Migrant workers and their family members lineup outsdie the Anand Vihar bus terminal to leave for their villages during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus in New Delhi on March 28, 2020. - Tens of thousands of migrant workers and their famiies on March 28 fought and shoved their way onto buses organised by India's most populous state to get them to their home towns amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Bhuvan BAGGA / AFP) (Photo by BHUVAN BAGGA/AFP via Getty Images)
Migrant workers in New Delhi start to make the long journey home after the lockdown was announced © Bhuvan Bagga/AFP/Getty

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In my living room before Narendra Modi’s television broadcast last Tuesday night, I was hit by a wave of anxiety. The Indian premier, whose rare primetime appearances typically herald big announcements, had already addressed the nation days before to warn of the coronavirus threat. Then, he had called for a symbolic one-day “people’s curfew” to show India’s resolve to fight the outbreak. His reappearance so soon suggested something bigger in store.

Sure enough, Mr Modi had alarming news. Just a week earlier, India’s top health officials were insisting the outbreak was under control, and that only travellers back from overseas or their contacts were infected. But now, he said, the deadly disease threatened to “spread like wildfire”. He imposed a strict, nationwide, 21-day curfew.

Even as he spoke, large swaths of India, including its main cities, were under different state-level lockdowns, due to last until March 31. Public transport services were suspended. But Mr Modi’s stern televised admonition to India’s 1.4bn people to stay indoors until mid-April or face criminal prosecution sparked panic.

Curfew was starting in just four hours. Mr Modi promised authorities would ensure a smooth flow of essential items like milk, fresh fruits and vegetables to Indians’ front doors so they need not step out at all. But plenty of city dwellers were sceptical. Minutes later, pharmacies and grocery shops were mobbed by panicked buyers stocking up on necessities.

Though I did not join the scramble, I understood their fears. Like many, I will not forget the chaos unleashed when Mr Modi invalidated nearly 86 per cent of India’s currency overnight back in 2016 in a dramatic bid to purge black money from the economy.

Then, Mr Modi promised that those with legitimately earned cash could deposit it in their bank accounts or exchange it for the new currency. But little preparation had been done. New notes (slightly different size from the old ones) had not yet been printed in sufficient supply. ATM machines had to be recalibrated to dispense them.

India’s cash-dependent economy seized up, leading to widespread job losses. Millions of Indians, many of whom lacked bank accounts, waited hours, if not days, to exchange or access their own money, even in emergencies.

Mr Modi’s coronavirus lockdown has displayed the same lack of preparedness. The wealthy elite and urban middle classes were advised to rely on ecommerce companies and neighbourhood shops to bring provisions to their doors. But no one told the police, who sought to enforce the national “stay-at-home” order by beating couriers making deliveries and shutting logistics warehouses, forcing a temporary suspension of ecommerce operations.

At my local vegetable shop, the manager was initially distraught, as their truckloads of fresh produce were barred from entering the city for days. The flow of food is now improving.

But these challenges pale when compared with the tribulations of vulnerable urban workers, including casual labourers, dependent on daily wages to feed themselves, and informal sector workers, easily dismissed in hard times.

Imposing the curfew, Mr Modi did not utter a word about how these millions of workers — mainly rural migrants — were to get by for three weeks without any earnings. Many turned to the only social safety net they have: the sanctuary of home. With public transport suspended, thousands began long, dangerous treks on foot back to their villages, in a mass exodus. But amid widespread fear of coronavirus, returnees cannot count on a warm welcome: at least one group of migrants was sprayed en masse with disinfecting bleach at a police check post.

At the weekend, Mr Modi apologised for the hardships the poor have suffered as a result of the lockdown, though he insists he had no choice. Yet for political ends, the prime minister often touts his own humble origins as the son of a railway station tea-seller, which he insists gives him insights into the lives of working-class voters.

It is all the more surprising, then, that he failed to recognise that for India’s impoverished underclass, living in urban slums or tiny tents and hovels, “staying at home to stay safe” was a luxury they could not afford.


amy.kazmin@ft.com

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