Vijay Nambisan Lecture: ‘India’s Covid Tragedy’
About the book
The official figure of close to 500,000 deaths during the two waves of the Covid-19 pandemic in India are widely believed to be gross underestimates. As Harsh Mander shows, the underreporting of cases and deaths was the least of the crimes committed by the Indian state in the summer months of 2020 and 2021.
The first part of the book, ‘Locking Down the Poor’, describes the grave humanitarian crisis of 2020, which pushed the urban poor to the brink of starvation. It shows how this was a direct consequence of public policy choices that the central government made, particularly of imposing the world’s longest and most stringent lockdown—with just four hours’ notice—with the smallest relief package. From the highways and overcrowded quarantine centres, Mander brings us stories of the estimated 30 million migrant workers whose livelihoods were destroyed, forcing them to walk hundreds of kilometers to their villages.
The second part of the book, ‘Burning Pyres, Mass Graves’, records the horrors of the following year, when everything from hospital beds to medical oxygen and essential medicines fell disastrously short. Mander traces the causes for these shortages to the criminal neglect of public health in India, a situation made worse under the current government. He holds the state culpable for indulging in pageantry—with the Prime Minister advertising himself as a messiah—when the country needed to brace for the impact of the second wave which experts had warned was coming.
Combining ground reports with hard data and first-hand knowledge, Mander chronicles the greatest catastrophe India has faced in a century, the effects of which will be felt for decades. This powerful, even shattering, book is a necessary record of a national tragedy that too many of us want to forget, when remembering is our only defense against a similar disaster in the future.
Harsh Mander is a human rights and peace worker, writer, columnist, researcher and teacher, who works with survivors of mass violence, hunger, homeless persons and street children.
From the autumn of 2017, he established and led the important national initiative which he called the Karwan e Mohabbat, literally the Caravan of Love. This tries to counter rising hate and fear in the country, but not with hate; instead with love and solidarity. The Karwan visits the families of those who lost loved ones to hate violence and lynching, for atonement, solidarity, healing, conscience and justice; and to promote goodwill and trust between communities.
He is Chairperson of the Centre for Equity Studies, Delhi. In the Centre for Equity Studies, he founded, convenes and edits the annual India Exclusion Reports. These attempt to document the experience of disadvantaged people of the state; and on evidence-based analysis and advocacy for more just and equitable laws and policies. www.indiaexclusionreport.in
He is also the founder of Aman Biradari, a people’s campaign for a secular, peaceful, just and humane world, established after the Gujarat communal carnage of 2002. Aman Biradari works closely with other people’s organizations and groups for the defence of secularism; for public compassion and justice; and for promoting the values of the constitution.
He is a prolific writer. His more than 25 books include: include Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India; Partitions of the Heart; Ash in the Belly: India’s Unfinished Battle Against Hunger; Fatal Accidents of Birth: Stories of Suffering, Oppression and Resistance; and Locking Down the Poor: The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre.
As Member of the Prime Minister’s National Advisory Council from June 2010-12, he convened many working groups including on the Food Security Bill, Disability Rights, Bonded Labour, Street Vendors, Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation Bill, Manual Scavenging Abolition, and co-convened the group on the Communal and Targeted Violence Bill.
He was Special Commissioner to the Supreme Court of India in the Right to Food case for twelve years from 2005-17. In these years, he investigated for the Supreme Court starvation deaths, and reviewed implementation and directed public policy reform for advancing the right to food and nutrition in several states in India.
He is a PhD from Vrije University in Amsterdam. His thesis was titled Vulnerable People and Policy Development in India: Designing State Interventions for Hunger, Homelessness, Destitution and Targeted Violence. He is Distinguished Scholar with the Initiative on Political Conflict, Gender and People’s Rights at the Centre for Race and Gender at the University of California, Berkeley. He teaches courses on poverty and governance in Indian and international universities.
He regularly writes columns for Scroll, the Indian Express, The Hindu and the Wire, and also contributes to scholarly journals.
He founded a campaign to work with homeless persons and street children, now run by the Rainbow Foundation India, through which around 5000 homeless street girls and boys, by providing them safe spaces are being provided safe spaces as residential hostels in mostly running government schools in 10 cities. In Delhi, Patna, Hyderabad and Jaipur, he founded and heads an initiative which helps run extensive street medicine programs to reach homeless women, men and children on the streets with health-care services, with health teams on foot and in vans at night. It has also opened recovery shelters for homeless men and women with TB, orthopedic ailments, mental health problems and reproductive health challenges, recognizing that cure on the streets for homeless persons is impossible.
He is also a founding member of the National People’s Right to Information. He was a member and then Chairperson of the Advisory Board of the Human Rights Initiative of the Open Societies Foundation from 2018-21. He is also a Council Member of Progressive International. He was a Richard von Weizsacker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy, Berlin in 2021-22.
He worked formerly in the Indian Administrative Service in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh for almost two decades. He took voluntary retirement from the civil services in 2002 in protest against the role of the state in the communal massacre in Gujarat, which he believed to be state-sponsored.
He has made many significant interventions in India’s highest courts. For instance, his petition to decriminalize beggary was allowed, which ended begging as a crime after nearly a hundred years. His petition in the Supreme Court resulted in the reopening for investigation of over 2000 criminal cases related to the Gujarat carnage of 2002 which had been closed without trial. His interventions with the Supreme Court led to orders making homeless shelters a legal duty for all state governments. He petitioned against the detention of people deemed to be ‘foreigners’ in jails in inhuman conditions in Assam for nearly a decade; for legal action against perpetrators of hate speech resulting in sectarian violence; and for food security of migrants during the covid pandemic.
Among his awards are the FAU (Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg) Human Rights Award 2022, the Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar Gold Plaque 2020, the Quaide Milleth Award 2020, the Ida Scudder Memorial Oration of Christian Medical College, Vellore 2019, the South Asian Minority Lawyers Harmony Award 2012, the Chisthi Harmony Award 2012, the Rajiv Gandhi National Sadbhavana Award for peace work, and the M.A. Thomas National Human Rights Award 2002.
The Peace Research Institute Oslo has included him in its 2022 shortlist of people recommended for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Dr. Amir Ullah Khan
Amir is a development economist and a former civil servant. He is the founder Vice Chancellor of Glocal University and teaches at the Indian School of Business, NALSAR and the MCRHRDI of the Government of Telangana. He is a former Deputy director and Strategy head at Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and was earlier Executive Director and Editor of Encyclopaedia Britannica.