of several ministries. 

That day, the prime minister also directed the constitution of a group of ministers, or GoM. It was comprised of the ministry of health and family welfare, the ministry of civil aviation, the ministry of external affairs, the ministry of shipping and the MHA. A week later, the ministry of chemicals and fertilisers was also included. The GoM is chaired by Vardhan, the union health minister. Since then, the GoM has been working as the top decision-making body for the management of the outbreak. 

Notably, the ministries of social justice, labour and WCD were not included in the GoM. According to the press releases issued by the MoHFW, till 9 April, the GoM had held nine review meetings and not one of them featured either a minister or secretary from these three ministries. The GoM review meetings were also attended by the secretaries of the constituent ministries and by secretaries from some other ministries as well. Again, the secretaries of the three ministries were absent from the list. From the first week of March onwards, even representatives from the ministry of textiles, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Indian Army and the directorate of foreign trade became regular attendees to these meetings, yet no minister or secretary from the three ministries was there. The review meetings were about travel advisories, visa suspension, monitoring incoming passengers, tracing their contacts, enforcing social distancing and preparing for hospital and quarantine facilities. None of the meetings discussed the possible consequence of the lockdown on the marginalised and at-risk groups, either before 24 March or after it. 

During January, a committee of secretaries had also been formed to constantly review the situation. This committee operates under the chairmanship of the cabinet secretary, Gauba, parallel to the GoM. The cabinet secretary also held review meetings with secretaries of the ministries who were part of the GoM, from 27 January onwards. Apart from them, representatives from the pharmaceutical department, the Indian Army, the ministry of information and broadcasting, the ministry of commerce, were also in attendance. 

Till 9 April, Gauba had chaired at least 11 meetings with the committee of secretaries, according to the press releases issued by the MoHFW. The ministry of social justice and WCD were not a part of any of these. None of the meetings either discussed or took any decision regarding protecting the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, women, children, elderly, disabled or sexual minorities during the pandemic. 

In at least two meetings of the committee of secretaries, conducted on 27 and 30 January, the union labour secretary was present but nothing related to securing the livelihoods of the workers during the pandemic was discussed. On 3 March and 22 March, the committee of secretaries issued directions to the ministry of labour, though both directions were related to asking the ministry to explore hospitals and quarantine facilities. All the meetings of the cabinet secretary with the secretaries were initially focussed on screening of people coming from China and other countries through land, sea and air routes, then on hospital preparedness, and then on enforcing social distancing. 

Between 8 March and 9 April, Gauba also issued five advisories to the chief secretaries of all states—four of them did not contain any directions or references to protecting the livelihoods of marginalised groups or their possible exclusion from the government’s response system. Only one advisory, issued on 22 March, two days before the lockdown, asked the states “to request industries, establishments etc to allow their employees to work from home and provide remuneration to them during this period.” The advisory also asked the state governments to take “protective measures… to mitigate any hardships that may be caused” and was vague about what possible measures the states were required to take. 

Similar advisories were issued by the ministry of labour on 20 March, to the chief secretaries of the states. The advisory said, “public/private establishments may be advised to extend their coordination by not terminating their employees, particularly casual or contractual workers from job or reduce their wages.” Beyond this meagre advisory, which is in no way binding, the ministry has done little to safeguard the livelihoods of workers from the unorganised sector and migrant workers. 

The ministry of social justice, on the other hand, has not issued even an advisory so far. The WCD ministry put up a three-page document on “coping strategy for children and caregivers,” after the lockdown. Till 9 April, not one guideline, advisory or order has been issued from the ministry for women and child welfare about concerns regarding sexual and domestic violence against women and children during the pandemic or denial of treatment to them. 

The ministers for these two departments have also been elusive, their theatrics notwithstanding. Ramdas Athawale, the union minister of social justice, was seen singing “Go Corona Go” with Tang Guocai, the Chinese Consul General in Mumbai. And Smriti Zubin Irani, the union minister for women and child welfare, shared tutorials on how to make masks at home on her social media accounts. 

