Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi apologized on Sunday. His apology to his citizens was over a three-week national lockdown, for which he gave only four hours’ advance notice. He called his measure harsh—but necessary in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic.
“I apologize for taking these harsh steps that have caused difficulties in your lives, especially the poor people,” Modi said. “I know some of you will be angry with me. But these tough measures were needed to win this battle.”
On the previous Tuesday night, Modi announced on television, “There will be a total ban of coming out of your homes.”
The lockdown order went into effect at 12:01a.m. last Wednesday. The order was meant to keep India’s 1.3 billion people at home for all but essential trips to places like markets or pharmacies.
The government hoped it would keep the virus from overwhelming India’s health care system. But it has also put millions of Indians who live in the large cities out of work—and sent them fleeing back to their villages.
Pressure is mounting on India’s government to find ways to keep people in their homes instead of traveling across the country—possibly bringing the virus to areas not yet affected.
Experts say spreading is inevitable. Tens of millions of people live in overcrowded urban areas with poor access to clean water.
India’s lockdown is the world’s largest. Rickshaw drivers, produce peddlers, maids, day laborers, and other informal workers form the backbone of the Indian economy. They make up around 85% of all employment. Many live below the poverty line. They buy their daily food with that day’s wages; they have no savings to fall back on.
The governments of New Delhi and the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh have arranged buses to take migrant workers back to their home villages.
But local police officer Rahul Katara says bus passengers are facing difficulties getting to their destinations.
“There are not enough buses, and those that make it across the border to Uttar Pradesh are often being turned away by local district officials, so bus drivers are dropping passengers off as near as they can to their destinations,” Katara says.
R.K. Sharma is a carpenter headed to his home in eastern Jharkhand state. He’s carrying water, cooking vessels, a blanket, and a mat. If he’s not able to board a bus, he says he’ll continue on foot.
“It’s not so long a distance,” Sharma says. “I’ll reach it in two or three days.”
(An Indian migrant worker carries a child on his shoulders as they wait for transportation to their village following Prime Minister Modi’s lockdown. AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)