“You can speak to him in English,” said a rickshaw puller who was eating his first morsel of food for the day around 1 pm on Saturday. He was among more than a hundred people who had lined up in the heat outside a government school in South Delhi’s Jangpura neighbourhood to get a scoop of dal over a small plate of rice.

The rickshaw puller pointed to another man – who presumably spoke English – to underline how even educated workers could not afford to buy food during the lockdown. Embarrassed at the attention, the man moved away, indicating he did not want to speak to this reporter.

“Please tell the government that the public is starving,” the rickshaw puller said. “I haven’t even had tea since morning, forget breakfast. On top of it, the police are swinging their lathis at us.” He did not want to be identified by name: “You will go away, the police will come and trouble us.”

Further down the line were a group of women squatting on the road with empty steel vessels.

They had come to Delhi with their husbands in December from their village in Madhya Pradesh’s Tikamgarh district to live and work on a construction site. The contractor last paid them wages in February. “Since then, he gave us money for kharcha paani, which we used to buy rations, but he has disappeared after the lockdown began,” Meena Vanshkar said. Now, stranded in the national capital, unable to return home, these workers were running out of money to buy essentials like tea and milk.

They had even run out of soap – the most reliable weapon to fight the coronavirus. “We bathe and wash our clothes in water, what to do,” Vanshkar said.

As they spoke to this reporter, a policeman came and banged his lathi on the road in front of the women. “Stand up,” he said. “Why are you sitting? Keep distance.”

When this reporter pointed out that distance could not be maintained even while sitting on the road, the policeman walked away without a response.

“We won’t die of Covid,” Mohammad Ali Khan, a middle-aged man had wryly remarked while waiting for the food distribution to begin. “We will die of lathis and hunger.”

With the novel coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe, countries have closed down transport and economic activities to contain its spread. But India’s lockdown has been the harshest – with the public spending needed to soften the blow among the smallest in the world.

The worst-affected are millions of Indians who live on subsistence-level wages. Casual labourers make up one-third of the country’s workforce and have no social security to fall back on.

In rural areas, at least people have the cushion of home and community. Some have a patch of land to grow food. Three-quarters of the rural population is eligible for food rations under the National Food Security Act. While there are gaps in the public distribution system, at least there is a mechanism for state governments to deliver grain.

For many urban migrants, even this basic safety net is missing.

This is why lakhs of people hit the roads to walk hundreds of miles home even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked them to stay. But many could not make it. The police stopped them on the way and herded them into shelters. While prisoners were being released from jails to avoid the spread of disease, migrants were taken captive.

Last week, the central government told the Supreme Court that over six lakh people were staying in these shelters. Reports from Uttar Pradesh to Telangana reveal many are staying against their will.

On Saturday, three men reportedly jumped into river Yamuna to escape from a shelter in Delhi – one drowned to death. Heated arguments broke out over food, lack of space and mosquitoes, reports say. By the end of the day, three shelters had been set on fire.

Even outside the shelters, migrant workers are captive and hungry.

While the government asked all private establishments to pay full salaries to even contractual workers, a small survey in Haryana’s automobile-making hub of Manesar found more than two-thirds of workers had gone unpaid. The government asked landlords to waive off rents, but few did. Many auto-sector workers sent us pictures of the last food stocks remaining in their kitchens.

With food stocks depleting, on Friday evening, hundreds of workers employed in the textile industry of Surat in Gujarat poured out on the streets to demand that the government restore transport and allow them to go back to their villages in North and East India. Watch how young men rioted and set road-carts ablaze. The police arrested eighty workers that night.

But if worker unrest were to spread in India, how many people can the police arrest?

A police crackdown cannot help contain a pandemic. Expanding social welfare to ensure food and dignity for the poorest Indians stands a better chance.

In the early days of the lockdown, economist Reetika Khera proposed 30 ideas, including allocating double the quantity of food rations and providing them free through the public distribution system. Some states have already announced such measures. But implementation is weak. In Jharkhand, for instance, the chief minister declared even households who do not have ration cards will get 10 kg of foodgrains. However, Right to Food activists visited 50 blocks and found few were receiving them.

