Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked the nation’s poor for forgiveness, as the economic and human toll from his 21-day nationwide lockdown deepens and criticism mounts over a lack of adequate planning ahead of the decision.
“I apologise for taking these harsh steps that have caused difficulties in your lives, especially the poor people,” Modi said in his monthly address on Sunday, broadcast on state radio.
“I know some of you will be angry with me. But these tough measures were needed to win this battle.”
Modi announced an unprecedented three-week lockdown – the world’s largest – which came into effect on March 25 to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
But the decision has stung millions of India’s poor, leaving many hungry and forcing jobless migrant labourers to flee cities and walk hundreds of kilometres to their native villages.
The poor “would definitely be thinking what kind of prime minister is this, who has put us into so much trouble,” he said, urging people to understand there was no other option.
“Steps taken so far … will give India victory over corona,” he added.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in India rose to 979 on Sunday, with 25 deaths.
The government announced a $22.6bn economic stimulus plan on Thursday to provide direct cash transfers and food handouts to India’s poor. A quarter of India’s 1.3 billion people live below the poverty line.
In an opinion piece published on Sunday, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo – two of the three winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2019 – said even more aid for the poor is needed.
“Without that, the demand crisis will snowball into an economic avalanche, and people will have no choice but to defy orders,” they wrote in the Indian Express.
The lockdown is expected to exacerbate India’s economic woes at a time when growth had already slumped to its slowest pace in six years.
There still appears to be broad support for strong measures to avoid a coronavirus catastrophe in India, a country where the public health system is poor.
But opposition leaders, analysts and some citizens are increasingly criticizing its implementation. In particular, they say the government appears to have been caught off guard by the mass movement of migrants following the announcement, which threatens to spread the disease into the hinterlands.
“The Gov’t had no contingency plans in place for this exodus,” tweeted opposition politician Rahul Gandhi as images of migrant labourers walking long distances to return home dominated local media.
#ModiMadeDisaster was a top trending topic in India on Sunday on Twitter.
Police said four migrants were killed on Saturday when a truck ran into them in the western state of Maharashtra. Also on Saturday, a migrant worker collapsed and died in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, according to a police official.
“We will die of walking and starving before getting killed by corona,” said migrant worker Madhav Raj, 28, as he walked along the road in Uttar Pradesh.
On Sunday, several hundred migrants in the town of Paippad, in southern Kerala state, gathered in a square demanding transport back to their hometowns.
The central government has called on states to provide marooned labourers with food and shelter, and Modi’s supporters slammed state governments on Twitter for failing to properly implement the lockdown.
In India’s cities, too, anger was rising.
“We have no food or drink. I am sat down thinking how to feed my family,” said homemaker Amirbee Shaikh Yusuf, 50, in Mumbai’s sprawling Dharavi slum.
“There is nothing good about this lockdown. People are angry, no one is caring for us.”