Police have used batons to beat back thirsty Indians jostling to buy alcohol for the first time in 40 days as the government eased further the world’s biggest coronavirus lockdown.
The government credits its harsh shutdown of almost all activity since late March with keeping the tally of coronavirus cases to a relatively modest 42,500, with around 1,400 deaths.
But the lockdown also has dealt a major blow to Asia’s third-biggest economy and caused misery for millions of workers in India’s vast informal sector – people left suddenly jobless by the pandemic.
Adding to some relaxations for industry and agriculture last month, offices on Monday could operate with one-third capacity. Some cars and motorbikes were seen on the roads, and certain shops opened.
Officials had painstakingly drawn chalk circles for booze buyers to stand in, but the social-distancing efforts were thwarted as people gathered from early morning onward.
“We have been in solitude for over a month,” Asit Banerjee, 55, told AFP news agency as he queued in Kolkata, where – as in New Delhi and elsewhere – police used batons to control the crowds.
“Alcohol will energise us to maintain social-distancing during the pandemic,” he said.
Elsewhere, such as in Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh state, police closed down the shops soon after they opened as long queues of men in face masks snaked around the block.
“One of the shops had opened in the morning but clashes broke out as a lot of crowd had gathered,” a police officer in Ghaziabad told AFP.
Despite the shutdowns, hundreds of people continue to loiter in neighbouring streets and bylanes in the hope that shops would be reopened.
“It’s not like I have anything to do at home,” Deepak Kumar, 30, told AFP as he waited patiently across the street from one outlet in New Delhi.
One lucky customer who managed to buy some wine, 25-year-old Sagar, said he went to a store in the national capital at 7.30am (02:00 GMT) and was delighted to discover it had opened early.
“There were about 20 to 25 people in the morning and the shop was open for about two hours,” he told AFP.
“People in rows of five were being allowed in. Now they’ve shut it.”
In some states, including Maharashtra, certain liquor stores remained shut amid confusion over which outlets were permitted to open. In other states, such as in Assam, they opened several days earlier.
Although illegal in some states such as Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, alcohol consumption has risen strongly in recent years as the country’s middle class has grown.
This is particularly true of spirits, with the country of 1.3 billion people reportedly guzzling almost half the world’s whisky, although much of it in reality is rum according to purists.
Meanwhile, police in Gujarat’s city of Surat fired tear gas at a crowd of protesting migrant workers seeking to return to their homes in states across India.
Although officials say rigid restrictions on work and travel are key to beating the virus, the shutdown has endangered the economic survival of many, including an estimated 140 million migrant labourers.
About 1,000 stranded workers had gathered on the outskirts of Surat and threw stones at police who ordered them to disperse, an official said.
“We have detained 80 people so far and are in the process of identifying more,” Surat’s police chief AM Muniya told reporters.
— ANI (@ANI) May 4, 2020
Reuters news agency’s Indian partner, ANI, shared a video showing police firing tear gas into a large group of men standing inside a lane lined with shuttered shops.
Local television showed images of police entering buildings and homes in the area and detaining people.
Surat, an industrial centre and a hub for diamond processing, has suffered multiple incidents of labour unrest since the lockdown began in March.