Former managing editor of “Forward Press”, a Bahujan-centric journal, Pramod Ranjan, assistant professor at the Rabindranath Tagore School of Languages and Cultural Studies of Assam University, in his article “Post-Covid world and responsibility of Bahujan workers”, tries to find out what kind of situation the world would find itself in due to the excessive and unwarranted steps taken to arrest the spread of Covid, especially how it would impact the communities facing social deprivation.
Originally published in Hindi in several journals and web portals but not published in English, reproduced below is Prof Ranjan’s article, which centres around the communities which form part of the Bahujan definition – the “exploited communities of India, who form a majority of its population”, which include those branded as ‘Untouchables’, Adivasis, denotified and nomadic castes, minorities, eunuchs etc. All these communities have started describing themselves as Bahujan (people in majority) as a mark of their solidarity, he says.
***It is said that had the spread of the Novel Coronavirus not been contained by imposing lockdowns, by now, it would have consumed a substantial chunk of the human residents of the earth. But is the truth as one-sided as is being claimed?
Lockdown killed lakhs of persons the world over and its after-effects have ruined the economies of scores of low- and middle-income countries like India. Crores of persons have been condemned to a life of poverty and misery.
What is going to change
Offices and educational institutions were a gift of the modern age. By bringing human minds together, the places of work and the centres of education not only scripted a new chapter in the development of the human race but also brought diverse communities on common platforms. It is almost certain that in the post-Covid world, schools and offices would not exist as we know them today. A new law for bringing about changes in educational institutions has come into force in India. Labour laws have been almost abolished, and companies have been given the licence to exploit the workers. Not only manual labourers but white-collar workers, too, would be caught in this web of exploitation and mental turmoil. The rights of journalists and media employees, related to their service conditions and salary and allowances, have been withdrawn through changes in the law.
There is also a real danger of that globalization (the spurt in commercial and business activities at the global level around the 1990s) would be reversed. This will spell disaster for the economies of the developing countries. In India and many other countries, the poor could join the middle-income group only due to globalization.
On the other hand, after the laying off of a large number of white- and blue-collar workers, there are reports that the labourers who have returned to big cities after the lifting of the lockdown are being made to work longer hours than earlier. After the lockdown was lifted, labourers from this writer’s parental village in Bihar were ferried by private companies in buses to cities thousands of kilometres away, including Mumbai, Chennai and Surat. However, many of them were back within a couple of weeks complaining that they were made to do back-breaking labour. They are hopeful that their ‘Satyagraha’ would force the companies to bow down to them. But they are daydreaming. Hunger would force them to go back to the same cities and maybe, by then hungrier persons would have replaced them.
Those working in private industries and institutions of higher learning, which we’re fortunate enough not to be laid off, are working from their homes. A large number of them would never return to their offices. Special software would be installed on their mobile phones, computers and cameras. Known as ‘Bossware’ this category of software would enable their digital surveillance to such an extent that their employer would not only know what they are doing but also what their physical and mental state is.
This surveillance would include reading emails, analyzing messages received through social media, knowing who is meeting whom and when and collecting biometric data so that the employer can know how the employees are using their workspace. A 2018 survey that covered 239 big corporations had revealed that 50 per cent of them were using these ‘unconventional’ means of surveillance. Post-Covid, this surveillance is being made even more minute and strict so that it can be determined whether the “employee is interested in his work or not and what is the level of his stress while working.” The governments of some countries have already started using such means.
Things won’t end here. The economic growth rate is dipping and extraordinary steps would be needed to reverse the trend. These steps are bound to lower the economic status of a big chunk of lower and middle classes. The middle class would turn poor and poor would starve. These classes would be denied their basic human rights by arguing that urgent measures need to be taken on a temporary basis to give a boost to economy and that another pandemic may be on its way.
Nobel Prize winner American economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006), who was a supporter of Free Market, used to say, “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government programme.” These arguments would also become permanent. Not only the governments but all kinds of forces, including those that control the Free Market, launch programmes which are described as temporary. But they have intrinsically meant to be permanent. We will see the manifestation of this tendency once again.
For instance, it would be argued that curbing population growth is essential for propelling the nations and the communities on the path to economic growth. Development can come about only when the rate of growth of the economy is higher than that of the population. If, over the past some decades, the people grew more prosperous; if steps were taken to preserve and protect human rights and if laws were made for protecting the rights of workers; it had much to do with the relatively higher rate of economic growth. Prosperity had made it relatively easier for the capitalists to follow these liberal norms. But since the growth rate would be low for the next several years, it would be argued that the lower classes should reduce the growth rate of their population so that a balance can be struck between population and development. Population control would be linked more and more with employment, rights and the eligibility to avail benefits of government schemes. And new laws, prescribing incentives and penalties vis-à-vis population growth would be promulgated. It would be argued that only those who do not increase the numbers of the poor like them would be entitled to the fruits of development as an incentive for contributing their mite to balancing the rate of growth.
