A 21-day coronavirus lockdown – the world’s largest – is wreaking havoc on India, where more than a quarter of its 1.3 billion people live below the poverty line.
As the economic and human toll of the lockdown deepened and criticism mounted over a lack of adequate planning before the decision, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi apologised for the sweeping restrictions.
“I would firstly like to seek forgiveness from all my countrymen,” Modi said in a nationwide radio address on Sunday.
The unprecedented lockdown has stung millions of poor in the world’s second-most populous country, leaving many hungry and forcing jobless migrant labourers to flee cities and walk hundreds of kilometres to their native villages.
Rickshaw pullers, itinerant produce peddlers, maids, day labourers and other informal workers form the backbone of the Indian economy, comprising about 85 percent of all employment, according to official data.
Many buy food with the money they make each day and have no savings to fall back on.
“Thousands of migrants workers have been forced to leave their rented homes as they are unable to pay rent. It is important that the government intervenes and provides them money for their rent immediately,” opposition leader Rahul Gandhi said in a letter to Modi on Sunday.
In capital New Delhi, tens of thousands of people, mostly young male day labourers but also families, fled their homes as the daily-wage earners were effectively put out of work.
At a bus terminal on the outskirts of the city, thousands had been arriving for the last three days to take a bus home as authorities scrambled to arrange transportation for them.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in India rose to 979 on Sunday, with 25 deaths.