Despite the visible social exclusivity of vulnerable groups from the government’s disaster mechanism, the administration insists that it planned the lockdown keeping the poor and the marginalised sections in consideration. On 27 March, AA Srivastava, an activist and lawyer, filed an instant writ petition in the Supreme Court highlighting the inadequacy of the financial package announced by the minister of finance Nirmala Sitharaman, on 26 March. In particular, the petition asked for a speedy and humane resolution for the woes of the migrant workers stranded across the country, either in cities or on the highways. 

On 31 March, the attorney general Tushar Mehta submitted to the court that the decision on the lockdown “was taken after detailed and careful deliberations with Expert Group and after considering all possible eventualities and options in detail.” Mehta added, “the central government was fully conscious that during the period of an inevitable lockdown, no citizen should be deprived of basic amenities of food, drinking water, medication, etc. The central government, therefore, worked out a financial package with a view to take care of such inevitable hardship. Under the ‘Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana’, a package of totaling Rs 1.70 lakh crore has been announced.” 

The package though was announced two days after the national lockdown came into force and migrant workers were already on their way home on foot. The government, however, tried to downplay the migration by comparing their number to the total number of migrant workers in the country. Mehta reduced the agony of migrant workers to mere numbers and told the court, “there are approximately 4.14 crore who have migrated for the purpose of work/employment… The present barefoot migration which has taken place consists of - on a very rough estimate - 5 to 6 lakh persons across the country.” He added that around ten lakh migrants were currently housed in various makeshift shelters, built by the side of the highways, across the country. The government instead blamed the exodus of the migrant workers on “fake news” being spread by “certain media.” 

The government also submitted to the court that on 29 March, the MHA had passed an order under the ambit of the disaster management act which prevented landlords from evicting the migrant workers, and their employers from firing them or cutting wages. The apex court bench, headed by the chief justice of India SA Bobde, accepted the government’s argument and noted “we are satisfied with the steps taken by the Union of India for preventing the spread of Corona Virus [COVID-19] at this stage.” 

The same day, Harsh Mander, a former bureaucrat and an activist, filed a petition in the apex court, challenging certain details of the MHA order of 29 March. According to the order, employers had been asked to pay the workers, but only at the workplaces. Mander contended before the court that in the middle of a lockdown how would workers get to their workplaces to collect their wages? In addition, all the workers who had already reached their native places, or were stranded on highways would also not benefit from the order. Mander argued that most migrant workers are employed in small-scale units which would not have the capacity to pay workers. In addition, he stated that a majority of workers live in slums and do not have rent agreements, so the MHA order would not afford them any protection. Mander asked the court to pass an order directing the government to pay all the migrant workers wherever they are. 

On 7 April, Mehta responded to Mander’s petition with a scathing personal attack. Mehta told the court that Mander “wanted to file the petition and therefore he has filed the petition” without bothering to collect “true and correct facts.” The attorney did not respond to any of the contentions raised by Mander and labelled them as Mander’s “personal knowledge.” Interestingly, Mehta submitted the same status report that the government had given to the court on 31 March in response to Srivastava’s petition. The status report had not been updated with any responses to the points raised by Mander. 

On 11 April, Mander filed a counter affidavit against the government’s response. He argued that the financial package would benefit only a miniscule percentage of the intended beneficiaries due to the technicalities involved. For instance, food distribution under the public distribution system was based on domiciled ration cards and consequently, most of the migrant workers would not be eligible; most construction workers are not registered and so would not benefit from a fund set up by the government. The court is yet to give its verdict on the petition. 

During the first three weeks of the lockdown, two major cases of public unrest were reported—from Surat in Gujarat and New Delhi. In both cases, migrant workers revolted against authorities enforcing the lockdown and violence ensued. On 11 April, in Surat, several migrant-workers pelted stones at the police and burnt vendor carts over fears that the lockdown was going to be extended and they would be stuck for an indefinite period. On 12 April, in Delhi, migrant workers and civil-defence volunteers got into a scuffle during the distribution of food in a relief camp. In the chaos of the violence, the shelter camps were set afire and the workers lost what meagre belongings they had left. Two days later the prime minister extended the lockdown till 2 May. His address was still silent on any assurances.