In his third address to the nation on the Covid-19 crisis on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged Indians to strictly follow the rules of the lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19. “You have endured immense suffering to save your country, save your India,” he said, deploying his characteristically emotional rhetoric. “It is only because of your restraint, penance and sacrifice that, India has so far been able to avert the harm caused by corona to a large extent.”
Modi painted a picture that was far removed from reality. He seemed to imply that despite the hardships they have suffered, Indians are patiently sitting in their homes, many short of food but eager to follow the instructions of their prime minister. But protests in Mumbai and Surat hours after Modi’s address show that India’s most vulnerable sections are finding the pain unbearable.
In Mumbai’s Bandra area, hundreds of migrant workers stranded in the city gathered outside the railway station to demand that the government run the trains to take them back to their homes in other states. The police resorted to a baton charge to disperse them. This resulted in a political slugfestbetween the ruling coalition in Maharashtra and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in opposition in the state.
Also on Tuesday, migrant workers in Gujarat’s Surat protested in the streets to demand that arrangements be made to help them get home.
These protests are clearly the result of government apathy and deceit. On Tuesday, many Indians hoped that the 21-day lockdown that started on March 25 would be lifted. Modi’s announcement that the restrictions would be extended to May 3 resulted in migrant labourers realising that they would have to endure hardships for almost three more weeks. Since the Indian Railways had continued to accept bookings, some had already bought tickets for home. Modi added to the confusion by leaving the announcement of the lockdown extension until the last day.
The Centre has been particularly ineffective in offering reassurance to the vulnerable people most in distress from lockdown. The economic package announced in March had nothing in it for workers who have lost their livelihood. Lakhs of people are now holed up in jam-packed relief camps across the country, without hardly any monetary support. Thousands are also on the streets, enduring hunger.
In the villages, farm work has collapsed. A government’s policy focussed on landed farmers has added to the labourers’ misery.
Modi’s speech on Tuesday failed to ally their fears. Neither did the prime minister talk about rising number of instances of vigilantism trying to enforce lockdown restrictions nor did he mention the targeting of the Muslim community following a Covid-19 hotspot that emerged in March in Delhi’s Nizamuddin. If anything, BJP leaders have contributed to the demonisation of India’s Muslims, some even attacking officials of other states for failing to identify the community with the hotspot.
Tuesday protests in Mumbai and Surat showed that India’s most vulnerable are desperate for food and basic necessities. With the Covid-19 pandemic, India is only as strong as our weakest. Unless the Centre steps up with measures for them, India’s fight against the virus will be in serious jeopardy.