India's COVID-19 lockdown leaves vulnerable populations to fend for themselves

Image by Rajesh Balouria from Pixabay. Used under a Pixabay License.

Image by Rajesh Balouria from Pixabay. Used under a Pixabay License.

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On March 24, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered the country to lockdown for three weeks. The emergency protocol shuts down public places and curbs transport facilities — leaving the policing of restrictions to state governments.

The announcement has triggered an exodus of migrant workers hoping to flee cities for their rural homes after losing their jobs to the COVID-19 shutdowns. This mass movement of people is causing fears that contagion of the virus will be even harder to stymie.

In the last three decades, India's economy has seen millions of people leave agriculture for the cities. The construction sector was one of the booming economic areas which employed close to 50 million workers. Many of them working outside of legally enforceable contracts at low daily or weekly wages. The sudden break in all forms of economic activity due to the lockdown has left these workers jobless, and some without access to food. Many of them thronged railway and bus stations to leave the city. But the suspension of public and private transport without adequate warning has left them without a way to get back home. It also puts them at an increased risk of contracting the infection.

Due to the transportation shutdown, many migrant workers across the country started walking back to their hometowns.

There are also reports of migrants dying from starvation, exhaustion and heart attacks.

Amidst this crisis, the Modi government announced a belated relief package of a reported $23 billion, but it failed to mention the affected migrant workers. Meanwhile, social media has been awash with images of police brutality against people for violating an order by the Modi government issued in response to television reports of the mass movement of migrants.

Yet another outcome of an unplanned lockdown has been disruption to the food supply of poor and marginalised populations. While the government has guaranteed essential services to be exempt from the lockdown, poorer sections of the population that depend on subsidised food rations have been left in the lurch — even in the capital.

Delhi Police at India Gate. Image from Flickr by Veeresh Malik. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Delhi Police at India Gate. Image from Flickr by Veeresh Malik. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

As the deadline for the end of the current lockdown is less than a week away, authorities are planning for a phased resumption of various transport services. The biggest challenge arguably remains the clusters of infections that have formed in densely populated poor areas in Mumbai's suburbs and Nizamuddin in Delhi. The World Health Organization has advised that maintaining social distance is one of the most effective strategies to prevent human to human transmission of this infectious disease. However, it is easier said than done in a country where almost 70 percent of the population live in dwellings with only one to two rooms or are homeless.

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