To strengthen the capacity of states to give universal food rations, economist Jean Dreze argued the Centre needs to release the millions of tonnes of excess food stocks lying in its warehouses. “In economic terms, releasing excess stocks is costless, and even saves money,” he wrote in the Indian Express, explaining why cash transfers announced by the government had severe limitations.

In urban areas, for those who aren’t covered by the public distribution system, Khera suggested the government supply grains and dal to migrants, allowing them to run their own community kitchens.

Recognising the agency of workers and giving them freedom makes a big difference, as the contrast between two shelters in Telangana shows. In a shelter run by a non-profit organisation, migrants cook their own food. They walk out and return, unguarded. In another shelter, migrants have been kept behind locked gates, with the police watching over them. The atmosphere here is more oppressive and food cooked by volunteers is tasteless, migrants said.

An elderly worker named Rakesh Shukla slept on the pavement in Jangpura as he waited for the food truck to arrive.

The workers in Delhi’s Jangpura neighbourhood had similar complaints. “Taste the food the government gives us,” said Sanjay Singh, 50, a worker from Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh. “There is salt and haldi, but nothing else.” Food packets distributed by private groups were better, he said, but they were erratic.

The absence of choice meant an hour before the food truck arrived, the workers had started gathering on the pavement outside the school. One elderly worker, Rakesh Shukla, fell asleep in exhaustion.

Mohammad Ali Khan sat on the pavement, reading the morning’s newspaper. He had picked it off the road. “Modi is meeting chief ministers today and will make an announcement on the lockdown,” he told the others.

“When corona [virus] was spreading in China, then itself the prime minister should have become alert,” he continued, his voice ringing sharp and clear. “The entry of tourists should have been stopped. But nothing happened, the tourists continued to flock to see the Taj, Humayun’s Tomb, Red Fort. They went away and they left corona [virus] in India.”

Had the government been sensitive, it would have allowed migrants to go home before shutting off all transport, he said. But wouldn’t that have resulted in the disease spreading to rural areas? “Those coming from outside on flights can be screened, so why can’t those travelling within the country?” asked Khan.

Khan, 49, is from Adilabad in Telangana. He had run away from home as a teenager, living in Mumbai before moving to Delhi. He worked in the “shaadi-party” business, or tent and catering services. He had no permanent home in the city, he said. He slept where work took him. In the offseason, when weddings and events dipped, he lived around the railway tracks near Nizamuddin, picking up odd jobs. Despite the itinerant existence, he said there was never a time when he ran out of soap – like he had now. “I haven’t taken a bath since the lockdown began,” Khan said. “Only I know what condition I’m in.”

Dinesh Ram, a scrawny, neatly dressed man from Bihar, who worked in the “events business”, serving people at glitzy parties, said: “There is no money left. Even beggars have no one to beg from.” Seated on the same pavement was a family of beggars. They nodded their heads in agreement.

The government had made Rs 500 transfers into the bank accounts of women opened under the Jan Dhan Yojana. But nearly no one on the pavement had a bank account. One man said he had opened an account under the Jan Dhan Yojana but closed it after money was deducted from it mysteriously. “No money would come into the account, money would only go,” he said. This was perhaps a reference to the deductions made for government insurance schemes, which some account holders complained was done without their knowledge.

In the town of Bhind in Madhya Pradesh, women who had gone to encash the Rs 500-transfers were fined Rs 10,000 by the police after they were held for violating “social distancing norms”.

Almost everyone on the Delhi pavement had a story to share about police brutality. “I had gone to the dispensary to buy medicines, but there were no stocks. As I was returning, the police hit me with a lathi,” Khan said, showing the dispensary slip.

Mohammed Ali Khan showed the slip he had been given at the dispensary.

But more than the violence what had shocked them was the duplicity that they alleged the authorities used to get people off the streets on the evening of the Shab-e-Barat festival. “They came in buses and said we are going to distribute food, come with us,” recounted Dinesh Ram. “Some people fell for it. They were bundled into buses and taken away. They haven’t come back. God knows where they have been taken, to the jungle, or to those hellish shelters.”

The government must ensure the working-class doesn’t starve, he said. Otherwise, who will run the city.

“When work needs to be done, it is the chote log [small people] who will do it, the bade log [the rich] won’t even step out of their house,” Ram said. “Don’t just make announcements. Give us rations. Help everyone, whether rich or poor.”