India’s coronavirus lockdown saw a huge exodus of migrant workers from cities
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government did not consult key ministries and states while imposing the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdown a year ago, according to an investigation by the BBC’s Jugal Purohit and Arjun Parmar.
The BBC filed more than 240 right to information applications with various Indian government departments – health, finance, disaster management – to find out if and how much they were consulted ahead of the lockdown.
The responses revealed that there is no evidence of key experts or government departments being consulted prior to the lockdown being implemented.
The home ministry, which played a key role in executing the lockdown, repeatedly rejected our request for information. It said the answers we sought were related to “strategic and economic interest and it also contains information which is held under fiduciary relationship and thus exempt from disclosure of information under section 8(1)(a) and (e) of Right to Information Act, 2005.”
The government has also denied a BBC request for a statement explaining why concerned departments were not consulted ahead of time.
The world’s ‘strictest’ lockdown
On 24 March last year, Mr Modi announced a complete lockdown across India to stem the spread of coronavirus cases.
India went into a lockdown early – it had confirmed just 519 cases and nine deaths at the time. Experts hoped that forcing people to stay home would halt the virus’ spread and give officials time to ramp up test and trace efforts as well as medical facilities.
But the 68-day shutdown – which the University of Oxford termed the world’s strictest – proved devastating for the poor, costing them jobs and, in some cases, their lives.
All services, expect hospitals, pharmacies and groceries, closed. Offices, schools, colleges and all public transport was suspended. Flights in and out of India were stopped.
The poor, especially undernourished children and pregnant women who rely on government programmes, found it difficult to access benefits. Immunisation programs were halted. People suffering from serious illnesses struggled to access crucial health services even in urban areas such as Mumbai and Delhi.
But the hardest hit were informal workers, who make up the bulk of India’s workforce – from domestic helps to street vendors to construction workers. They were suddenly left out of work and with no guarantee of when they would start earning again.
Experts believe the lack of consultation ahead of the lockdown led to local governments being ill-prepared for the exodus of migrant workers from cities to villages. Without any public transport, millions of them began walking them home and many died on the way in accidents or due to hunger and exhaustion.
On the other hand, some epidemiologists believe that India’s lockdown saved tens of thousands of lives, and bought time to beef up medical infrastructure and capabilities.
But when the country began to reopen in June last year, cases began to spike. India now has the world’s third-highest number of infections after the United States and Brazil.
It has so far reported more than 12 million cases and 160,000 deaths.
‘No consultations, no meetings’
Even before the national lockdown was imposed, 30 states and federally administered territories had already declared local lockdowns, according to government data. Many of them were in effect until 31 March, 2020.
But the federal government said a nationwide lockdown was necessary “for consistency in the application and implementation of various measures across the country”.
“The prime minister acted only after consultations with everyone,” said Rajiv Kumar, vice chairman of the Niti Ayog, a government think tank. “To say that it was done out of nowhere would be wrong.”
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But queries to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) revealed that no consultations or meetings were held with Mr Modi in attendance about Covid-19 or the need for a lockdown.
The offices of the chief ministers in Delhi, Assam and Telangana, as well as those of the governors of Punjab, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh replied to the BBC’s request saying they did not have any evidence indicating prior consultations on the lockdown.
“The kind of responses you have received are unacceptable,” says Anjali Bhardwaj who works to promote transparency and accountability in government.
“The pandemic began from January and we locked down after 20 March. It was not like there was an overnight development akin to a flood or an earthquake. So the expectation was that when the prime minister declared there would be a lockdown, it was a decision arrived at after consultations from all quarters.”
The lockdown also hobbled India’s economy and its GDP recorded the sharpest contraction in its history.
Both economic and health experts believe localised lockdowns would have had better results and allowed state governments more flexibility.
“There was scope to plan better. It needed to be a decentralised decision, depending on states and districts. A complete lockdown was not required. What has happened now is a huge shock because the Indian economy was performing poorly anyway,” says Priya Ranjan Dash, a public policy analyst.
Recollecting the events of last year, Sima Kumari says, makes heart pound.
She was working as a nurse at a care home in Goa state when the lockdown was announced.
“Our employer denied us our salary and wanted us to work without Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). We had no option but to quit,” she says.
She says she was finally forced to go home to Jharkhand on the special trains the government organised for migrant workers. They were crowded and she says was terrified.
“One man would keep shouting at us, asking us to maintain distance even as they packed us in like sheep. I would prefer death over reliving a situation like that again.”
Read more of our coverage on India’s coronavirus lockdown