Surviving Covid-19 – and Modi

On December 31 last year, as China first alerted the WHO about several cases of unusual pneumonia in the port city of Wuhan, India was in the throes of the largest protests the country had witnessed since Narendra Modi and the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) first took power in 2014. 

Thousands of people were on the streets, protesting against anti-Muslim citizenship laws, and the nation looked set to face a 2020 that would revolve around a contest over the future of its secular constitutional democracy. 

Three months later, the equations have changed as the Covid-19 pandemic has tightened its grip on the world. India registered its first case of the virus in late January. Since then, the number of cases has increased to more than 600, and 10 people have died as a result of the illness. 

This is moderate compared to countries like China, Italy, Iran, and the United States, but the prognosis for India does not look good. In fact, even conservative estimates suggest that India will see approximately a million confirmed cases and as many as 30 000 deaths by late May. 

The initial response from the Modi regime centred on a cautiously optimistic “don’t panic” approach. However, on Tuesday this week, Modi finally declared a 21-day lockdown, exhorted Indians to practise social distancing and careful hand hygiene, and warned against hoarding and panic buying of basic goods.


However, in order to fully grasp the situation that India is currently confronting, we need to look beyond the Covid-19 pandemic and Modi’s immediate responses to it. 

This is because the impact of the pandemic is going to be shaped in crucial ways by how it intertwines with an ongoing development crisis in India.  

What does that mean? Isn’t India one of the dynamos of the world economy, and an emerging power on the global stage? For sure, this is the image that Modi prefers to tout both to India’s citizens and to the world more generally. 

But it is very far from the actual truth. Contrary to Modi’s promise during the 2014 election campaign that he would extend the development miracle that he claimed to have engineered in his home state of Gujarat, the BJP government has in fact presided over a protracted slowdown in the Indian economy. In fact, late last year, India’s real gross domestic product growth rate was reported to have shrunk to 4.5%, the lowest the country had seen in 26 quarters. 

So far in 2020, credit rating agencies have downgraded India’s growth forecast twice. This is the climax of a process of stagnation that has been ongoing, according to data from the World Bank, since 2016. Consumption is down, as are investments — despite Modi’s tax cuts to the rich. 

Activity in the manufacturing and construction sectors has also contracted significantly in recent years. Covid-19 will undoubtedly worsen this scenario. As lockdowns and social distancing further dampen economic activity, unemployment will increase much beyond its current 45-year high of 8.5% of the country’s workforce. 

However, the slowdown under Modi is just the tip of the iceberg. The tremors of the coronavirus pandemic will hit an economy shot through with fault lines that have only deepened since India began to liberalise its economy in the early 1990s. 

The most evident fault line is this: despite the fact that India’s economy grew strongly from the early 2000s up to 2016, some 60% of the population lives on less than $3.10 a day, while the richest 1% in the country hold more than four times the total wealth of the poorest 70% and the top 10% earn 56% of all income. 

What these numbers reveal is that economic growth in India has failed to reach the country’s working classes in any meaningful sense. And this, in turn, has to be understood in light of the fact that more than 90% of all Indian workers are employed in the country’s informal sector where wages are low, working conditions poor, and access to social protection is very limited. 

The Covid-19-fuelled intensification of India’s slowdown will doubtlessly deal its harshest blow to this disposable workforce. Work is drying up — a fact that has already been made amply clear by a large exodus of migrant workers heading from major cities back to their villages. 

Street vendors, domestic workers, carpenters and plumbers, taxi drivers and rickshaw pullers, construction workers and daily labourers — these are just some of the precarious workers whose livelihoods are now being dramatically undermined by the impact of the coronavirus. 

An Indian labourer stacks bricks by balancing them on his head at a brick factory in Nepal. (Narayan Maharjan/NurPhot/Getty Images)

The cruel paradox here is very clear. When the Indian economy was growing at higher rates, this was in large part fuelled by the cheap labour provided by the country’s informal working class. 

And now, it is precisely their informal status that makes this working class so intensely vulnerable — not just because they are easily hired and fired, but also because their access to social protection and public welfare services is extremely limited. In a nutshell, what we will see unfold in the time ahead, are the perverse consequences of the world’s largest democracy having consistently failed to extend social rights to its poorest and most vulnerable citizens.    

This becomes even clearer when we consider the fact that India, a middle-income country, has invested very little of the fruits of the growth that the country has witnessed in its social infrastructure. 

As a result, India’s development indicators — for example, infant mortality rates and malnutrition — are far weaker than those of poorer South Asian neighbours such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. 

The situation is particularly grave when it comes to healthcare. Consider, for example, that in 2017, India had only 0.5 hospital beds per 1 000 people, and that there is only one public sector doctor for every 10 189 people in India, while the WHO recommends 1:1 000. Consider also that the quality of healthcare services in rural areas – the areas to which migrant workers are now returning, possibly carrying the novel coronavirus – is extremely poor, and that 63-million Indians are pushed into poverty every year as a result of healthcare expenses.

These numbers are a direct result of low levels of investment in public healthcare in India — according to the WHO, India ranks near the bottom of countries across the world in terms of public spending on health care as a share of GDP, and spending has stagnated at 1% of GDP over the past two decades.  

It goes without saying that this system will buckle under the pressure that is bound to come. And this will hit India’s working poor the hardest. In addition to having little access to healthcare, they also have no real possibility of practising social distancing or following strict hygiene procedures. Work, to the extent that it doesn’t entirely evaporate, entails physical proximity to other people and living quarters are often crowded. 

As many as 160-million people don’t have access to clean water, and 600-million Indians face acute water shortages. The working poor, in short, are vastly more exposed to risk of infection, and, due to the deficiencies of the healthcare system, they will be vastly overrepresented among those who perish in the coming weeks and months. 

Can India’s poor look to the current regime for succour in this situation? This is highly unlikely. Since Modi came to power in 2014, the rhetoric of development has faded quickly, and has come to be replaced by an increasingly aggressive Hindu nationalism. 

Instead, it is up to oppositional political forces to mobilise around immediate demands for a drastic expansion of social security for informal workers as well as for an immediate increase of access to healthcare.

However, progressive responses, both from political parties and from social movements, must extend beyond this and demand that the world’s largest democracy avail genuine and robust social citizenship to those who languish in its underbelly.

Rallying around social citizenship also provides an opening for linking such a struggle to the concerns and demands of those who, until very recently, were on the frontlines of the struggle against the BJP’s anti-Muslim citizenship legislation. 

In the long run, the defence of secular civil and political citizenship has to merge with the struggle for social citizenship if India is to move beyond the development crisis that is currently being intensified by an unprecedented global pandemic. 

Alf Gunvald Nilsen is professor of sociology at the University of Pretoria. He researches social movements and the political economy of development and democracy in the Global South — with a specific focus on India and the Brics countries

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Alf Gunvald Nilsen
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