New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘lockdown’ measure to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus might have inconvenienced millions of people across India, especially the migrants and the poor, but it has only added to his personality cult.
ThePrint’s interactions with people, especially those on the margins of this crisis across geographical locations, suggest that the measures, termed as “harsh” by the opposition parties, have all-round support.
After the implementation of a 21-day nationwide lockdown on 25 March, the Modi government decided to extend it further up to 3 May. Migrant labourers, who had exited major urban centres en masse to try and get to their villages, have settled at their present locations for the time being, and even their outrage over the lockdown, which took away their livelihoods, seems to have diminished.
Among the labourers and homeless people in national capital Delhi, while the distress of food and shelter remains, a large majority supports Modi’s decision. Their resentment is directed, instead, at implementing agencies.
Many migrants on the streets or in shelter homes still hope they will be allowed to leave for their villages once the lockdown is lifted. But they also hope to receive the relief measures announced by the government, especially free rations for their families and money in their bank accounts.
‘No other way out’
Anil Gautam, daily wage labour from Palamu in Jharkhand, who works in Delhi’s Satsang Vihar, has been spending his nights in the market area while surviving on food donated by local residents. It has been a struggle for him to find food and shelter, but he says he feels assured that his family would at least get free rations announced by the government.
“We are used to fending for ourselves through hardship but at least our family must be getting free ration and money. Modi will also take care of us later,” he told ThePrint.
Anil says the strict lockdown is perfectly in line with the grave nature of the disease, which he calls “Kruna”. “If it’s spreading by touch, what’s the big deal in staying home for a few days? If we survive, we can earn more money. Modi wouldn’t have shut down everything without a lot of thought,” he said.
Shyam Jeswani, a kirana store owner in Bhopal, agreed. “This is very important for the kind of circumstances we are living in. This situation affects everyone. It’s important that the sickness doesn’t spread now. We are happy with the government’s decision.”
Sunil Notani, national working committee member of the Travel Agents’ Association of India, also from Bhopal, said: “I am okay with the decision because there doesn’t seem to be any other way out. We are definitely facing trouble because of this, but it could happen that we face an even bigger problem because we don’t have a proper treatment for this.
“It is only because of social distancing that India is doing better than other countries. The lockdown is the only way, until and unless the vaccine comes.”
Notani said this despite the travel sector seeing its biggest setback ever. “In the 25 years of my career in the travel trade, I never thought that such a day would come,” he added.
In the temporary shelters set up for migrant workers in Uttar Pradesh, people have a lot of complaints against the administration, especially the fact that it has locked them down without any timeframe to ensure they’re reunited with their families. Life at these temporary camps is tough, with migrants having to live on one or two meals a day, with a common toilet for dozens of people. They have no complaints against Modi, though, even as they pick holes in the way the local administration has “failed”.
Those stranded in Pune too agree with the lockdown, such as Sumant Singh from Sripur Gahar village in Bihar’s Samastipur district. “Even if someone else was the Prime Minister, what else could he do? It’s such a contagious disease. It (lockdown) has to be done for our safety.”
‘At least he’s feeding us’
Families distressed due to the lockdown too seem have a soft corner for Modi and the central government, because they have received a portion of the promised rations and are hopeful of getting money in their accounts.
Geeta Devi, who lives near Delhi’s R.K. Puram with a family of four, was sacked from her job as a domestic help. Her husband, who worked as a cleaner for the shops in Mohan Singh Market, also lost his job. But Geeta told ThePrint: “We have received rations from the PDS shops, and will go to the bank to get the money after the lockdown.”
She added: “There is so much Modiji can do for everyone whose businesses have lost money. But at least he is feeding us for the time being, and even paying us.”
For many migrant labourers in shelter homes, even getting food once a day is enough to believe that the government is making a conscious effort for them, and they are not “forgotten, like in normal times”.
Sanjay Kumar, a rickshaw puller from Khagaria, Bihar, who sleeps in his rickshaw alongside either others outside Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, said: “Earlier, the food was also provided to outsiders at night shelters, but people use to cram in there, so the police had to use force and it was closed to us.
“People should also maintain discipline — Modiji is getting food distributed, but he won’t come and ensure everyone is in queue.”
‘We are in this together’
With the lockdown being enforced more strictly with each passing day, the movement of people and vehicles is being checked stringently. But the feeling of “we are in this together” seems to be growing among the people, even those who are stranded outside Delhi’s top hospitals due to non-availability of beds.
Vikas Singh, who had come for cancer treatment, is now taking shelter at a makeshift camp outside AIIMS. He said: “AIIMS was never closed and deserted like this, and we have never been turned away by the staff here. There must be something serious happening out there, because of which Modiji and everyone else is trying to control it for our betterment.”
Pankaj, who had come to AIIMS to get his liver treated, added: “All of us stranded here are patients awaiting treatment, but everyone understands each other’s pain, as every second person has a life-threatening disease like cancer, heart or kidney ailment. Everyone in the country is cooperating in the lockdown, and so are we.”
According to some reports, even state chief ministers including Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal urged Modi to extend the lockdown after the initial 21 days. Kejriwal had tweeted about the decision before any formal announcements were made by Modi.
(With inputs from Angana Chakrabarti in Bhopal and Prashant Srivastava in Lucknow)