Ten Modis cannot take on hunger, thirst, and the Indian mindset

While the idea of a 21-lockdown was good, it was not well planned as an exercise.

By Bikram Vohra (Between the lines)

Published: Sun 29 Mar 2020, 7:50 PM

Last updated: Mon 30 Mar 2020, 10:33 AM

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi put a nation of 1.4 billion into a 21-day lockdown on March 24 he had ostensibly wrapped his head around the cruel fact that Covid-19 was a spectre that could come calling and destroy the social fabric with the tenacity of termites.
The strict orders were novel and welcomed and struck a chord with the public. Here was a prime minister who called it like he saw it. What Modi did not reckon with were the horsemen of the Indian apocalypse and their foot soldiers. Poverty, kismet (fate), fatalism, resignation, and politics. Indians are more than stoic. The solitary reaper is a common sight. He is received with a shrug. Most live with his probable presence every day. This is our lot, the cards have been dealt with, whatever will be, will be. This mindset is the Indian strength and the Indian weakness.
By day three the horsemen's loyal infantry in the form of hunger, thirst, and lack of money invaded the Modi intent and the public began to filter out in trickles. Even the worm turns and the natural surrender to the caprice of the fates is aced by basic needs. The weekend indicated they were ready to take on the beleaguered and arbitrary police armed with their canes because hunger wins the day. By Saturday the trickle had grown into a mini exodus as frightened migrant workers began to leave the Indian capital, ready to walk a 1,000 kilometres instead of starving in a cooped up space with dozens of others. To Bihar, to Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, and Bengal. Men, women, and children in their hundreds of thousands.
Into the sound of hooves as the horsemen mocked the milieu came another black knight. Politics. In a moment of total madness and evidently to release the pressure on the rage and impatience that was building in the New Delhi, roughly three million out of state migrants, the local administration announced free bus rides home to the state of your choice. As the news went viral courtesy social platforms the floodgates tore open and a torrent of humanity rushed to the bus depot at Anand Vihar in Delhi. By the evening of Saturday there were over 500,000 people at the terminus and still coming, a four-kilometre line of the helpless.
Spent much of the night talking with several of these stranded ones on WhatsApp since about a dozen of them are boys that I mentor and colleagues in KT have often contributed to the amenities in their slum. I implored them to go back. Amit, Sameer, Manoj, Irfan, Vijay, real people (if you want you can call them, they haven't eaten for three days and are sleeping where they stand). There is no water, no sanitation. Cholera, dysentery, and normal garden variety flu raise their ugly heads. The wails of children add to the cacophony. Their videos are horrifying. Like ants the human swarm clambers onto buses that look like worn out slippers. You cannot see the bus for humans clinging to every part, this must be how piranhas taken on their victim.
A clever populist political move gone so bad. I tell these boys that common sense dictates there must be at least one person with Covid-19 in that mass exodus. Maybe many more but it only needs one. If anything, in its desire to please the public and its inability to feed it and slake thirst, the administration has started the countdown on the time bomb we all feared.
Those 2,000-odd buses are on the move. They might as well be carrying nuclear devices because with them Covid-19 is also now on the fast track wending its way across the sub-continent.
Just a few days ago Indians were applauding their status as a nation that had a grip on the pandemic, that its government had seen sense and was lighting the way to safety. While the idea was good and Modi had his heart in the right place, it was not well planned as an exercise. The assumption that understanding of the enormity of the issue would prevail and self-preservation would dictate discipline has fallen by the wayside. Hunger and thirst do that effectively. It is no secret that Modi's central government and the local governance of Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi's chief minister, are at loggerheads and one-upmanship rules the relationship. Kejriwal's dictates to send 120 buses becomes laughable. From across the border UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath commandeers 1,000 vehicles to bring his workers home. The lockdown has a broken lock and no one seems to care. The way to hell is paved with good intentions and in this case even the intentions are suspect.
For the most part unless some extreme measures like calling out the army or as in the case of the latest message from Telengana chief minister of shoot-at-sight orders for those who venture out, the lockdown has no stamina to reach 21 days.
Indeed, the chief minister of Delhi has cried havoc and let loose the rabid dogs of war.more's the pity.

The crowd on a bus to Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh.
The crowd on a bus to Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh.

More news from