Class, Caste and Discrimination during India’s Lockdown: Interview with Gunika Rishi

“The nation’s struggle against the virus cannot be kept in isolation from the struggles against a caste and class-based society,” says Gunika Rishi about the current situation in India. Rishi is an MA student of Urban Ecological Planning at NTNU writing her thesis with UN-Habitat in New Delhi, and is next up in GRIP’s miniseries on COVID-19 and inequality.

#10 Miniseries on COVID-19 and Inequality

“The nation’s struggle against the virus cannot be kept in isolation from the struggles against a caste and class-based society,” says Gunika Rishi about the current situation in India. Rishi is an MA student of Urban Ecological Planning at NTNU writing her thesis with UN-Habitat in New Delhi, and is next up in GRIP’s miniseries on COVID-19 and inequality.

We are already seeing how the impacts of the COVID-19 are unevenly distributed depending on where you live, your job situation, age, class position, gender, ethnicity, the availability of health services, and a range of other factors. In this series, we provide short interviews with scholars and relevant organisations that share their insights and views on how the pandemic might exacerbate or alter existing inequalities across six key dimensions: social, economic, cultural, knowledge, environmental and political inequalities.


Photo: Gunika Rishi

Next up in the Global Research Programme on Inequality’s (GRIP) miniseries on the coronavirus and global inequality is Gunika Rishi. Rishi is a final year master’s candidate in Urban Ecological Planning at NTNU, Norway, and is currently writing her thesis with UN-Habitat in New Delhi.


To what extent can we now see inequalities both between and within the states of India becoming accentuated as a result of the corona outbreak?


Nowadays, the media can be found juxtaposing the COVID-19 with a world war, wherein the enemy, per se, is invisible. Our generation might not be able to contest the liveable severities of a world war, but the fact that we are witnessing an equivalent loss of social infrastructure and livelihoods, is enough cause of worry.


At 8pm on the 24th of March, the Indian nation saw an unprecedented lockdown that was implemented by midnight, rather dramatically. The lockdown came without any prior notice, rendering no time to prepare for both the state government and the citizens, for the 21 days to follow.


With the immediate shutting down of surface transport, visuals of innumerable families stranded on various state borders, with heavy bags on one side and small children on the other, covering miles on foot, started surfacing across the media. These were labourers from neighbouring states working on daily wages, who were rendered jobless as well as homeless. Consequently, a mass exodus of migrant labourers back to their villages got underway. As many died without completing this arduous journey, others had to choose to either save themselves from starvation or a foreign virus.


On 14th of April, a day prior to the conclusion on the first lockdown, an extended 19-day lockdown was announced, as abruptly as the first one. Thereafter, the city of Mumbai witnessed thousands of migrant labourers gathered outside railway stations, as hoax news regarding the resumption of railway services spread. The news that followed included police brutality, out-of-job daily wage labourers, and the homeless taking to sidewalks and surviving on one meal per day.


The world’s largest lockdown in India is aimed at containing the infection, but has become a living nightmare due to the absence of a coordinated and integrated effort. The unorganised sector, that employs a vast majority of the workforce, has suffered the harshest blow. These incidents stand in testimony to the fact that benefits like “work-from-home” are surely a privilege, limited to a few. Today, the brunt of the crisis is borne by the daily wage workers, the migrant labourers, the farmers, who would only reap a loss of crop this season, and especially rural India, that lacks even the basic infrastructure to endure a pandemic.


On the flip side, the state of Kerala has served as a benchmark for how state-run health care systems and a vigilant state response team could control the rapid onset of the virus. Kerala, the only social welfare state, has conducted the maximum number of tests and has succeeded in flattening the curve due to early detection. Walk-in kiosks were installed to ensure rapid testing. In the early weeks of March, Kerala was the worst hit state with a high number of foreign-return residents. However, through an alert and vigilant health system they have successfully put in place containment measures. The leadership exhibited by the state government in collaboration with the public health sector, helped build trust through the treacherous periods of lockdown.


In what ways is the global outbreak of the virus also revealing the heightening inequalities with respect to the current political landscape of India?


For a staggering population of 1,3 billion, the situation cannot be assessed without analysing the effects of poverty, class, caste and religion, which add to the complexities that amplify these inequalities. With an unemployment level that was dipping south even before the pandemic, increasing police brutality, religion-based politics, unequipped medical infrastructure, supply chains being disrupted, and a predicted food shortage, the future looks like a mere compensation. While the government is pulling all strings to grapple with the realities of the current situation, it is apparent that darker days are in store for a large part of the population that used to depend on a daily earned income and are now living hand to mouth.


