COVID Penalties: Authoritarianism in the guise of Social Control

There seems to be a new method to control citizens and reinforce the demands made by the governments- levying increasingly high fines.

women in covid-19 crisis
Courtesy: BBC

On 15 December the Supreme Court was informed that a total of ₹80- ₹90 crores had been collected by the State of Gujarat as fines from citizens who had violated the regulations of Covid-19.

The revelation had occurred during the hearing of the suo moto case of the increasing fire tragedies occurring in COVID-19 hospitals across Gujarat. The case was being heard by a three-judge bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, Subhash Reddy, and MR Shah.

When the court had asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta to suggest some measures to ensure that all safety procedures are observed in the hospitals, Mehta had suggested that higher fines were the only possible solution for strict adherence.

Hiked Fines: A Punishment with No Reform

There seems to be a new method to control citizens and reinforce the demands made by the governments- levying increasingly high fines.

In the month of October, the Karnataka government had hiked the penalty for not wearing a mask in public to ₹1000 in the urban areas, and ₹500 in the rural areas. Within a week, due to massive public outrage, the fines were cut down to ₹250 in the urban and ₹100 in the rural areas.

In Delhi, CM Arvind Kejriwal had announced a fine of ₹2000 from the initial fine of ₹500. Gurgaon saw a whopping fine of up to ₹2500 if found not wearing a mask in public places.

Kerala too had initially announced a fine of up to ₹10,000 and then subsequently brought it down to ₹500.

While such high amounts may be good to maintain public alertness, and ensure that all citizens take proper safety precautions, what about the redressal- a solution to this problem?

Once the amount has been paid, does it not become a government responsibility to ensure that the violators are then given masks to protect themselves? Especially since the fines being levied are extremely high, enough to buy at least two masks.

The idea of fines, especially COVID-19 fines has been to discourage citizens from engaging in problematic behaviour that may cause trouble to other citizens. So after the punishment has been observed there ought to be a teaching moment- perhaps to show or aid the ‘violators’ the correct behaviour to be observed.

Feasibility Of An Authoritarian Approach

While the seriousness of the COVID-19 must not be overlooked, the government has left the onus on citizens completely and has refused to take any accountability. They have used the pandemic as an excuse to become extremely regressive and authoritative. The fine hikes are just one such example.

The Modi government has obsessed and continuously emphasized on citizens performing their duties and abiding by the law, without seeing to it that they perform the basic duties that they had been voted into power for.

It was the duty of the state to ensure that every citizen has access to facilities and safety. However, as seen in the case of the Migrant workers- the government had left them as missing, unavailable data.

This use of brute force to control, monitor, and ensure rules are followed seems to have blurred our ideals of democracy. Especially when these attacks were being made at those who could not afford to Work From Home, or were moving out mainly for emergencies.

Related- Watch: Indian police are beating up people on the streets to enforce the coronavirus lockdown

Currently, this method of punishing those who have no way to correct themselves is just another way of exposing the elitist nature of a government that has ignored those in most need for far too long. It is not entirely right to make such decisions without taking into consideration the caste and class inequalities that are rampant in our country.

Safety- a Privilege 

While having basic fines are important for the smooth running of a city, different state governments seem to be stretching the limits of these fines without taking into mind the spending capacity of its people, or the amount of privilege that a person may have.

In its early days, the COVID-19 crisis has proven one very important thing, that not everybody can afford the same treatment, or facilities. Then was it fair that different people were charged the same amount in fines?

An important question to now ask is where the crores accumulated from these fines will go. Will it be used to begin mask distribution campaigns, or fund COVID treatment, or will it all be devoted to unofficially official trust funds?

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