Planet Bombay

India's City of Dreams through the eyes of a Brit who calls it home

Day 27: Weighing the Human Cost of Lockdown

A billboard in our neighbourhood.

I have been journaling about life in Mumbai during the Covid-19 pandemic since the beginning of lockdown and have decided to turn some of those entries into short blog posts. I hope you enjoy them. If you’d like to read my long-form stuff, head to The Borderlands.

19th April, 2020

India has been in lockdown for nearly a month now. Prime Minister Modi announced on the last day of the initial 21-day lockdown period that the restrictions on movement will remain in place until May 3rd. With the virus showing no signs of abating, either within India or abroad, I suspect we’ll be seeing further extensions beyond that date.     

There was unrest here in Mumbai on the day of the PM’s announcement. A large crowd of migrant workers desperate to get back to their home states gathered outside Bandra railway station to vent their frustration. They had apparently heard false reports that transportation services would be resuming. But instead of trains, the labourers got a thrashing by lathi-wielding police officers.   

The PM was initially lauded for his robust response to the pandemic. Despite my ingrained scepticism towards populist leaders of his ilk, even I couldn’t help but be impressed. When he appeared in his address to the nation, resolute and statesman-like, the contrast with the shambolic, fumbling efforts of Trump, Johnson and other Western heads-of-state couldn’t have been more striking. But now the true cost of India’s stringent lockdown measures is becoming clear. With no transportation and no financial aid, migrant workers have effectively been stranded by their own government and left to starve.

A number of NGOs and charitable individuals have stepped in to try to allay the suffering of these Covid castaways, distributing food aid to the most vulnerable communities. One of our friends started his own food distribution program in the early days of the lockdown and is now reaching 30-plus families per day. With the help of a rickshaw driver who he’s made an arrangement with, he visits slum areas and low-cost housing blocks throughout Bandra, handing out rations of rice, flour, lentils and other staples. Initially he was funding the initiative out of his own pocket but, due to the overwhelming number of people in need, he is now soliciting donations from local and overseas friends. A director of photography by trade, he is currently out of work due to the lockdown and is using nearly all of his newly freed-up time on purchasing and distributing supplies. Every day he sends receipts, photos and a detailed written report to all the donors. He tells me the work has given him a renewed sense of purpose and has brought him closer to God.

This particular friend is a Christian, but similar initiatives are being undertaken by organisations and individuals from across the entire spectrum of religious belief. The Sikh community, well-known for its humanitarian work, has been making headlines for its rapid, highly organised responses to food shortages both within India and overseas. And a few days back — Easter Sunday, as it happens — I saw a couple of Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, identifiable by their gold-brocaded skullcaps, handing out boxes of biryani to people on our street. It is the altruistic acts of ordinary citizens rather than the middling efforts of politicians that make me hopeful for India’s future.

Police operations have been ramping up here in Mumbai. In the early days of the lockdown I saw hardly any cops around Bandra, but now they’re patrolling the streets quite regularly. A veritable army of them passed down our street in a rather intimidating display of force this afternoon. Drawn to the kitchen window by the blaring of sirens, I saw a column of officers marching with lathis, followed by several squad cars and police buses.   

The cops don’t have an easy job enforcing lockdown measures in one of the world’s most densely populated megacities. As time wears on people seem to become more lackadaisical about following the rules. The other day a squad car came down our street, a mounted loudspeaker ordering everyone to return to their homes immediately — vegetable vendors quickly packed up and shops closed their doors, but by evening there were quite a few people milling around outside again.

The ramped-up police presence is understandable under the circumstances and it should not be forgotten that officers are putting themselves at considerable risk during this time. Nevertheless, the good work they’ve been doing has been tarnished by reports of heavy-handed lockdown enforcement tactics in Mumbai and across the country, and migrant workers are being disproportionately targeted.

Today’s military-style parade got me thinking about what sort of society will emerge in the aftermath of the pandemic. It’s hard to imagine such a thing happening under normal circumstances, but these are anything but normal circumstances. We are all so preoccupied with the threat of contracting a deadly virus that we’re ready to accept heavy-handed policing as necessary for the “greater good”, regardless of the implications for democracy.

Democracy is fragile at the best of times, but even more so in times of crisis — people are more willing to accept curbs on their personal freedoms if it means greater security, and it is all too easy for would-be despots to take advantage of this fact. Already, unprecedented surveillance programs are taking shape around the globe as governments seek to trace the spread of the virus, and the potential for these programs to be abused is obvious. Hungary has gone a step further, introducing a controversial set of coronavirus measures that effectively allows the prime minister to rule by decree for an unspecified period of time and brings in draconian punishments for spreading “misinformation”. 

The insidious threat to civil liberties posed by this worldwide crisis is not merely an academic matter for me. Having lived for many years in China, arguably the world’s largest and most sophisticated police state, I have seen firsthand the numerous ways a totalitarian government can intrude upon the private lives of its citizens. I would hate to see India, my beloved adopted home, go down the same road.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of this country lately. I guess that’s because the current crisis has made it clearer than ever before that my own future is tied up in it. Up until now I have, to some extent, straddled two countries: India and my country of birth, the United Kingdom. But with commercial flights suspended and charter flights to the UK ending in a few days, I’m forced to choose one country over the other.

It’s not an easy choice, to say the least — my parents are in the UK while my wife and in-laws are here in Mumbai — but I feel that I should stay put. If I leave India, I won’t be able to get back in until borders reopen (whenever that is). The fact that my parents are fit and healthy takes some of the pressure off, but the uncertainty of not knowing when I’ll next be able to hop on a flight is sobering all the same. There must be many others around the globe who are facing a similar dilemma.

Speaking of family separations, both D and I have a brother in the US who we are supposed to be visiting in June. It’s looking extremely unlikely that international travel will resume in time for our trip, but the airline hasn’t cancelled our tickets yet so maybe there’s still hope!


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“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” — L Smith

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