This may translate into the governments and private industries making rules linking the wages and allowances with economic growth rate. Thus, the salary and allowances of the employees would grow if the national growth rate improves and would go down, if the rate falls. This would be somewhat like the prices of petroleum products changing every day or every week or passenger fares going up and down after the privatization of the railways. In some countries, the salaries and allowances of diplomats are linked with the country’s growth rate. The logic would be that linking wages with the growth rate would make the workers endeavour to better the economy. The impact of such a measure on human rights can easily be imagined
There would be more changes — the most important of them being universal digital surveillance, which has the potential of reducing the liberty of the individuals to the lowest possible level. The current liberal democratic system would be incompatible with such changes and that would mean alterations in the political system as we know it today. This change would be needed as the circumstances which led to the development of the current system would no longer exist.
During lockdown, the Super Rich of the world grew richer and the assets and profits of the Tech Giants (Alphabet, Facebook, Microsoft, Tesla and other companies dominating the field of IT) shot through the roof. They would continue to mint huge amounts of money in the years to come. They would also be interested in a political regime, ‘managing’ which would be easier for them.
In this situation, there is a real apprehension that authoritarian and dynastic political systems would try to take the place of the current ones in India and in the other parts of the world
Place of Covid in the ocean of diseases
The first step in this discourse is to find out how real is the fear of Covid-19, which is likely to trigger major changes. And also; whether Corona virus poses the same level of threat to the socially and economically deprived sections as other diseases, famines and starvation, which are closing in on us, do. Or, is there a qualitative difference in the way these sections perceive the Covid threat. Sher Singh, editor of a journal called Mazdoor Samachar says that Covid-19 is a disease of the ‘Sahibs’ (the elite). And he is right. On the basis of their past experience, the deprived sections are not taking this affliction as seriously as the upper class is.
The deprived sections are already in the clutches of ailments like diarrohea, TB and pneumonia, which kill people in far greater numbers. Then, how can they be scared of a disease which, in 80 per cent of the cases, does not show any symptoms, 95 per cent of the patients of which get cured without any treatment and in which the fatality rate is between 0.1 and 1 per cent. And that too, mostly in the patients of 60-85 years age group and in those who are suffering from ‘elite’ diseases like cancer, kidney problems, hypertension etc.
To begin with, the percentage of persons in the 60-80 years age group among the deprived sections is much less than in the privileged class. Though this may sound a bit insensitive, the fact is that most of the persons in this age group in the deprived groups are already past their average life expectancy.
According to a 10-year study (2004-2014), the mean age of Scheduled Tribes i.e. the Adivasis is 43 years, of OBC Muslims i.e. Pasmandas, is 50 years and of upper caste Muslims i.e. Ashrafs is 49 years. However, the life expectancy at birth of non-Muslim upper castes (Hindus and other non-Muslims) is 60 years. Of course, this does not mean that all upper-castes survive up to the age of 60 years or that the people of all deprived sections die before their 50th birthday. But this study does show that there is big difference in the average life expectancy of different sections of the populace and that the deprived sections have much less access to modern lifestyle, nutritious food and medical facilities as compared with the privileged classes.
The above study also dwelt on the average age of the people based on classification other than religion and caste i.e. occupation. That also varies. The average age of an Indian labourer is 45.2 years and that of a non-labourer of the same socio-economic status is 48.4 years. Similarly, there is big difference between the average life expectancy of the residents of ‘backward’ i.e. less developed states and of the developed ones. The residents of ‘backward states’, on an average, die seven years younger their counterparts of developed states. The life expectancy of residents of developed states is 51.7 years and of backward states is 44.4 years.
According to a study by the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, published in 2013, (which was quoted by the United Nations in its special international study on women), there was a difference of 14.5 years between the average ages of Dalit and Upper-caste women. In 2013, the average life expectancy at birth of Dalit women was 39.5 years and of upper-caste women, 54.1 years.
No study on the average life expectancy of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) among the Hindus is available but we do know that the average age of rural farmers and artisans, who have to do back-breaking labour and who do not have access to nutritious food generation after generation, is not very high.
Besides average age, some other factors, too, preclude the inclusion of Covid-19 in the priority list of the deprived sections. For instance, one fact that emerged from the above study was that while the average age of all sections of the people grew in the 10 years from 2004-2014, it fell in the case of Adivasis.
