Modi’s speech: Unfounded half-truths at best, blatant denial of accountability at worst

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the nation, in Delhi on 14 April. While Modi was intent on showing that the situation in India was under effective control thanks to his government, his arguments were often devoid of a factual foundation. PIB
16 April, 2020

“It is clearly evident from the experience of the past few days, that we have chosen the correct path,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a televised address to the nation on 14 April. “Our country has greatly benefited from social distancing and the lockdown.” Modi maintained a tone of optimism throughout the speech. He tried to cement the idea that the COVID-19 pandemic was a problem his government had always been prepared for. But a closer look at the numbers and the situation on the ground shows that Modi’s optimism is unfounded at best, and a blatant denial of accountability at worst.

The primary aim of Modi’s speech was to announce that the ongoing 21-day lockdown, slated to end the next day, would be extended till 3 May. However, his 25-minute-long speech largely comprised self-congratulatory remarks about the government efforts to contain COVID-19 and contained assurances of the economic and humanitarian well-being of India’s population. While Modi was intent on showing that the situation in India was under effective control thanks to his government, his arguments were often devoid of a factual foundation.

“Before we had even a single case of the coronavirus, India had started screening travellers coming in from coronavirus affected countries at airports,” Modi said. This claim, while being technically true, hides more than it reveals. It is true the Indian government was conducting thermal scans prior to India’s first recorded case of COVID-19, but these scans were conducted highly selectively and often, with poor enough planning to allow for the virus to spread into India. India’s first case of COVID-19 was reported on 30 January, in Kerala. On 17 January, the union government had formally announced that it was conducting thermal scans of passengers coming from China. This announcement was meant for only three airports, and was expanded to seven airports on 21 January.

It was only on 13 February that people travelling from Japan and South Korea started getting scanned at airports, when the countries already had 28 cases each. On 2 March—over three weeks later—the Indian government also decided to add Italy, which had 2,000 active cases, to the list. On 3 March, Raghu Sharma, the health minister of Rajasthan, announced that at least two hundred and fifteen Indian citizens in Rajasthan had come in contact with a group of Italian tourists who had tested positive for COVID-19.

Research by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine also suggests that thermal scanning is a very ineffective screening technique that detects less than one in five people who are COVID-19 positive. The Twitter handle of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Delhi wing had, on 15 March, tweeted the same claim that Modi later made in his speech regarding screening. The very next day, Boom—an independent fact-checking website—had pointed out that this was misleading and untrue.

“Much before the number of coronavirus patients reached 100, India had made 14-day isolation mandatory for all those coming in from abroad,” Modi said, in his speech. This is false. The Indian government, on the advice of the Indian Council of Medical Research, made a 14-day home quarantine compulsory only on 17 March. By 17 March, 143 people in India had tested positive for COVID-19. The contagion had spread to 13 different states by then and the World Health Organization had declared that India already had local transmission of COVID-19.

Several other policies that reduced the spread of COVID-19 which Modi appeared to be taking credit for were often not an initiative of the central government at all. “Malls, clubs and gyms were shut down in many places,” Modi said. However, the closure of these institutions was announced by various state governments including Maharashtra, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka before 19 March. The decision to do so lies fully within the purview of state governments.

“When we had only 550 coronavirus cases, then itself India had taken the big step of a 21-day complete lockdown,” Modi said. “India did not wait for the problem to aggravate. Rather, we attempted to nip the problem in the bud itself, by taking quick decisions as soon as it arose,” he added. However, the government’s hasty and poorly planned imposition of the lockdown itself caused several crises which, instead of nipping the problem in the bud, could have further aggravated the spread of COVID-19.

Following the announcement of the lockdown, lakhs of migrant workers left without food or employment were forced to walk hundreds of kilometres back to their villages. In Delhi, thousands of migrant workers collected at the Anand Vihar bus station, in the hope of going back to their homes in neighbouring states. Accounts from the migrants at Anand Vihar showed that the incident occurred due to a lack of clarity and conflicting messages given by government officials. A similar incident occurred in Mumbai on the day of Modi’s 14 April speech, when thousands of migrants gathered at the Bandra station, attempting to get trains to reach their homes. Hunger due to food inflation and poverty has been reported in several parts of the country during the lockdown.

