Chapter 5 of the ‘Indian Cities and the Nation-wide Lockdown’ webinar series
The fifth session of YUVA’s webinar series ‘Indian Cities and the Nation-wide Lockdown’ on 4 June 2020 focused on the city of Patna. The panelists included Deepak Kumar Singh from the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), Nivedita Jha from Bihar Mahila Samaaj Sangathan, and Pushya Mitra, a journalist with Bihar Coverage. The session was moderated by Sister Dorothy Fernandes from Ashray Abhiyaan.
Sister Dorothy Fernandes began by discussing how the coronavirus pandemic that is affecting the whole world has also had a harsh effect on Bihar. Looking at what the urban homeless, those in the informal sector, and those living in slums across the country have had to face because of this pandemic, we can see how difficult it has been for all of them, especially because of the suddenness with which the lockdown had been imposed. Even when trying to tackle hunger in Patna, the administration refused to work and collaborate with any civil society organisations. Finally, only some community kitchens were set up in a few places. The reality has been that in Patna the civil society has not worked in an organised way. It has been more in the nature of a number of different people coming forward and trying their best to offer what help they can, but in a very unorganised way. The second issue is that the government’s promises and assurances have simply not been met. Ultimately, this is not just the situation of Patna, but possibly of the whole country, because there was no preparation done for the lockdown, and the situation of migrant workers has been really very bad.
Deepak Kumar Singh spoke about the condition of the overall state of Bihar from a few perspectives, and some of the interventions that he has been a part of. On the healthcare front, at the beginning of the pandemic the state was very unprepared to handle the situation, with only one testing centre in the whole state, and one proposed. In such a large state, with such a fast moving virus, this would pose the biggest challenge. Added to this was the lack of ground level data, with most of it coming from organisations who were doing humanitarian work; and reports of doctors and other health workers having to operate without personal protective equipment (PPE) kits and other needed equipment. The status of outpatient departments (OPDs), and especially antenatal and pregnancy care was also a big concern. Together with a few others, some from the healthcare sector, Singh mentioned how they wrote to the government outlining a series of suggestions, such as dividing the state into zones and focusing on having at least one testing centre in each of these zones to ensure coverage. Since then, the government has made some interventions and the situation has improved.
The next set of challenges was with respect to food and rations. For the poor and for many thousands of workers, whose livelihoods had stalled, this was a huge crisis. With Sister Dorothy, they sent a letter to the government asking to ensure ration distribution without forcing a compulsory ration card, and argued that the Right to Food is a fundamental human right. The government gave an assurance that they would ensure this, which was a relief. Still, there were problems with implementation, like the shops not staying open, people still being asked for ration cards, etc. The rules and regulations were not effectively implemented.
In terms of housing, people from over 100 settlements had been asked to vacate their homes as a demolition was planned, but when they moved the High Court saying that doing this during a pandemic would be disastrous, the department denied any plan for demolition, so that was settled. Another intervention was on mid-day meals and anganwadis, since with schools and anganwadis shutting down, access to food for children was a huge issue. The Bihar Education System suggested cash assistance, but very little was given , and a newspaper report by Pushya Mitra showed only an average of Rs 7.5 per day per child. One should look at the mid-day meal systems in different states (eg. in Kerala — where dry ration like wheat, pulses, jaggery, etc was provided) — why can’t a similar thing happen in Bihar, where malnutrition is already a very serious issue?
Singh also mentioned that their intervention in the issue was ongoing, and the focus was on the influx of numbers, the loss of wages, and trying to secure social security and ration supplies for all who need it.
Nivedita Jha from the Bihar Mahila Samaaj Sangathan highlighted how the difficult situation of the pandemic had been made more difficult by the policies of the Central Government. The imposition of the lockdown without sufficient planning led to great difficulties, with more stories of suffering based on hunger and poverty than on the disease itself — this shows that there is a systemic failure on the part of the government. She mentioned how the country could have saved hundreds of workers from starvation and deaths, but still there doesn’t seem to be a clear plan for the issue of the workers or the disease. She then shared a few figures that the government had provided — the Bihar CM Relief Fund said that workers would get Rs 1,000 in their account, so 29 lakh people registered for it, the government has claimed that 20 lakh people have received the amount; quarantine centres have registered 14 lakh people, with the state saying that each will get Rs 500 when they recover; and 1 crore, 41 lakh ration cardholders were given Rs 1000. She then emphasised that it is extremely important to verify and monitor these numbers to see whether people were actually receiving this money and rations, especially because health and nutrition are the biggest issues in the state. She agreed with Singh that rations should be provided regardless of a ration card, but that this was not the case on the ground. The issue of corruption also needs to be tackled.
