COVID-19 has unmasked India — the poor are on their own

The sharp right turn of politics globally has exacerbated nationalist tendencies and its powerful rulers have been targeting migrants | Illustration - Prathap Ravishankar

On March 24, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was addressing the nation announcing a 21-day countrywide lockdown, nearly 200 million people were glued to their television sets making it one of the most watched events ever in the history of Indian TV.

Halfway through the live event, however, many urban Indians abandoned the speech and rushed on their two-wheelers and cars to nearby malls, super stores and even corner ‘kirana’ shops to buy as many and as much groceries as they could. Digital savvy netizens and millennials immediately started placing orders online.

A colleague who happened to be at a marketplace when the event was unfolding was simply overwhelmed by the sudden rush of people. “They are buying as if there is no tomorrow. Is it an apocalypse now?” he wondered on a WhatsApp group.

What he and perhaps many among the political class missed was a brewing parallel trend: a large number of urban poor were moving in the opposite direction — towards interstate bus stands and railway stations. They were rushing towards their homes nestled in small towns, villages and far off hinterlands. They were surviving on daily and weekly wages and it was unimaginable for them to live in a city without work for 21 days, leave alone the uncertainties thereafter.

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