‘I just want to go home’, desperate millions hit by Modi’s brutal lockdown

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For more than a decade, Begum Jan had managed to survive on the streets of Kolkata. A longtime wheelchair-user, she had a specific spot on a busy street. Rickshaw drivers and passers-by always made sure she had something to eat.

But last week, for the first time since she became homeless after falling ill with tuberculosis and losing her job as a housemaid, the 62-year-old was in danger of starving.

“For the past week, none of these people who usually help me have come in sight,” she said, her voice cracking with sadness. “They are all at home because of the lockdown; they don’t have any job and so they cannot help me any more.”

When prime minister Narendra Modi announced almost two weeks ago that India’s entire population of 1.3bn people would be under lockdown for at least three weeks to prevent the spread of coronavirus, it was the largest restriction of movement the world had ever seen.

The consequences for India, where tens of millions live in poverty, work thousands of miles from home, often living where they work, have been cataclysmic.

For those like Jan, who do not have a home, the edict to stay indoors and maintain social distance for 21 days has been particularly cruel. Her son, Raja Khan, also now lives on the streets with his three children after his work as a railway porter dried up.

Every day since the lockdown was declared, Khan has been pushing his mother as much as 25 miles a day in her wheelchair in an attempt to find food for her and his children. “No trains are running and so I am completely jobless,” he said. “I need to work daily to support my family of four people, so for the first time in my life I have taken to begging. It is humiliating.”

Manoranjan Ghosh, who worked – and slept – in a roadside tea shop in Kolkata, is another of the new homeless.

He made a temporary home in a small space on the floor of the railway station and still dresses as smartly as he can every morning, but said things were getting harder: “I bought food and used up all my savings in the first two or three days of the lockdown. Then I sold my mobile phone to a vegetable seller to be able to sustain myself for a few more days. But now I have no money.

“I worked well and lived with dignity. Suddenly I have turned homeless and been made a beggar.”

Most critics say Modi’s 21-day lockdown was too sudden – people were only given four hours’ notice and millions had no time to get back to their villages before transport and work shut down. This prompted a wave of mass migration across India unlike anything seen since partition, as people began walking for hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles. The authorities swiftly put a stop to that by closing all state borders, leaving thousands stranded.

Among them was Lal Sahab Kumar, 20, from a small village in Bihar, who had come to Delhi to earn 300 rupees (£3.20) a day as a mason. After Modi’s announcement, he was evicted and then attempted to walk the 600 miles back to Bihar – but the border was shut so he had to turn back. Now he is living in a shelter in West Delhi, which provides him with simple meals of dal, rice and tea. “Please, please, I just want to go home,” he said, looking downtrodden and dishevelled outside the shelter.

A migrant textile worker on the outskirts of Mumbai after the factory was shut in the 21-day lockdown. Photograph: Prashant Waydande/Reuters

Indian economist Jayoti Ghosh described the lockdown as a disaster. “We have never had a situation where the government has simultaneously shut down both supply and demand, with no planning, no safety net and not even allowing the people to prepare,” she said. Ghosh warned that the food shortages recently reported across India would only become more severe and widespread over the next two weeks.

“They knew it would have this impact but obviously did not care,” she added. “Even if a lockdown this brutal is necessary, they could have arranged a week in advance for people to be able to safely travel back home. What kind of arrogance and insensitivity does a government have to have to give the country four hours’ notice, at night, for a lockdown that is this draconian and this brutal?”

According to experts, the lockdown will need to last for much longer than the proposed 21 days if it is to prove effective. While so far cases of coronavirus in India have been far lower than in Europe, the US and east Asia, with 2,902 cases and 68 deaths, there are signs of community transmission, and the spread is escalating quickly.

In one of the more worrying developments, police barricaded parts of one of Asia’s biggest slums on Friday. Dharavi in Mumbai, where almost a million people live in cramped, unsanitary conditions, had recorded just two Covid-19 related deaths.

Kolkata-based NGO Bangla Sanskriti Mancha , which works with migrant labourers, said it had received tens of thousands of calls for help since the lockdown and had identified at least 30,000 workers across the country who were stranded and facing imminent starvation. The Students Islamic Organisation of India said it was providing food to more than 10,000 people in acute crisis.

“We totally support the decision of the lockdown. It’s badly needed to stop the spread of the virus,” said Syed Azharuddin, national general secretary of the SIO. “But the lockdown should have been implemented after ensuring that the migrant labourers had reached their homes.”

Some government and state relief is being offered. Maharashtra has announced $5.9m (£4.8m) in aid, Kerala has announced a $2.7bn relief package to tackle the crisis and Uttar Pradesh will send financial aid of 1,000 rupees (£10.70) a month to 3.5 million day-wage labourers. But with little documentation of people’s movements and their makeshift living arrangements, there are fears that millions will fall through the cracks.

Shekh Sujauddin, 21, from West Bengal’s Birbhum district, is among 60 casual construction workers currently living on a building site 2,000km away in Mumbai, where they had travelled to work. Without any way to earn money or return home for over a week, he said their situation was becoming more desperate by the day.

“With the money we have with us we cannot sustain ourselves more than one or two days and there is no sign of relief from the government,” said Sujauddin.

Sitting by the side of the road in Kolkata next to bags of plastic waste he had collected but could no longer sell, Ram Singh, a ragpicker, said he had not eaten for days and was existing on water. “I left home when I was 13 when my mother ran away with a man,” said Singh, who is now walking 30km a day to try to sell his wares. “But this is the first time in my life I have faced a crisis over food.”