More than 20 migrant labourers have died trying to flee India’s coronavirus locked-down cities for their villages over the past few days. Critics blame Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hasty 21-day curfew call that, like many of his recent directives, was long on populist symbolism, but short on foresight or compassion.

It was the biggest human lockdown ordered at the shortest notice without adequate planning or preparation for the fallout of a sweeping policy measure that was weeks in the making.

In a televised address to the nation at 8pm on Tuesday, March 24, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi put 1.3 billion people under a three-week lockdown. It was the world’s largest coronavirus directive – not even China, the world’s most populous country and source of the Covid-19 outbreak, imposed such a sweeping nationwide shutdown, with Beijing isolating only the worst-affected Hubei province. The time frame was breathlessly tight: the measures would start at midnight, Modi announced, giving his people less than four hours to stock up and disregard earlier directives to avoid hoarding.

The scenes that unfolded in the world’s most populous democracy in the days to come were reminiscent of post-war neorealist cinema or subcontinental “Partition dramas” based on history’s biggest human displacement following the 1947 division of British India.

Millions of migrant workers from India’s vast informal sector attempted to leave cities – where many simply live on work sites that were shutting down – for their villages. With no jobs, homes, savings, social security or ability to earn daily wages in cities, the village offered the only chance of survival.

But public transportation was shut down under Modi’s vague, emotionally charged but detail-free curfew order. State borders closed. Supply chains, in the absence of emergency measures, ground to a halt stalling the entry of food and essential goods. With no access to food or transportation, India’s urban poor took to the streets, walking to distant villages in a flood of human misery. More than 20 migrant labourers have died trying to walk to their villages over the past few days.

The democratic state not only abandoned them, its law enforcement arm viciously cracked down on homeless civilians disregarding “stay at home” orders.

'My conscience says you will forgive me’

As social media lit up with clips of police brutality, Modi was forced to take to the airwaves again. Days after ordering the lockdown, the Indian prime minister apologised to the country in a radio address.

“I would firstly like to seek forgiveness from all my countrymen,” began Modi before declaring, “my conscience says you will forgive me." Populist apology out of the way, the Indian leader then explained the coronavirus crisis was “a battle of life and death” and he did not have other options.

The mea culpa failed to impress Harsh Mander, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Equity Studies and a leading Indian social activist and author. “I don’t think the apology amounted to an acknowledgment of the enormity of what has been done and there were no correctives offered. The entire plan had the imagination of a middle-class person: people were asked to maintain social distance, wash their hands and stay home assuming they have homes and salaries going into bank accounts,” said Mander in a phone interview with FRANCE 24.

‘Policies directed to protect the rich and middle class’

A cursory glance at Indian economic statistics reveals this is not the case. Nearly 81 percent of the Indian labour force works in the informal sector, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Casual labourers account for one-third of the work force, according to the Indian Ministry of Labour and Employment, with vendors, construction workers, domestics and a vast array of other low-skilled workers surviving on daily wages with no labour protection.

India has 1,238 confirmed coronavirus cases and 35 deaths, according to the latest tally, although the real figure is likely to be higher since testing is not widespread. Experts agree that the Indian government needed to implement restriction measures. Given the country’s poverty, population density and poor public services, it was not expected to be easy.

But critics say the authorities had enough time and resources to avoid a lethally mismanaged lockdown.

“I would be willing to live with any difficulty that’s equally shared by victims. But you can’t have policies directed to protect the rich and middle class on the backs of the intense suffering of the poor,” said Mander. “If it was collectively planned, this could have been better coordinated,” he added, noting, for instance, that the Modi administration did not even alert the chief ministers of India’s states and union territories “who had to bear the brunt of the responsibility” about the upcoming curfew.

‘Imperious’ proclamations, brutal consequences

The coronavirus crisis is plunging the world into an economic recession with inequalities set to deepen and vulnerable countries left to absorb the financial shock. India, an emerging market, is not alone in feeling the economic pain. But as an emerging economy with an extensive administrative service experienced in disaster management, it should not rank among the least prepared to cope.

On Sunday, as Modi was apologising for the mismanagement, Benin’s President Patrice Talon took to the airwaves to explain why he would not be imposing similar confinement measures. “Rich countries are putting up huge amounts of money and some are even resorting to barely disguised monetary solutions,” said Talon. “Benin does not have such means...If we take measures which starve everybody, they will quickly end up being defied and violated."

The crux of the problem in India, according to veteran journalist Sidharth Bhatia, lies in the Modi administration’s “peremptory decision making, lack of planning and shoddy execution. There’s another,” added Bhatia in a column in The Wire, “the complete lack of concern over the human cost, which has been colossal.”

Since he came to power in 2014, Modi has opted for shock announcements with little preparedness that have left the populace scrambling to cope with the fallout – humanitarian and economic – of his populist moves.

