Opportunity Cost in terms of DemocracyBy Simran Bais
Measures taken during the phase of emergencies cannot come at the expense of institutional checks and balances Independent India inherited a legal system which was designed to control the colonized era. Caught in the web of COVID-19, several state governments have invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act, first was drafted to deal with the epidemic of Bubonic Plague that swept Maharashtra in 1897. The Act basically prohibited public gathering and regulated travel, routine screening, segregation and quarantine. The government was given enormous powers to control the situation of epidemic. Bal Gangadhar Tilak described as the ‘father of Indian unrest’ by Valentine Chirol of The Times (London) was imprisoned for a period of 18 months. His newspaper, Kesari has criticized the measures adopted by the government in order to tackle the epidemic. The law was stark. It basically ignored the right of the affected population to avail medical treatment, or to care and consideration in times of great stress, anxiety and panic. Silence on these crucial issue bore the expected result. In June, 1897, the Brothers Damodar Hari Chapekar and Balkrishna Hari Chapekar assassinated W.C.Rand, the Plague Commissioner of Poona, Lieutenant Charles Egerton Ayerst, an officer of the administration. Both were declared to be guilty for invasion of private spaces and disregarding taboos on entering into the inner domain of households. The two brothers were thus hanged in 1899. This assassination stormed a revolutionary violence at the turn of 20th century. The government could have paid attention to migrant labor when it declared a lockdown on economic activities, roads, public spaces, transport, neighborhoods and zones in which the unorganized working class ekes out bare subsistence. The result of this slip-up was tragic. The unnerving spectacle of a mass of people trudging across state borders carrying pitiful bundles on their heads and little babies in their arms, without food or money, pricked the conscience of humankind. The neglect of workers upon whose shoulders the Indian economy rests, exposed the class bias of regulations. Confronted with the unexpected sight of people defying the lockdown, state governments and Central government rushed to announce remedial measures. Dispensing with the rights On 31st March, two petitions relating to the welfare of migrants was filed before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, the Central government in defense demanded that the court should allow the imposition of censorship over media reports on measures adopted by the state. The government claimed that panic over the migration of thousands of bare-footed people was based on fake news, and that the scale of migration was over-estimated. Therefore, the court should support rules that no news will be published or telecast without checking with the Central government. The plea was rejected, and the Court suggested that responsible journalism should rely on daily official bulletins. Witness the irony. The government is concerned about reports of involuntary migrations. It is not concerned with the reason why person were forced to walk out of the city in the first place. The issue at hand is not the lockdown or other measures taken by the government. We recognize with great unease that governments easily dispense with basic human rights in the name of managing epidemics. We bear witness to the fact that a group of helpless workers were hosed down with chemical solutions in the state of UP. The specificities of Indian society needs to be studied at large. States are the product of history, composed of layers of meaning some of which have been fashioned for another time. The nature of the state is historically specific. Yet, modern states share a common determination, a ruthless ambition to control the minds and bodies of citizens. Epidemics provide an opportunity to accomplish precisely this, to do away with inconvenient checks and balances institutionalized in the media, the judiciary and the civil society. The dismantling of constitutions and institutions will have a major impact on societies. The central revolving question could be that ‘Do the decisions to control the pandemic have to be at the expense of Human Rights and Democracy?’ On March 6, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, advised governments to ensure that the measures to be adopted to control the pandemic or the virus should not adversely impact people’s lives. “The most vulnerable and neglected people in the society must be protected medically and economically”. At the end, it is imperative to note that the democracy does not permit trade-offs.