The Indian government’s attempts to lockdown over a billion people are collapsing after only a few days.
Prime minister Narendra Modi last week ordered the country be shutdown for 21 days in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The hard right prime minister suggested that people “take inspiration from frontline soldiers” and show resolve in tough times.
But by Saturday hundreds of thousands of workers in the main cities were trying to return to their villages across the country fearing they would starve during the quarantine period.
Most of those fleeing are day labourers, living a hand to mouth existence. With the economy shutdown and little or no welfare provision in place, many had decided to try make it home.
Bus stations were swamped by thousands of people who upon finding there were no buses decided to try and walk home – even if home is hundreds of miles away.
“My landlord wants the rent at the beginning of every month, without fail. He will simply throw me out if I don’t pay,” Ram Nivas Yadav, an auto-rickshaw driver and migrant from Bihar to Delhi, told reporters.
“I used to earn 400-500 rupees (£4-£5) per day, but now I can’t earn anything because of the lockdown. I won’t be able to eat anything after three to four days”, he added.
In a fit of panic the government announced that schools in bigger towns and cities would be turned into shelters, and that feeding and ration stations would be set up. Shelters boasted their tiny dormitory rooms could hold up to six people, seemingly oblivious to the need to keep people separated.
A large government disaster fund has also been set up. But the hollowing out of the state under successive right and centre right governments means there are few ways of ensuring people are fed in a time of crisis.
That’s why Modi has also demanded that state governments use physical force to stop the movement of people. Heavily armed troops have placed roadblocks on all the main exits from the cities, and this is becoming a new source of tension.
In the central state of Madhya Pradesh, where Modi’s BJP party won most seats in this year’s election, a police woman caused outrage when she attacked a fleeing worker. Pinning him to the floor, she wrote “I’ve violated lockdown, stay away from me” on his forehead.
And, in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh several thousand labourers are now stranded at a checkpoint, unable to return home to tend the red chili harvest. With no food or water, they are left in limbo with the desolate city behind them, while their families wait desperately for them to return.
India currently has a relatively low level of infections, with less than a thousand cases and 25 deaths. Some medical professionals predict a large rise in cases that could devastate the country.
But widespread distrust of politicians and the state means that many millions of people fear starvation more than the coronavirus.
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