India Could Be on the Brink of a Coronavirus Catastrophe — and Modi Will Be to Blame

Narendra Modi’s government has failed to take preemptive action against a pandemic that may overwhelm its underfunded health services. Arundhati Roy and other leading intellectuals have signed an appeal for the release of India’s political prisoners, who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 in the country’s overcrowded jails.

An Indian woman covering her face with a mask walks in a crowded Mandi (marketplace), as nationwide lockdown continues over coronavirus on March 26, 2020 in New Delhi, India. Yawar Nazir / Getty

India had 2,902 confirmed coronavirus cases and 68 deaths by April 4. That may not sound especially high for a country of more than a billion people, but the first serious government response to the global spread of the virus only came on March 24, more than three weeks after the first cases had been reported: all were from Kerala, and involved students who had returned from Wuhan.

Indeed, a month earlier, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, brought no fewer than 125,000 people together into one stadium in Ahmedabad to give Donald Trump a sort of royal welcome on his visit to the country. Modi and his allies justified the extravagance of this event on the grounds that it would lead to major trade deals between India and the United States.

Lack of Foresight

Of course, nothing of the sort happened. But the gathering also underlined the lack of seriousness that characterized the government’s approach to the impending health disaster, despite repeated warnings. Just as he was being feted in Gujarat, Trump was asking Congress for $1.25 billion to bolster US preparations for the crisis. As late as March 12, however, India’s health ministry was still announcing publicly that the COVID-19 crisis did not amount to a “health emergency.”

Since then, this utter lack of foresight and preparedness has forced Modi into a series of largely rhetorical gestures, such as appealing for — in effect, orchestrating — a one-day shutdown (called a “curfew”) that was followed the same evening by the banging of pots and pans and celebrations in the street. Modi then ordered a sudden, rapidly announced lockdown of the entire country on March 24 — at just four hours’ notice, with no real warning or preparation, let alone any carefully thought-out plan for millions of casual and migrant workers and their families, who would be forced into a sudden loss of income and accommodation in the metropolitan labor markets where they worked.

The national lockdown triggered massive reverse flows of labor, with the families of workers flooding into major bus stations in their thousands, or trekking for hundreds of miles on foot to get back to their villages. Many were forcibly stopped at state borders and sprayed with disinfecting chemicals by the authorities. The repeated displays of police brutality against these workers could not fail to recall events a month earlier in the country’s capital, when the Delhi police either refused to offer protection to the Muslim victims during a series of coordinated pogroms, or actively participated in the assaults themselves.

Impending Disaster

It’s anyone’s guess how seriously the virus will impact India. The complete lack of preparation that has defined government responses is accompanied by a conspicuous lack of testing; as a result, no even vaguely reliable figures are available to track the trajectory of the virus, and the numbers quoted at the start of this article may well have been massive underestimates of the true figures.

One theory doing the rounds is that the virus doesn’t survive for long in temperatures above 32ºC. Another view, recently expressed by a medical professional, is that the particular strain of the virus circulating in India is much less aggressive than the strains found in badly stricken countries like Italy. Whatever the truth may be, the fact remains that India has the lowest government expenditure on public health of all the major countries in the world.

Not only is the state of India’s public health system appalling by global standards, it has also been undermined further by the Modi regime, which spends vastly more on defense than it does on health, and which has a penchant for largely symbolic vanity projects that involve a grotesque waste of resources. Between the underfunding of health, the government’s rhetorical style, and the brutal conduct of the police, the virus seems well positioned to spread rapidly over the coming weeks.

This will be nothing short of catastrophic for the most vulnerable sectors of the population: those forced to live in densely packed slums where “social distancing” seems utopian, or forced to survive on subsistence wages, as is the case for much of the “footloose” labor force described by Jan Breman.

Prisoners of Conscience

Against this grim background, the plight of India’s prison population as a whole, and its political prisoners in particular, is especially concerning. While the Indian upper and middle classes are currently in complete lockdown, and a large mass of workers are trying to make it home through the thin line between possible infection and starvation, the prisoners of conscience have absolutely nowhere to go as they wait out the crisis.

The state governments have announced the release of some prisoners from prisons around the country. However, both state and federal leaders have maintained an awkward if predictable silence on the question of releasing political prisoners, those who have been consigned to jail for years under the country’s various draconian laws for opposing injustice.

On March 24, as India was bracing itself for a three-week-long lockdown, the Supreme Court recommended the release of “convicts and undertrials [remand prisoners] awaiting trial for offences entailing a maximum sentence of seven years on parole.” But this ruling brought no respite for political prisoners, as the draconian legislation under which they are booked (“sedition,” the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, etc.), carries much stiffer penalties, up to and including a sentence of death.

While the authorities have been broadcasting messages instructing people to self-isolate, avoid large gatherings, sustain nutrition, use proper sanitation, and so on, for political prisoners, it has been life as usual inside overcrowded, poorly sanitized wards and cells, which lack even nominal protection at a time of global pandemic. Older prisoners with multiple ailments, who receive minimal facilities even during normal times, are in particular danger of contracting a virus that is notorious for preying on the elderly and those whose immunity is already compromised.

Most of the prisoners arbitrarily detained under various harsh laws have been in prison for years awaiting trial. Some have been there for as long as ten years, repeatedly denied bail. Because of prolonged confinement, they have often developed diseases such as diabetes, spondylosis, and multiple cardiac problems. If action is not taken immediately to remedy this situation, this could prove fatal, and it will be tantamount to murder in custody.

