In early 2020 the first cases of COVID-19 infection were confirmed in India, and on the night of 24 March the country’s prime minister announced a nationwide lockdown, giving the population of over 1.3 billion just four hours’ notice. Within days, it became evident that India had plunged into what could be its biggest humanitarian crisis since Partition.

In this powerful and urgent book, Harsh Mander shows us how grave this crisis was and continues to be, and why it is the direct consequence of public policy choices that the Indian government made, particularly of imposing the world’s longest and most stringent lockdown, with the smallest relief package. ‘It was apparent,’ writes Mander, ‘that while some lives were to be protected, others were dispensable.’ The Indian state chose to abandon its poor and marginalised, even as it destroyed their livelihoods and pushed them to the brink of starvation.

Mander brings us voices of out-of-work daily-wage and informal workers, the homeless and the destitute, all overwhelmed by hunger, helplessness, humiliation and dread. From the highways and overcrowded quarantine centres he brings us stories of some of the estimated three crore migrant workers who walked hundreds of kilometres to their villages, or were prevented from doing so and detained.

He lays bare the criminal callousness at the heart of a strategy that forced people to stay indoors in a country where tens of crores live in congested shanties or single rooms with no possibility of physical distancing, no toilets, no running water and no resources to buy and store essential items in bulk. He examines how the country’s health and welfare systems collapsed, primarily because of the hubris and inefficiency of a regime obsessed with image management and emboldened by the apathy of the vast majority of the ruling elite and middle class.

Drawing upon his own and other relief workers’ experiences, and combining hard data with credible surveys and news reports, Mander argues with great clarity and passion that India is in the middle of a humanitarian catastrophe, the effects of which will be felt for decades. Our only hope, he writes, lies in genuine democracy and unwavering solidarity—in ‘rebuilding our broken country into one which is more compassionate, more just and more equal’.

A searing account…

From one of India’s most courageous and outspoken moral voices, this is a searing account of the social apathy, political folly, economic distress, institutional failure and lack of basic compassion that marked the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.’

– PAMELA PHILIPOSE, public editor, The Wire

A harrowing reminder…

‘When the definitive history of India’s response to the pandemic is written, this book will serve as a harrowing reminder of its signature characteristic: the profoundly callous disregard displayed by the tiny coterie of the privileged, from politicians and bureaucrats to scientists and the upper-classes, for the welfare of the voiceless millions who make up the majority of India’s population.’

– VIKRAM PATEL, the Pershing Square Professor of Global Health, Harvard Medical School


A powerful poignant chronicle…

‘A powerful, poignant chronicle of brutal exclusion and mass hunger. Locking Down the Poor is not a book, it is a ledger of our accountability at a time when the poor of India have been brought to the brink of despair by a callous state and an uncaring, unequal society.’

                    – SHAH ALAM KHAN, author and professor, All India Institute of Medical Sciences

A revealing assessment of public policies…

‘A very comprehensive account of the ways in which India has been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. Combining hard data and life stories, it makes you understand what it has done to the poor, including migrant workers and slum-dwellers, villagers and marginal communities like the Muslims. It is also a revealing assessment of the public policies launched by the Government of India—which has not spent much money to help people, but has seized the opportunity to liberalise the economy further.’

                    – CHRISTOFE JAFFRELOT, author and scholar of South Asian politics and society

Memory loss, extensive brain damage and internal bleeding.

For the first time, the author and human rights activist shares what happened when he admitted himself to a general ward of a premiere public hospital after he got Covid-19 in October.

As strict lockdown was enforced across the country, millions struggled to cope with an overnight catastrophe with no work, wages, mobility and food to sustain themselves. Overwhelmed by hunger, helplessness and dread of the disease, migrant workers began to walk hundreds of kilometres to their home districts, despite the constant threat of police violence and detention.

“It was apparent that while some lives were to be protected, others were dispensable,” writes Mander in his new book, Locking Down The Poor, published by Speaking Tiger Books in December 2020.

India is in the middle of a humanitarian catastrophe, the effects of which will be felt for decades. Our only hope, writes Harsh Mander, lies in genuine democracy and unwavering solidarity…

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