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The Nation Stands Still—COVID-19 Lockdown in India


Ranveer Singh, a home delivery worker for an eatery in Delhi, decided to head home to be with his family, as he had no food or shelter in the city. He set off on his travel by the only mode available to him—on foot. Ranveer, accompanied by two others, began walking the 300 km towards his village located in the Morena district of Madhya Pradesh. However, upon reaching Agra, Ranveer began complaining of chest pain and collapsed. The 38-year-old man died of a heart attack thereafter, on the Delhi-Agra highway, 100 kilometers away from his home.

Like Ranveer, thousands of migrant workers were left stranded in Delhi, and other major cities of India, with no employment for 21 days after the nationwide lockdown due to COVID-19 was announced.

On 24th March, sharp at 8 PM, the nation waited with bated breath as Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation. That night, beginning from 12 AM, the entire nation was to go into a 21-day lockdown, the largest COVID-19 lockdown the world has known. This sent the entire country into a frenzy as citizens all across the economic spectrum hurried to safeguard themselves and their families. While the more privileged citizens rushed to the markets to gather essentials, the migrant workers sought their way home in a mass exodus from the major cities of the nation.

Chaos amidst migrant workers trying to board buses in Ghaziabad. [Image Credits: Reuters]

A majority of the labour force in India lacks social security and job protection as a result of not having binding work contracts. These workers usually travel to big cities in search of jobs and the hope of earning a respectable livelihood. However, according to the nation’s policy, only those workers that are employed by a unit with more than ten workers in total, get social security and health benefits. According to the Seventh Economic Census, 98.63 per cent of the establishments in the country employ less than ten workers. They often work for a daily stipend, and the lockdown has stripped them of their wages for three weeks, and in turn, their livelihood.

Data from the Seventh Economic Census of India.

As a result, a massive evacuation operation was underway in Anand Vihar, Delhi, with lakhs of people congregating at the bus terminal. The buses were called from various districts, particularly around 250 in Ghaziabad and 100 in Noida. They plied to the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar. Ignoring all rules of social distancing, many people, even those with children and infants, climbed the buses and even occupied the roof in their haste to escape the city.  The Prime Minister on Mann Ki Baat warned those who were travelling that they were playing with their lives and apologised to the poor, explaining that the only solution was a complete lockdown.

The people boarding the buses had to make a choice between the risk of infection, and starvation as there was no food, money, or work available for them in Delhi. Officials present there tried to maintain order and keep people at a safe distance from each other. They also attempted to make three queues and even deboarded people to prevent overcrowding of the buses. The state’s Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal also implored the citizens to remain in the city but it was all to no avail. To make dealing with the situation easier, the RSS had set up a kitchen service to distribute food packets to those at the bus terminal. In a desperate attempt to avoid the spread, migrant workers arriving in Bareilly district of Uttar Pradesh were sprayed with disinfectants, which received a mass outroar from the public. Although measures are being taken to diffuse this migrant crisis, as the days pass and the number of COVID-19 cases increases, the situation is becoming increasingly unstable.

Workers collect food being handed out near the Anand Vihar Bus Terminus in New Delhi. [Image Credits: Hindustan Times / Getty Images]

In addition to this, the lockdown affects yet another vital sector of the nation. India is currently in its harvest season with farmers all over the country producing grains and vegetables, ready to be driven to the markets. But this year, there is nobody left to harvest the crops as most migrant workers returned to their hometown due to the lockdown. Vegetable farmers are affected the most as the crop cannot be mechanically harvested, like the potato harvest in Punjab or tomatoes in Maharashtra. They are forced to sell the produce at a nominal price since they don’t have the resources to store or transport the goods. The farmers require the government to provide them with proper storage facilities for crops with a longer shelf life so that they can bargain for a reasonable price for their harvest. Further, many truck drivers are finding difficulties in transporting the harvested crops to the customers as they are lathi-charged en-route by the police.  If the farmers are unable to make good profits from their harvest, they will be unable to pay back the loans taken at the start of the season. They will further be unable to borrow for the next season, putting them under additional duress.

The government has taken measures to reduce the burden on the farmers by permitting the agriculture industry to operate irrespective of the lockdown, as it is an essential service. Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar declared farming and related operations exempt from the lockdown rules to ensure timely harvesting of rabi crops and food security in the country. Harvesting and sowing of crops shall continue uninhibited and seed, fertiliser, and pesticide stores will remain open. Those involved in farm-to-fork sectors such as food aggregators, commission agents, forwarding contractors, and wholesale buyers will continue to operate. However, the matter of the absent migrant workers and police brutality against the truck drivers still remains as a pressing hurdle. It is up to the state government to effectively implement these measures appropriately in the current state of the pandemic.

Migrant workers walk home from New Delhi. [Image Credits: AP]

The police are playing a major role in ensuring that the rules of lockdown are being followed. In Chennai and Bangalore, they are using a corona-helmet to warn those on the road of the risks of being outdoors. Police in Bihar has taken to distributing food packets that were prepared in train stations to the poor. However, there are also many reports of police abusing their power and resorting to violence to stop people from venturing out into the streets. These strict repercussions led to the death of a man in West Bengal who died from police inflicted wounds after he ventured out to buy milk. Baton-welding police roam the streets and often make those caught outside undergo physical punishments. A pair of vegetable vendors in Noida were verbally abused and beaten up by the police for doing their work. They reported that they were unable to sit down due to the beatings and suffered heavy losses for the day. Such exploitation has become increasingly common with the lockdown being imposed and is a detrimental factor against the country and its people.

At this time, India has 1637 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with the death toll at 38. Kerela has been hit the most with 234 cases, followed by Maharashtra with 216, and then Uttar Pradesh with 101. India has so far conducted merely 38,442 tests as of 30th March, compared to USA or Italy, who has carried out over 300,000. India has less than 40,000 ventilators and one doctor for every 10,000 people in rural areas. The WHO recommends at least ten times this number. There are little over seven lakh government hospital beds available for the sick, which is about 0.7 per 1000 people in India. If the number of cases in India explodes, the health care system would quickly get overwhelmed. There is a real possibility of health care workers falling sick and a dearth of medical supplies.

A doctor with a raincoat and torn face mask as his protective gear at a major coronavirus treatment facility. [Image Credits: Reuters]

In these trying times, many celebrities and corporates have stepped up and donated funds and resources to fight the pandemic. Relief funds have also been set up where every ordinary citizen can make their contribution. The current lockdown is necessary to slow down the spread of COVID-19 so that the country’s health care system is not overwhelmed with a sharp increase in cases. Since the virus has an incubation period of one to fourteen days before showing symptoms, a lockdown of 21 days is vital. But this is only effective with the cooperation of every citizen in the country who needs to stay at home and follow the health guidelines, while essential workers move outside to play their part in combating the virus.

We at The MIT Post, request everyone with the capacity to do so, to donate any amount feasible to assist our health-care workers and other fighters in combating the pandemic. Here are a few funds to which you can donate:

Visit the government set website or the official twitter account for official notices and state-wise case segregations.

COVID-19 Helpline Number: 1075/011-23978046

COVID-19 Helpline Email ID: [email protected]

This article is current as of 1st April 2020.

Featured Image Credits: Satish Acharya

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