“Friends, in such a crisis it is not right to compare our situation with any other country,” Modi said. He, however, immediately went on to selectively compare India’s situation with that of other countries. “It is also true that if we look at corona-related figures in the world’s big, powerful countries, India today is in a very well-managed position,” Modi added.

Modi justified the necessity of imposing the lockdown based on the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in each country at the time of the speech. India’s comparatively low number can be attributed to a number of factors. India’s testing rates are worryingly among the lowest in the world, with around one hundred and seventy tests per million. There is simultaneously a major shortage in COVID-19 testing kits. A major reason for this shortfall in testing kits has been bad planning by the Indian government during the lockdown. Manufacturers of testing kits found themselves without labour and also struggled to transport materials across state borders. All of this has meant that testing in the country has been minimal, making the government’s quoting of the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases at very least ambiguous.

“From an economic point of view, it undoubtedly looks costly right now; but measured against the lives of Indian citizens, there is no comparison,” the prime minister said. Modi here, made the debate about the efficacy of the lockdown into a false dichotomy. In merely comparing the possible lives lost to a financial slowdown, he erased from the discussion the humanitarian crisis faced by many migrant workers and those struggling to access food, or dying of hunger. According to COVID-19 Non-viral deaths, a tracker made by Thejesh GN, the chairman of Datameet, to record the number of deaths that were caused due to the lockdown, there were over one hundred and eighty such deaths by 4 April. Several deaths on the tracker have been attributed to police brutality, and many ended their lives after fearing the consequences of the lockdown.

While Modi did acknowledge the economic cost of the lockdown, there are concerns about the extent of his corrective approach. The government seems to be withholding food stocks for accounting and fiscal deficit purposes, during a time where mass hunger is being reported. In a column for Indian Express about food stocks, the economist Jean Dreze wrote, “In economic terms, releasing excess stocks is costless, and even saves money. But in accounting terms, it is expensive.” He continued, “This anomaly makes it harder to release food stocks: Credit-rating agencies watch the fiscal deficit, not the food economy.” On 26 March, the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a financial stimulus package meant to pull India out of the slump caused by the pandemic. The stimulus package of Rs 1.7 lakh crore rupees has been criticised by various economists for not being adequate enough to foster growth. At 0.8 percent of the gross domestic product, it pales in comparison to Italy, which allotted a package worth 1.4 percent of its GDP. Brazil, a country that is economically comparable to India, is offering a series of fiscal measures to end the same slump that costs 6.5 percent of its GDP.

Modi highlighted federalism as a key tool in his approach to tackling the COVID-19 crisis. He said he had “been in continuous touch with the states on how the fight against the coronavirus should progress in India.” But this statement too concealed more than it revealed. Modi’s conversations with state leaders have not always entailed cooperation with them. The economist Thomas Isaac, Kerala’s finance minister, told The Caravan that, as of 6 April, the central government had not allotted any funds aside from the budgeted amounts to the states, nor had it allowed states to increase their borrowing. The centre has given states “absolutely no additional money to fight the pandemic,” Isaac said. “It’s scandalous.”

On 29 March, the union ministry of home affairs issued a set of mandates for state and local governments to deal with the economic and humanitarian fallout of a national lockdown. The centre also attempted to restrict all forms of interstate movement. Alongside this, they asked the state governments to set up temporary camps for migrant labourers without sharing finances specifically for this task. These demands—seemingly an attempt to pass the buck to the state and local governments—threatened to sow even more confusion and result in further persecution of migrant workers and their families. 

Modi, referring to the rabi cropping season—which usually occurs between October and March—said, “The central and state governments are working together to minimise the problems of the farmers.” There are several reasons why this year’s rabi crop harvest could be the worst of the past few years. While the central government exempted agricultural work from the lockdown, the complete crackdown on movement means that there is a lack of seasonal migrants who harvest, load and unload crops. Seasonal migrants are one of the crucial planks of India’s agricultural economy.

