STR/EPA

India’s stark inequalities make social distancing much easier for some than others

With the coronavirus pandemic continuing its spread around the world, the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, announced a three-week complete nationwide lockdown of 1.3 billion people on March 24. The government advised people to observe social distancing even before the lockdown came into place – but it was only partially effective.

There were several media reports of non-compliance with government advice for all Indians to self-isolate for at least 14 days after recent international travel. In a much-publicised case, a police complaint was lodged against Bollywood singer Kanika Kapoor for not following self-quarantine – she had attended elite parties and travelled across the country after returning to India from abroad.

As a sociologist working in the national capital, Delhi, the conversations I’m having about social distancing show how central India’s inequalities are to its effectiveness. The current crisis has shown how starkly India needs more investment in public sector institutions, especially in public health, for those most vulnerable in the Indian social hierarchy.


Read more: Coronavirus threat reveals the flaws in India's health system


Social distancing in a deeply fragmented society like India is both vertical – along class and caste lines – and horizontal, involving the separation of people within the same groups. India’s already entrenched hierarchies of power meant vertical distancing was quickly introduced. But horizontal social distancing has posed as a much bigger problem.

Reinforced hierarchies

With the lockdown, the more privileged groups in Indian society have quickly established greater social distance between themselves and others around them. It simply required a widening of existing hierarchical power structures in society, which are often based on class and caste. In most Indian homes, domestic workers are rarely allowed to sit on the household furniture or eat with the same utensils used by the members of the household.

Even before the lockdown, one of the earliest measures adopted by Indian elites was to ban entry of part-time hired domestic help into their residential complexes.

A majority of workers in India are in the unorganised informal sector, often on a temporary basis, and employers have no long-term legal obligations for their welfare. With the coronavirus crisis, many of these informal workers lost their jobs.

Both caste and class are hierarchical systems based on the exploitation of marginalised groups in Indian society. The practice of untouchability has been a fundamental aspect of the caste system. As there continues to be a significant overlap between caste and class hierarchies in contemporary India, the suspension of hierarchical relations under the lockdown has essentially followed these established divisions in society. This made vertical social distancing easier to achieve with the onset of the pandemic in India.

Nowhere to go

Yet, the complexities of India’s caste and class layers mean horizontal social distancing – where people within the same caste or class distance from each other – is an onerous task for the marginalised groups in Indian society.

Even in a non-crisis situation, the poorer sections in India have limited access to the basic means of survival and are at a much higher health risk, often living in densely populated slums in urban India or areas in rural India which are segregated by caste. This makes social distancing, while certainly a civic duty, a luxury for millions of poor in India.

The situation is particularly difficult for migrant workers who live in congested slum areas or roadsides often with no access to clean drinking water or toilets. Most are dependent on daily wages. The sudden announcement of the lockdown of a massive country such as India, with only four hours notice, and the suspension of all public transport left thousands of migrant informal sector workers in cities without any means of basic survival. Many have begun walking long distances to their homes or families in rural areas.

Indian migrant labourers on a bus to Uttar Pradesh in late March. Harish Tyagi/EPA

In the first week of the lockdown, 17 migrant workers and their kin died trying to return home. As the state borders are sealed, there have been multiple reports of these groups being beaten up or harassed by the police deployed on the roads to secure the lockdown.

But no immediate action for non-compliance was taken by the authorities against hundreds who flouted social distancing to take part in processions on March 22 in cities like Ahmedabad, in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, as well as in Mumbai in Maharashtra and Indore in Madhya Pradesh. They were showing their support for the government at the end of a one-day curfew, but took to the streets a few hours before it was over.

Neither has there been official condemnation of the chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath. A day after the lockdown began, he participated in a pre-dawn religious ceremony in Ayodhya to shift the idol of Lord Rama into the temporary structure where a new temple is to be built.


Read more: Ayodhya: the history of a 500-year-old land dispute between Hindus and Muslims in India


Inequalities laid bare

The lockdown has served to exacerbate the already gaping inequalities in Indian society. An estimated 21.9% of Indians live below the poverty line, according to official data from the most recent census in 2011-12. More recent analysis suggests the rural poverty figure could be slightly higher.

India’s decision to implement a swift lockdown is laudable. But it should have had a better financial and social welfare plan to deal with the rising coronavirus threat in the weeks before the sudden lockdown, instead of scrambling for it afterwards. The effectiveness of the welfare package of Rs1,700 billion (£18 billion) announced by the Indian government in helping the poor remains to be seen.

Without a significant corresponding social welfare plan to enable the most marginalised people to survive while on lockdown, its enforcement will continue to worsen inequality.

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