However, the situation of the pandemic in the country has to be understood in the context of the political scenario currently prevailing. Earlier this year, while China and parts of Europe were confronting a soon-to-be pandemic, India found itself crippled by a communal turmoil. There was a growing resistance against a controversial and an alleged anti-Muslim citizenship law that was passed in the parliament. While several states across India staged peaceful protests, Delhi witnessed the largest women led, sit-in resistance; the impetus of which was to save the very essence of a constitutionally designed democratic and secular nation.


By the 23rd of February, incidents of hate speech and the pre-existing communal tensions, snowballed into a pogram, taking the lives of dozens. March brought about a slumber to the protests as the pandemic slithered towards the subcontinent. Thereafter, an irresponsible gathering of Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary organisation, fanned the flames of the hitherto dormant communal unrest in the form of defamation of the Muslim community. This carelessness resulted in the largest spike of cases in India as a third of the 8000 attendees (including hundreds of foreigners) were tested positive.


As state governments and the police tried to trace all the attendees, an anti-Muslim propaganda that accused the community of malevolently spreading the virus had taken a full swing. Conspiracy theories and misinformation were seen spreading at fever pitch and violent attacks against Muslims took to a rise, yet again. While the country was still healing from the damages of an atrocious pogrom, another loomed ahead. With the current political contour, and the growing demonization of the Muslim community, WHO intervened and condemned the religious profiling practices. As the virus intertwined with a longstanding history of religious tensions, the anxiety was bound to peak.


Even though India took timely action to impose a strict total lockdown, the situation cannot be assessed in isolation. The caste and religion-based struggles in India have been a prominent issue that have driven the socio-economic engine of the country. This makes the situation substantially more complex for the minorities and the poor, who are suffering the most through this pandemic.


Are there experiences from India that global stakeholders or researchers concerned with urban inequality should be mindful of?


It is essential to understand that India’s massive population, diverse religious communities, high rates of poverty and illiteracy makes it a distinctive case study. Due to the same reasons, centralised policy implementation, in a unique federal structure, is a strenuous task. The Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi, in his address to the country in early March and April, asked citizens to clap or bang pots in unison, and to light candles in the dark night, to express gratitude and commend the efforts of those on the frontline of the fight against the pandemic. Although, some may term it as a needless spectacle, it definitely served the purpose of uniting an entire nation under a lockdown and promoted a sense of solidarity. Unlike most developed countries, India took steady actions to monitor and screen patients as early as in January and did not waste much time in shutting down borders, cancelling visas and imposing early lockdowns with draconian measures. Internationally, as India combats the challenges within its borders, it has continued to extend medical aid by exporting critical drugs to SAARC countries as well as the USA. A timely reminder that global solidarity is the need of the hour.


Lastly, as an architect and urban planner, I find cities at the forefront in building a more resilient and prepared future. How we interpret and organise informal settlements needs to be revised. Sustainability is not just an alternative today, but the only way to move towards a better future. Metropolitan cities around the world are suffering the most due to high density and unplanned growth, hence, making them most susceptible to be the epicentres. Today, as we crunch numbers and speculate what the new ‘normal’ would look like in the post-pandemic future, it is essential to radically bring social, political and economic reforms that looked impossible before.


What might a global and equitable response to the outbreak look like?


In his novel, The Plague, Albert Camus says, ‘There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.” True to the times, as the world is caught by surprise again, there exists no handbook that tells us how to tackle a pandemic. As we learn from experiences around the globe, it is essential that for an equitable response there is mobilization and coordination at both a national and global level. These times should serve as a reminder that the strength of a society is proven when no individual is left behind. The attrition against the pandemic is long and uncertain, and hence, requires global coordination and solidarity more than ever.


Another important take-away from the battle against COVID-19 is that shelter, basic income support and medical health is a right that must be universally extended to all. The emergency measures that are deployed today, should be the basis of the world we build post-pandemic. With our medical facilities being overwhelmed, lack of coherent worker-protection policies, and abysmally low public health spending, this is our chance to reassess the capitalist world we have been inhabiting. As the indirect impacts would ripple out in the near future, the tremendous task to keep the global economy running is yet to be faced. The situation would demand fiscal assistance from the government and profit-based organisations to help kick-start the economy again.


On the other hand, in the Indian context, with the number of cases swelling each day, the challenges are multifold and warrant special measures. Even as India has made commendable medical breakthroughs and led the world in eliminating smallpox and polio, the challenge of COVID-19 puts a lot of pressure on its public health sector. The nation’s struggle against the virus cannot be kept in isolation from the struggles against a caste and class-based society. It is essential to bear in mind what social distancing would look like in dense slums, which lack basic sanitation and hygienic living conditions. If washing one’s hands is the bare minimum we can do to maintain hygiene, what does it mean for a slum-dweller who walks miles to have access to water? For this reason, the international standards of hygiene and prevention have to be independently translated as per the ground realities of the nation. The greatest challenge that India faces is to protect the livelihoods of the lowest rung of its social ladder, the labour class, workers in the gig economy and the poor, who are the worst hit.