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Why Social Distancing Is Near Impossible In India!

Before going to the practical problems of maintaining social distancing we must mention at the outset about the basic traits of the Indians: that they are one of the most hospitable lots of the world always loving company in abundance and celebrations on every possible occasions-like in a family of four birthdays of all the members plus anniversaries/others will be celebrated most preferably with friends and relatives apart from all other social occasions including the big ones of marriages and even funerals; all religious festivals whereas it is said that people can have more than twelve occasions in a year of twelve months, big community festivals and home worshipping; all cultural festivals where all communities from all religions can participate; get-togethers and parties in hotels for any reason under the sun; and so on. Although the erstwhile joint family system is no longer in vogue every household loves to entertain guests on all of the above mentioned occasions and more. No wonder, the police in almost every city have to make raids on hotels for secret parties even during strict lockdowns, not to speak of clandestine parties within the four walls into which even the best police force of any country could possibly intrude. And typically in India, barring the super-rich all others possess small congested flats. Hardly anybody would like to think of keeping themselves from each other in the way of restrictive social distancing on these matters. Replacing the ‘shaking of hands’ with the very Indian ‘Namasker’ is being reduced to a myth in these conditions.

Whereas the practical problems of maintaining social distancing are mostly seen in cities and towns, the above mentioned traits are common in all people of urban and rural areas. A friend from a village recently told me that as per the COVID-19 protocols one household of the village decided to restrict a marriage only to a few relatives. All the villagers immediately got terribly offended and demanded to be invited at all costs. It is a normal custom for any household of an Indian village to invite that entire village for a marriage ceremony under any circumstances; else the household faces the stigma of social boycott. We also must mention here that a traditional marriage in India can be as long as a five-day and the funeral ceremony following an unfortunate death of a member of family can be a 13-day long affair, with visitors and staying relatives, either celebrating or mourning, adorning the family every day of the affairs.

Obviously, while talking about the practical problems the main one that emerges is the country’s bursting population leading to the maximum possible population density in almost all towns and cities, particularly the metros like Mumbai and Kolkata. Once out of your home, which is also likely to be very dense with bountiful members of family in suffocating confines, you cannot avoid brushing with people coming and overtaking you in the small lanes or in the narrow pavements of the wider roads/highways or in the parks or in the malls or in the cinema-hall complexes or anywhere. Although you’d very much like to observe social distancing you cannot be as heartless as to elbowing and throwing fellow inhabitants out of your way. The bursting population makes the urban infrastructure inadequate and due to heavy traffic jams people have to push at each other at every pedestrian crossing. Then, the mushrooming bikers make the life of pedestrians miserable by converting them into closely-knit clusters. Situation is so horrible in the local trains of some big cities that the respective governments dare not open the trains for everyone even long after lifting lockdowns effectively.

We specially mention here the local markets and shops. The markets in most towns and cities, even in the village weekly or daily ones, are situated in narrow lanes or in ill-kept concrete blocks allowing rows and rows of sellers/vendors with very narrow passages in between, so that squeezing through the purchasing customers on both sides is very difficult without touches and pushes. When during lockdowns markets are allowed to open for few hours the rush is always so heavy that it makes social distancing the joke of the pandemic age. Similarly, stand-alone (funny to call it like that) shops are normally arranged in lines along both sides of the roads/lanes/highways, and only 3-4 people in front of a particular shop can make it a crowd, because there is no space enough in front, and if one prefers to stand behind an already engaged customer s/he runs the risks of being mowed down by constantly moving vehicles/bikes/autos in both directions. In some typically narrow lanes of Kolkata the vehicles threaten to hit the shops themselves, not to think of the customers in front. And the constant honking of bikes/cars/auto-rickshaws and tinkling of the cycle-rickshaws/ bicycles turn people helter-skelter and social distancing would be the last thought in their minds.

The Government of India and all state governments know very well about such technical impossibilities and can ill afford to be less lenient lest the political parties ruling the governments lose popularity. They urge them still to maintain social distancing; make entry into temples/mosques/malls restricted, but in that case crowds form at the entry gates and for the same moving traffic reason they cannot spread around into the streets; they urge people to celebrate any occasion with a fixed number of invitees, but no country can have such a large police force that they can supervise every nook and corner; they make the buses run at half-capacity, but because of that crowds overflow at the bus-stops and again, who can effectively check every bus plying as to how many passengers inside; in the railways and the airlines the middle births/seats are not cross-marked so as to avoid loss of revenues, and the railways making rules like no pantry car or blankets to be provided in the trains act only to the disadvantage of the passengers, already running high risks of infection.

The biggest religious festivals are the biggest concerns of the political parties ruling the governments, because they cannot afford to hurt the sentiments of various community who are their eventually their voters, and for this reason there have always been regular violations even during lockdowns (the devotees, well-educated or not, believe that once in the service of the gods no virus dare touch them). How could one think realistically of forcing social distancing in a festival where devotees in millions participate daily? Positively speaking, for a change at times the concerned governments did cancel big pan-India festivals. But how can one avoid mentioning the Governments deciding to hold elections when they should ideally have imposed lockdowns/restrictions, and we all know how devastating the second COVID-19 wave turned out to be.

So then, social distancing as a much-desired norm exists only in preaching and in papers; in actuality it cannot be observed except for high-level conferences held in big enriched auditoriums. No government in India is bold enough to decide re-opening of schools/colleges that have remained closed for more than 17 months for the same reasons, just not enough space to accommodate and do justice to the huge number of students. Masks, hand hygiene and vaccination emerge as the most effective ways to possibly stop a third wave that, as per the Government of India itself, can loom large anytime in September 2021. Unfortunately, the much hyped ‘biggest’ vaccination campaign of the world has still not picked up to protect the majority of the citizens. As the stoic says, ‘India is India; whatever happens here is always for the good’.