Perishable crops, such as grapes and other fruit, cannot wait for the end of the lockdown to be harvested. The centre is yet to announce a plan to streamline procurement or stem the collapse of the prices of these crops. The relief package unveiled on 26 March promised an advance payment of Rs 2,000 from the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme—a direct cash-transfer scheme—and a moratorium on loan repayments. Reports suggest this is insufficient for cash-strapped farmers. With a lack of labour driving the agricultural cost through the roof, and a lack of mandis to sell their crops, the situation seems to be dire for many farmers.

“Friends, the country has ample reserves of medicines, food ration and other essential goods; and supply chain constraints are continuously being removed,” Modi said as he was concluding his speech. But news reports from across the past month have suggested that India does not have such large reserves of the materials and infrastructure to deal with a large crisis.

Health workers have reported the lack of health supplies from across the country. Data from the union health ministry indicated that the number of hospital beds India had were woefully short. It stated that there was one isolation bed for 84,000 Indians, and one quarantine bed per 36,000 Indians. Additionally, it also says that there is one doctor per 11,600 Indians, and one hospital bed per 1,826 Indians. These are dangerously low numbers if the contagion spreads as widely as it has in Italy or Spain. On 27 February, the WHO had issued a series of guidelines, anticipating a global surge in the demand for personal protective equipment. Despite this, India continued to export protective gear till as late as 19 March.

In Kolkata and Uttar Pradesh, doctors who are working on the front lines of the medical crisis have resorted to using raincoats and helmets due to a shortage in equipment. At the Jhansi Medical College in Uttar Pradesh, the nursing staff had not received their salary for seven months. On 25 March, faced with the looming threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, they boycotted work for the day. On 23 March, the Resident Doctors’ Association of King George’s Medical University, Lucknow, wrote a letter, saying that they were facing an acute shortage of PPE kits. In Bihar, junior doctors from the Nalanda Medical College and Hospital in Patna continued to treat patients despite showing symptoms of the virus. In Punjab, health workers wrote a letter on 25 March stating that they “are working in conditions that provide absolutely no protection against contracting the virus that knows no boundaries.” The lockdown, in its immediate aftermath, arrested what little flow there was of crucial supplies of testing kits and PPE from Pune. Doctors are also reporting a shortage of hydroxychloroquine—a drug often used to treat malaria and rheumatoid arthritis—after the Indian government decided to continue its export to the Unites States.

Modi concluded his speech by asking the public to do seven things to help combat the virus. One of these was to, “Download the Aarogya Setu mobile app and inspire others to download the app as well.” The phone application was ostensibly created for Indians to conduct self-assessments for COVID-19 and for the government to geo-tag and contact-trace those who have been tested positive. Many have criticised the app for having the potential to be a tool for mass surveillance. The Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital-rights advocacy organisation, has pointed out that while a similar application used in Singapore specifies that it will be used strictly for disease control, Aarogya Setu does not. “Other apps just collect one data point which is subsequently replaced with a scrubbed device identifier. India’s Aarogya Setu collects multiple data points for personal and sensitive personal information which increases privacy risks,” a report by the IFF said.

Since the beginning of the lockdown neither Modi nor the union home minister Amit Shah have held a single press conference. The general public’s only source for information about the government’s attempt at dealing with the crisis have been daily press conferences by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. From 1 April, heavy restrictions were placed on journalists reporting from these briefings too. State governments such as Kerala’s have been far more accountable, with their chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, holding a daily press conference to share information about the spread of the virus and discuss the shortfalls and achievements of their attempt to deal with it. The Indian government has remained completely unaccountable in its management of both the medical approach to the pandemic as well as the humanitarian crisis that has occurred alongside it. Occasional speeches from the prime minister addressing the entire breadth of the government’s attempt at dealing with the crisis, lack explanation, border on mistruths, and remain empty assurances.