On November 8, 2016, for instance, the prime minister made a surprise evening television appearance to announce that, starting after midnight, the nation’s 500 and 1,000-rupee notes would be demonetised or no longer considered legal tender. Economists estimate the move wiped at least one percent off India’s GDP and cost at least 1.5 million jobs.

Then on August 5, 2019, Modi suddenly scrapped Kashmir’s statehood and special status, plunging the disputed region into a communications blackout and human rights crackdown that drew international criticism. By the end of the year, his rushed-through citizenship amendment measures sparked demonstrations across the country with protesters denouncing the right-wing Hindu nationalist leader’s anti-Muslim policies.

“With such a pattern of decision making, the obvious question is, doesn’t anyone in the Modi government – and Narendra Modi himself – consider the human cost of such decisions?” asked Bhatia. “The imperious, firman [or royal edict] -like proclamations may appeal to him – it certainly pleases his devotees – but surely he would have thought about the suffering it causes?”

Economic package too little, too late

In the aftermath of the latest Modi shock move, as international media organisations and human rights groups detailed the extent of the upheaval, Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman hastily announced a $22.6 billion economic package that provides direct cash transfers and food security measures. "We do not want anyone to remain hungry," Sitharaman told a news briefing on Thursday.

While welcoming the announcement, experts noted that the measures should have been announced before the lockdown to prevent the panicked flight of migrants at bus stops and railway stations, which exacerbated public health risks.

In an open letter to the finance minister, more than 600 academics, economists, policy analysts and civil society members detailed the shortfalls, including meagre allocations and inadequate disbursement mechanisms to reach vulnerable sections of the population who fall through the cracks of the country’s public distribution system (PDS) and anti-poverty programmes since they lack necessary documents.

Noting that the monthly cash allocations amount to less than two days of India’s statutory minimum wages, the equivalent of less than $5 per month, Mander, who was also one of the signatories to the letter, explained, “That’s expecting the poor to manage, if at all, on two days’ salary. And that’s only for the ones with bank accounts. The rest are just being asked to be obedient.”

Elite fears and #CoronaJihad

In a March 31 op-ed in The Hindu daily, activists Nikhil Dey and Aruna Roy, a former Indian civil servant, criticised the government for not releasing food stocks to handle the emergency. “There is no excuse for hoarding the 58 million tonnes of current food grains stock when only four million tonnes are required by the PDS every month,” wrote Dey and Roy.

Castigating the Modi administration’s “contradictory and uncoordinated” orders, Dey and Roy blasted the response of India’s government and its elites. “This lockdown is shaping itself as the expedient response of an elite terrified of falling victim to a virus. There is clearly little imagination or application to work out a plan of action based on compassion and understanding of conditions on the ground. This virus upends the sharp divide of the two India’s we have manufactured,” the activists noted.

A fear psychosis over a silent killer virus has also sparked backlashes against familiar and unfamiliar bogeys. Foreign tourists and residents in the traditionally warm, welcoming country have reported a sudden hostility from locals who view the epidemic as an outside import. In some villages and neighbourhoods in Goa, a popular tourist destination, vigilante groups have set up makeshift checkpoints refusing entry to non-residents, The Wire reported.

Then there are the familiar punching-bags.

Indian news headlines over the past two days have been dominated by a Muslim religious event that began late February in New Delhi, which set off several Covid-19 clusters. Hours after the news broke this week, the hashtag #CoronaJihad went viral in the Indian Twittersphere, with some suggesting the epidemic was coordinated by India’s arch-enemy, Pakistan, and China.

Vigilantism, Islamophobia and police brutality have been on the rise and on public display during Modi’s second term in office, with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stoking Hindu nationalism amid plummeting economic indices.

>> Read more on India's cow urine fake cures against coronavirus

The Covid-19 pandemic threatens to unleash old responses to new fears, warns Mander. “Police treat poor people trying to survive as though they are criminals because that’s how they’re encouraged to think about them. Even the middle classes are stigmatising them for spreading the virus. The worst in society is emerging because the leadership is not leading with compassion,” explained Mander.

Acts of charity and humanity

But the epidemic has also sparked extraordinary acts of charity and social mobilisation to aid Indians stranded and destitute by the lockdown.

Mander is among several Indian activists, NGO and professionals stirred by the crisis who have been offering free meals to stranded migrants in Indian cities.

Speaking to FRANCE 24 from a vehicle carrying hot meals bound for another cluster of migrant labourers in New Delhi, Mander praised “the young people, young volunteers who are taking risks” to feed the destitute. He is currently planning to expand the initiative to 10 other cities and reach thousands more vulnerable people.

But he is at pains to explain this initiative, like several charity initiatives across India, is just a band-aid, not a solution. “This is not an issue that can be dealt with by charities. It’s a step, but you can’t just say let civil society look after it. It’s not like India’s poor are a fraction of the population,” said Mander. “It’s the state’s duty, what we’re doing is just a tiny fraction of what needs to be done.”