In view of this alarming situation, to raise a collective voice against government apathy and to ensure that the essential rights of prisoners are safeguarded, several activists and intellectuals have issued the following statement, demanding immediate government intervention and the release of all those currently in prison for their political beliefs or activity:

Open Letter to the Indian Authorities

The Covid-19 outbreak in the country is fast becoming a public health hazard, forcing the government to declare a 21-day nationwide lockdown. This public health concern is also an occasion to look at the overcrowded prisons in the country. According to India Justice Report (2019), the national average of occupancy in prisons is 114 percent of its capacity. The average only tells part of the story, as the condition varies from state to state.

The outbreak of a pandemic such as Covid-19 will have a disastrous impact in closed environments such as prisons even in normal conditions. Overcrowding will exacerbate the situation beyond control and calls for immediate attention of the governments concerned. The India Justice Report also states that over 67 percent of prisoners in the country belong to the category of under-trial prisoners, meaning people in custody awaiting “investigation, inquiry or trial”.

Realizing the gravity of the situation, the Honourable Supreme Court had directed the state governments to consider granting bail to remand prisoners, accused of committing crimes punishable with a maximum of seven years’ imprisonment. The Apex Court also directed the state governments to form a high-power committee to handle this matter. The court suggested the committee examine the possibility of releasing convicted prisoners and other remand prisoners on parole in view of the health hazard.

We call upon the Union and State Governments to take the directive of the Honourable Supreme Court in letter and spirit and initiate steps to avoid a humanitarian crisis in the prisons. We would like to draw the attention of all the concerned authorities to the examples seen across the world where prisoners, including political prisoners, have been released in view of the present pandemic.

Prisons across the country have a large number of political prisoners, undergoing incarceration as under-trials for many years or as convicts. Many of them have served more than five years in prison without any clarity on the commencement of their trials. Some of the prisoners in Punjab have been in jail for over twenty-five years. Some of them are already suffering from various ailments.

To mention some cases, in the state of Maharashtra, former Delhi University Professor GN Saibaba, poet Varavara Rao, Prof. Shoma Sen, Sudha Bharadwaj and several others all suffering various ailments and of advanced age, are in jail. In Tamil Nadu, Padma and Veeramony, also suffering from illnesses and old age, are in jail. A number of political prisoners on remand who have got bail are still imprisoned, and in other cases are waiting for bail.

For example, 65-year old Ibrahim, a chronic diabetic also suffering from cardiac problems, has been in jail in Kerala for more than five years. He is waiting for bail in only one case. Danish, another prisoner in the High Security Prison, Viyyur, Kerala, suffering from acute urinary infections, is still in jail despite getting bail in all cases involving him.

Many jails in the country do not have proper hospitals, adequate doctors or treatment facilities. The prisoners have no option other than the overstretched public-health system outside in case of an emergency. Most often prisoners are not in a position to receive adequate medical care on time due to delays caused by various administrative formalities.

The situation of prisoners would be far worse when the dreaded Covid-19 outbreak is playing havoc with public-health systems in the country. The arrangements made in prisons to deal with the seriousness of the situation remains unknown.

In the above circumstance we, the undersigned, appeal to the Union and State Governments of India to initiate immediate steps to provide bail or parole to all political prisoners on a priority basis along with the other prisoners.


Arundhati Roy (Novelist and writer)

Prof. Gilbert Achcar (SOAS, University of London)

Prof. Jairus Banaji (SOAS, University of London)

Prof. Shakuntala Banaji (London School of Economics)

Sujato Bhadra (Vice President, Committee for Release of Political Prisoners)

Tarun Bhartiya (Documentary Film Maker)

B.R.P. Bhaskar

Dr. Biju, Filmmaker

Prof. Kamal Mitra Chenoy (JNU)

Bernard D’Mello

S.K. Das (Architect)

Vidyadhar Date (Journalist)

Rutuja Deshmukh (film theorist, University of Pune)

Dr J. Devika

Xavier Dias (human rights Activist)

Prof. Hargopal (Visiting Professor, National Law School of India)

Rohini Hensman (Writer and activist)

Meena Kandasamy (Poet)

Harsh Kapoor (Activist)

S. Madhusoodanan (Advocate)

Dr. Alessandra Mezzadri (SOAS, University of London)

Prof. Dilip Menon (University of Witwatersrand)

Sanchita Mukherjee (CRPP)

K. Murali (Ajith)

P.A. Pauran (Advocate)

Mythri Prasad

M.N. Ravunni

Adv.V.Reghunath (Civil Liberties, Telangana)

K. Sachidanandan (Poet)

Advocate Tushar Nirmal Sarathy

K.P. Sethunath

Prof. Pritam Singh (University of Oxford)

Dr. Subir Sinha (SOAS, University of London)

Sukla Sen (Author)

Shyna (Advocate)

Dr T.T. Sreekumar

Stan Swamy (Activist)

Dr. Nalini Taneja (historian, University of Delhi)

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (former editor, EPW)

Dr K.T. Ram Mohan

Prof. Rashmi Varma (University of Warwick)

A. Vasu

Dr. Benjamin Zachariah (University of Heidelberg)