Planet Bombay

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

Day 68: Day of the Locust

The calm before the storm — a pre-pandemic shot of the Mumbai skyline.

31st May, 2020

As if 2020 couldn’t get more apocalyptic, a plague of locusts is now wreaking havoc in northern India and is said to be making its way towards Mumbai.

Large swathes of cropland in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Punjab have already been ravaged in what is believed to be the worst locust invasion India has seen in 25 years. The country is now bracing for severe food shortages even as Covid-19 continues its inexorable spread (new cases are now topping 8,000 per day).    

Videos emerged online appearing to show locusts already terrorizing households in the Mumbai suburbs but these turned out to be fake.

Given the sheer volume of doom-laden news coverage these days, it’s perhaps understandable that most residents of the state of Maharashtra didn’t take heed of a more insidious threat. The Mumbai Police Commissionerate issued an order on May 23rd prohibiting criticism of the state government. The order will only be in effect until June 8th and its defenders say it will be used to combat the dissemination of Covid-19 misinformation, but many are able to see it for what it is: an affront to the democratic values on which the modern state of India was founded. Exploiting emergency powers to suppress criticism and extend control is the oldest trick in the dictator’s playbook. Indians know this all too well — in the 1970s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi used rule by decree to suppress freedom of speech and other civil liberties for a 21-month period known simply as The Emergency.

I was somewhat encouraged to read that a legislator from the BJP, the opposition party in Maharashtra, has challenged the police order in the Bombay High Court. We can now only wait and see what the outcome will be.

From tomorrow the Indian government will begin easing lockdown restrictions across the country. But full restrictions will remain in place in containment zones, of which there are many in Mumbai, until June 30th. We’ve not “flattened the curve” by any means — in fact, the situation in Mumbai is gradually degenerating into the horror show that many expected — but some public transport services will resume and inter-state travel will open up. Here in Maharashtra, the worst-hit state in India, the local government is more cautious about lifting restrictions — malls, restaurants, places of worship, hotels and salons are to remain closed and, although people will be able to exercise in public spaces, a curfew will be in place between 7pm and 5am every day.

Many are bemused by the central government’s decision to start lifting the lockdown with the monsoon around the corner and Covid cases still rising. Despite the government’s insistence that the outbreak has not yet entered the “community transmission” phase in India, the healthcare system is already struggling to cope. An expected spike in dengue and malaria cases during the rainy season will only worsen the situation.

Despite the general sense of foreboding hanging over Mumbai, I’m looking forward to the rains and the cooler weather that comes with them, as I do every year. Anticipating ceiling leaks (one of the downsides of living on the top floor of an old building), we asked our landlord to send someone round to spread some caulk on the terrace. One of the guys who repainted our flat several months ago — a young amiable Bengali lad — showed up. He was wearing his usual working attire — a pair of jeans and a green T-shirt featuring male and female stick figures holding hands above the words “Game Over”. Our local convenience store is also bracing for the monsoon — they’ve begun to erect their corrugated iron rain shelter.

The fledgling crows in the tree outside our kitchen window are growing up fast. They’re too big for the nest now and have taken to perching precariously on its edge. Their eyes have opened and when they’re not feeding they’re exploring their environment — nibbling on leaves and twigs, testing the world like a human baby would, and sometimes venturing out onto the tree branches. One especially adventurous chick has been straying further and further from the nest day by day and is at present perched high up in the branches, far from its siblings.

I have been watching the ugly little fiends intently. They seem to know exactly what they’re supposed to do — they are ready for a life of flying and scavenging and fighting over scraps. They know nothing of the troubles roiling the world of humans.  

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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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