Be that as it may, the key fact is that the Bahujans of all countries, including India, who are already beleaguered by much more serious problems than Covid-19, would face the brunt of the horrific outcomes of steps taken to contain the spread of this disease.
Even a cursory glance at the seriousness (fatality rate and physical pain and distress) and of the various diseases would reveal that most of the victims of ailments like diarrhoea and TB are poor youth while pneumonia mostly kills children from impoverished families. These diseases are permanent pandemics for the weaker sections and as we will see, the number of deaths due to them is much higher than due to Covid.
Some more figures
Symptoms of TB manifest themselves in more than one crore persons in the world every year. According to 2018 figures, of them, around 15 lakh die.
TB is the most fatal disease for the poor of countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nigeria and South Africa. It is much more dangerous than Covid-19. Unless a person completes his or her course of treatment, the disease has a fatality rate of around 60 per cent. In contrast, as mentioned earlier, the fatality rate of Covid-19 is less than one percent. Despite availability of treatment for TB, the number of deaths due to the disease is much higher as compared with Covid. Not only that; the disease is continuously spreading its tentacles.
It is not that Covid is the only disease that does not have any treatment. There are many other fatal infectious diseases including HIV AIDS, Dengue, Ebola etc which have neither a cure nor a vaccine. In fact, there is no effective vaccine or medicine for even the common flu, which we call viral fever, and which causes lakhs of deaths every year. We fight and win the battle against these diseases with the help of our body’s immune system. And that is exactly what we do in the case of Covid.
To understand why the fear of Covid is disproportionate, just take a look at the accompanying chart related to some key diseases. The ‘death rate’ mentioned in the chart refers to the percentage of the infected patients (both reported and unreported) who succumb to the disease.
The ‘infection rate’ refers to how many persons get infected by a person/organism infected with the disease. A person infected with Covid, on an average, infects between 1.7 and 6.6 other persons while a TB patient infects an average of 10 persons. The chart also includes the average number of deaths per year due to these diseases (click here to see).
Official figures on infectious diseases that cause the death of a large number of poor are: Diarrhoea – 10 lakh per year; pneumonia – 8 lakh; malaria – 4 lakh, Hepatitis C – 3.99 lakh and typhoid – 1.43 lakh.
The India specific figures are even more horrific.
In India alone, more than 25 lakh persons get TB every year, of which 5 lakh die. India has the highest number of TB deaths in the world.
India records around 1.27 lakh deaths per year due to pneumonia and most of the victims are children. India is at the second position in the world in terms of deaths due to pneumonia. Nigeria is at the top. Malaria kills around 2 lakh persons, most of them Adivasis, in India every year. More than one lakh children die due to diarrhoea in India every year. Typhoid claims thousands of lives every year in the country. As I said earlier, the so-called danger to the deprived sections from Corona is nothing before the dance of death of these diseases.
The exaggerated fear of Covid is the result of the faulty and deceptive methodology of data collection adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO) to enable the organization to declare it a ‘global pandemic’ and the realtime publication of these misleading figures.
The real figures, however, tell a different story.
Ten global bodies working for prevention and control of TB published a report titled “The impact of COVID-19 on the TB epidemic: A community perspective” only this month (15 September 2020). The report quotes researchers to assert that due to the lockdowns and the diversion of all resources for battling Covid-19, an additional 5.25 lakh deaths would occur due to TB in the year 2021. Additionally, over the next couple of years, an additional 30 lakh persons would die of TB because they would be unwilling or unable to seek treatment for the disease because of grinding poverty. The unwarranted steps taken to counter the exaggerated fear of Covid has already led to a big jump in the number of deaths due to HIV, kidney diseases, cancer etc.
Besides the jump in the number of deaths due to these diseases, here is an instance of what long and oppressive lockdowns have done to our world. According to a research paper published in the renowned health journal The Lancet Global by a team of researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, unless urgent steps are taken, in India alone, an additional three lakh children may die over the next six months due to malnutrition and other diseases. And this would be the fallout of the unemployment and lack of health services directly triggered by the lockdowns. According to this research, in Asia, more than four lakh children may die prematurely due to the same reason. This means that in South Asia alone, an additional 2,400 children would die every day. Besides India, there is an apprehension that over the next six months, 95,000 children would die in Pakistan, 28,000 in Bangladesh, 13,000 in Afghanistan and 4,000 in Nepal due to the downturn in economy directly attributable to the lockdowns.
According to this analysis based on three different scenarios, more than 12 lakh additional deaths of children may occur over the next six months in 118 low- and middle-income countries And all these kids who would leave this world without celebrating their fifth birthday. This will be in addition to the ‘routine deaths’ of children due to malnutrition and other diseases. According to a statement issued by the South Asia chief of United Nations Children’s Emergency fund (UNICEF), “We must protect the mothers, the pregnant women and children in South Asia at all cost. Fighting the pandemic is critical but we cannot lose momentum on the decades of progress we have made in the region to reduce preventable maternal and child deaths.”