The situation of healthcare in the state is also very serious; one of the worst factors being no OPDs in Bihar, even for other diseases where doctors are required, and that there are no facilities for patients. People aren’t able to get admitted into hospitals without being tested for coronavirus, but the tests are only happening in 3 public hospitals; even after being admitted people are dying because they are not receiving treatment without having done the test. Another issue is that private hospitals in which cases are found are being sealed by the government, so even these hospitals can’t be accessed by people. This system and policy is inefficient and unsustainable, and cannot continue.
She concluded by once again emphasising that healthcare and nutrition are the most important factors for the state of Bihar and tackling them head-on is the need of the hour.
Pushya Mitra spoke about the lockdown and how the priority of the state government was mainly on the migrant workers from Bihar who are in other states. First, the government asked them not to return and said that provisions would be made for them where they are, but this was not possible and the other states didn’t support this proposal either; then they were called and brought back, but preparations for their testing and quarantine were not made. There has been no attention from the government towards the people who are in the state, even workers from other districts who are in Patna have not had any support in terms of housing, food etc. The only intervention was free food for ration card holders but even this is only being given in a few places now.
A second important issue was of students who come in large numbers to Patna for coaching for competitive exams; they stay in cramped lodges and hostels and rely on the mess food, but messes and hotels being shut during the lockdown created a serious problem for them. Some were even thrown out of lodges, others had to try managing their own food, some even walked home to different cities; the Patna administration could not handle this either.
Although schools, malls, and parks shut early, the planning was not present. Students are struggling to learn online or on their phones, and the schools are pressuring them, but there is no government attention towards this. The Patna city administration hasn’t really taken any steps for the general public during this difficult time. The whole focus has been on migrant workers, and even this has been propped up largely as an election agenda, leaving other, equally important, issues ignored.
Sister Dorothy Fernandes raised the important issue of the lack of data on migration, with no information about how many people leave the state. She also raised the failure at the policy level to provide and account for the city makers who leave their own houses to build other cities, but are never taken into account by either governments or private sectors, who never focus on their rights and welfare. Thirdly, she pointed out that while the middle-class and upper class often look at the informal sector as inferior, those who come to cities and use its space and utilities, the pandemic has shown how the informal sector is truly important and comprise of productive agents, whose work and labour make the cities and their economies what they are.
On the topic of migration, she mentioned that while there may be some data at the state level, there is no granular data, so it is impossible to know from which district people originate, which administration is responsible for them, etc. Even during the lockdown, only the middle class and the affluent were accounted for, nobody thought about how people living in 10×10 houses will ensure social distancing; how people without regular water supply will wash their hands, etc. There are no facilities, no social security for construction workers. What is needed is a universal social security programme — if we do pay taxes, when why can’t everyone have social security? By only treating workers as objects, we do not see their contributions. If we think of that, then we can argue for facilities, rights, and institutions. There are no laws to enable this, and there is no monitoring of schemes announced and promised.
In the Q&A session, on the topic of mohalla sabhas, both Jha and Fernandes said that while there were a lot of efforts to have this, they don’t really operate. Government bodies at all levels tried to shut it down — neither did they work, nor did they allow others to, as that would reveal the shortcomings of the state. When the sabhas were held, a lot of local issues and problems emerged, but this was hijacked by the government. Even though the legal provisions exist, they are not really functional.
The situation of other districts in the state was also discussed, with Mitra saying that the focus is on Patna because there is targeted testing there — mainly for migrant workers — but not active testing for the rest of the population. Despite the government saying 10,000 tests should be happening daily, this is not the case, and if it were then the situation of the other districts would become clear. The district hospitals are also faring very poorly, there is an acute shortage of doctors and nurses for more than a year, and the small number of medical colleges and hospitals are overburdened. There are also no high quality public hospitals.
On the topic of migrant workers, the panelists discussed the Supreme Court response and how to proceed. The lack of facilities, loss of wages, no rations, and the lack of employment in Bihar would be some of the biggest challenges for the government. There had been no proactive social security from the government. The MGNREGA could be expanded to 200 days to ensure some basic income. What is needed now is to push for financial assistance, for immediate job opportunities — perhaps through MGNREGA — and social security for the workers who have returned, and for those who are within the state as well.
Compiled from the original webinar by Andrew deSouza