The muzzling of critical media and suspending labour laws are all worrying signs for Indian democracy.
As India lurches from one lockdown to another, the ruling party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has confounded even sections of its own supporters with a slew of contentious long-term policy decisions that may have little to do with controlling the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since March 25, when the first nationwide lockdown was announced until now when the fourth phase has commenced, the number of Covid-19 cases has seen a steady rise from a mere 618 to 101,139 at the time of writing.
Whether the lockdown proved effective in “flattening the curve” is open to interpretation with most pointing to the United States as an example of how bad it could have got had the lockdown not been imposed.
By and large, according to various reports, the Indian lockdown (initially for three weeks) had high approval ratings when it was first imposed.
However, over the last 50 days the repeated lockdown has unravelled into a multi-pronged mess with various states starting to resent the continuous shutting of normal activities leading to chaos among migrant workers and the rising spectre of economic bankruptcy among small traders, medium businesses and even large industries.
One would have rationally expected that the government would focus all its efforts on making it tolerable for people to live their lives during lockdown while at the same time taking steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus infection.
Even if the federal government under Narendra Modi did partly utilise its resources to do this, what has been puzzling is the unseemly urgency to pass laws linked to labour and the environment.
A veritable sledge-hammer has fallen on the functioning of the nation’s media, whose freedoms are guaranteed under the constitution’s right to free speech.
Withering labour rights
As if on cue, at least three state governments (Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat) ruled by Modi’s BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), selectively suspended labour laws for three years – diluting protection for workers.
The decision has so shocked trade unions that even the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), affiliated to the ruling BJP, has given a call for nationwide protests against the move.
The organisation’s secretary Pawan Kumar was quoted by the media as saying they would also seek legal redress against the government’s move.
It is not clear how suspending labour laws would help economic activity to pick up given that this was not a problem in the first place. But the governments that have suspended the laws insist it will help business pick up.
The suspension has given rise to suspicion that in the absence of mandatory laws the business lobby, considered the BJP’s support base, will benefit at the cost of the workers.
In another move intended to please business, the Modi government issued a notification that will all but eliminate the need for environmental clearances for industrial projects.
The sinister element in the notification is that it allows for post facto clearances, which means approvals can be obtained after the construction, installation and commencement of any project.
The notification has the potential to affect the lives of millions of people and directly damage the environment. Experts point out that, with the notification, industrialists will go ahead and set up factories and later pay penalties to regularise the project if they are found flouting environmental laws.
Before the notification came into effect, until now, industries could be set up only after environmental clearances were accorded and a public hearing conducted among those who would be impacted by a project.
That the Modi government decided to bring in this notification when the nation was occupied by the Covid-19 pandemic indicates an element of subterfuge in the way it has been pushed through.
The media, meanwhile, suddenly finds itself on the receiving end of the government’s wrath across various states over normal coverage which often includes criticism as well.
Journalists have been charged with criminal sections under the Indian Penal Code for reporting on the conditions of thousands of migrant workers who have been left to fend for themselves with minimum government aid during the lockdown.
One journalist, Om Sharma, belonging to the BJP-ruled state of Himachal Pradesh found himself staring at a string of charges by the police for going live on social media on the plight of the migrant workers.
A Gujarat editor, Dhaval Patel, was slapped with the serious charge of sedition for speculating that the chief minister of the state Vijay Rupani might be replaced as the federal government was unhappy with his efforts to control the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to Newslaundry, which tracks the media, at least two dozen journalists across the country are facing various charges for reporting on the situation arising out of the lockdown.
No wonder India has slipped two places from 140 to 142 out of 180 countries in a survey by Reporters Without Borders.
In response, federal Information Minister Prakash Javdekar has denied any loss of media freedom and said he would “expose” those who come up with these surveys.
The opposition Congress however charged the BJP with being “hell bent on destroying this fourth pillar of democracy and we shouldn’t let that happen.”
What has caused alarm is that much of the reportage, considered prosecutable, is routine in the Indian media where journalists have the constitutional mandate to freely criticise the government.
The spate of charges against journalists for doing their job has invited comparison with the “National Emergency of 1975” when the constitution was suspended and fundamental rights were temporarily kept in abeyance by the then Congress government of Indira Gandhi.
The coronavirus pandemic seems to have not just infected people and caused deaths and injuries to many. By the time, the disease is dealt with and a semblance of normalcy returns, India may have lost far more than just lives and a growing economy.
Already highly polarised since the advent of the Hindu-nationalist BJP in 2014 and a return to power in 2019, the dilution of key laws and the relentless encroachment on hard-fought democratic space forebodes difficult times ahead for the nation.
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