We all know the children of which section of the populace die due to malnutrition or for want of medical care. This is not a problem of the people who are prodding the governments to extend lockdowns and neither is it the problem of the people for whom a halt on production of new episodes of TV serials during lockdowns was a big issue.
There are reports that thousands of teenage girls and women have been forced into selling their bodies and the trafficking in women and children is growing at an astonishing pace. Many studies have proved that almost all such women and children come from the Bahujan class.
The spectre of famine is looming large over the world due to the lockdowns. Scholars have named it’ Coronavirus Famine. How big this famine is can be gauged from the fact that according to estimates, by the end of 2020, around 13 crore additional people would be in the throes of starvation and 4.9 crore additional persons would be pushed into abject poverty. According to WFP’s new global hunger mapping system ‘Hunger Map‘, which keeps a track of the hungry population in realtime, around 4.5 crore people have been pushed into a severe food crisis between February and June 2020.
According to the report by a leading NGO, about 12,000 persons may die an untimely death every day by the end of this year for want of proper and adequate food. And at the root of their deprivation would be the socio-economic situation created due to irrational measures adopted for protection from Covid. . Over the next three months, their numbers may grow to three lakh per day. According to assessments made by many institutions, South Asian nations, especially India, are emerging as epicentres of a hunger epidemic. There is hardly any need to name the class from which the Indian victims of the Coronavirus famine would come.
What should Bahujan workers do?
Thomas Piketty, an accomplished economist and co-director of World Inequality Database estimates that Covid-19 would bring about cataclysmic changes in many nations. It will challenge the long-standing discourses about laissez-faire and would feed social demand for other interventions.
But what all this would mean for the socially-deprived sections would depend on how committed the poor communities of the world are towards building a new egalitarian political order and how united their efforts in that direction are. And this, in turn, would depend on whether they are able to forge a new worldview which embraces the entire humanity. I feel that in India, people would look to Ambedkarite, Marxist and Socialist ideologies for direction.
As has been stated earlier, it is clear that the post-Covid-19 world would be very different from the present one. As such, we all activists who are working for bringing about social changes would need to alter our strategies. For the last several years, the Bahujan movements have been focused on equitable distribution of physical resources created by the quick-paced economic growth and on ensuring that the communities which were left behind – whether by design or otherwise – get their due share in these resources. In India, this has been largely limited to demands for reservation in jobs and symbolic representation of the deprived communities in centres of power. Besides, our movements have largely been localized both in terms of their spread and their focus.
In the changed circumstances, we need to dump this strategy and turn our attention to the global situation. We need to move from local to global.
At the political level, we should try to preserve liberal democracy till such time as our struggles produce a better and practical alternative to it. But we need to stop the relentless march of dynastic politics. Unless we are able to this, our defeat is a foregone conclusion. It is heredity which is at the root of problems like casteism, capitalism and racism. The new high priests of science, using genetic engineering, are endeavouring to give heredity a new biological and ideological aura. Very soon, it would be possible to customize the next generations of the super rich in such a manner that they become the perpetual masters of the world. They would be Nietzsche’s Supermen. This endeavour has already begun in different forms. Attempts would be made to project it as the ‘demand of time’ and ‘essential need’ in the post-Covid world.
The Bahujan sections should keep an eye on the developments in the fields of science and technology, the forces behind these developments and the philosophy and ideology that guide them. Are they trying to make this world a heaven? If yes, there is a need to take on them as if it is a matter of life and death. Heaven is always meant for a few. If they are building a heaven then knowingly or unknowingly, they must also be building a perpetual hell for the majority of the people.
In India, we have the experience of challenging the Vedas, the Puranas and the Smiritis. We accepted their moral message, made it democratic and scored a victory by converting their spirituality to ‘Hari ko bhaje to Hari ke hoyee (Whosoever worships god, becomes his)’.
Now we need to challenge the direction science, technology and branches of specialized knowledge are taking. The so-called sacred scriptures, the reality of which we were not allowed to understand for centuries, also claimed and promised to create a heaven. But this time we cannot take centuries to realize the truth of those who are promising the heaven to us. Delay would prove a disaster, a tragedy of monumental proportions.
Our struggle will not be easy. But if we are able to draw up concrete plans and manage to reach out to the people in time, we will be able to ensure that this transitory period does not become the cause of our collective destruction. There is no time to wait. We should get on the job immediately.
*Distributed by JanVikalp