In focus: India’s Citizen Curfew

The 14-hour-long curfew left people wondering if concerns of the real janta were being addressed.

MUMBAI, India — With its population of 1.3 billion people, Indian streets have never known a dull moment. Not a moment of quiet can be found on streets bustling with hawkers and flowing with traffic. But on 22nd March, I woke up to an eerily quiet Sunday morning. The signature white noise which sneaked through my window was missing.

The unusual calm was a sign of a nationwide curfew coming into effect. In his first address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a “janta” curfew as a measure against the novel coronavirus

The call to action came through a televised speech by the Prime Minister on Thursday, 19th March. Modi said:

This Sunday, that is on 22nd March, all citizen must abide by this people’s curfew from 7 AM until 9 PM. During this curfew, we shall neither leave our homes, nor get onto the streets or roam about our localities. Only those associated with emergency and essential services will leave their homes.

Friends, 22nd March will be a symbol of our effort, of our self-restraint, and our resolve to fulfil our duty in service of the nation. The success of a people’s curfew on 22nd March, and the experience gained from it, will also prepare us for our upcoming challenges.

In the speech, niceties were exchanged, patience was encouraged, the golden rule of social distancing was reiterated, and increased vulnerability of the elderly was reminded of. The alliterative “sankalp and sanyam” or “resolve and restraint” cinched the dominant sentiment.

Modi’s announcement came amidst escalating national anxiety. The picture looked far from ideal – number of cases had risen exponentially, travel bans closed domestic and international borders, and India was swelling into a hotspot.

“It was a good call to make people understand the importance of self-quarantine for the first time to come,” said Ajinkya, 30, a Pune resident.

When in life-threatening chaos, feeling like you’re in control helps. Responding to Modi’s call to inaction meant we weren’t helpless, we still had some power.

The highlight, however, was reserved for 5 pm.

It was a few minutes before 5 pm when round came in a cacophony of claps, rattling utensils, ringing bells, and blowing conches. The sound came from every corner and filled every corner. No one could have missed this.

Few days and few things leave millions of Indians united – and this was one of those moments.

Among those clapping was Rekha, a house help living in the shanties of Dharavi, Mumbai. “We stood there and clapped at 5 pm, but we worry the government will fail to protect people like us.”

I asked her if she was scared, a day before the curfew. “Disease does not scare the poor, hunger does” she said, with a humble smile on her face.

Rekha is one of the millions of daily wage workers who have either found themselves out of employment or continue to work in close quarters despite the risk of exposure.

The unorganised sector workers, the most vulnerable to the crisis, amount to 91% of the total workforce in India. No wonder, the silence of cities has left cab drivers, rickshaw pullers, local vendors frantic and worried.

Rekha’s trepidation wasn’t unfounded.

Three concerns struck a chord with sceptics. One, the rationale of imposing a 14-hour curfew rested on sticky ground. Scientific evidence dictates a longer life of the virus on surfaces like copper, steel, and cardboard. If this were taken to be the fundament behind the time period, it would woefully undermine the whole effort.

Two, western inspiration might not have worked in the Indian context. People had congregated on the streets in support of the Modi-imposed curfew after 5 pm, instead of staying home. Videos of people singing, chanting “go corona, corona go” nipped our natal social distancing dreams in the bud.

Three, for all intents and purpose, the curfew had the distant impression of disingenuity. It was the first official response to the pandemic, and many feared it was too little too late. A slew of reports about the under resourced healthcare system raised concerns over India’s steadiness to handle this crisis. Professionals have taken to Twitter to demand funding for the deficiencies – India currently has one isolation bed per 84,000 people and one ventilator for every 30,000 persons.

The situation is clearly critical. With India’s high population density and a collapsing healthcare infrastructure, the margin for error is starkly narrow.

In more optimistic times, it would be easier to appreciate a day which reminded us of our social identities. But when a public health crisis sweeps you off your feet, I can only hope that the efficacy of every measure is scrutinised.

All said and done, if the purpose by and far was to offer a reality-check of what lay ahead, it might have worked. Then Modi did strike gold on this day in history. It wasn’t about him or his governance or the imminent threat to life this pandemic presents.

For some, it was like a big Indian family coming together in the times of a crisis, albeit at a distance of six feet. For others, it helped normalise our isolated realities. For everyone, it was about lighter feelings of love and gratitude.

It left a lot of blanks empty and wasn’t nearly enough, but that doesn’t make it nothing. Hope is elusive during a pandemic, but hope is also the opium of the people. If optimism is of the will, then I must channel hope and believe a glass half empty is still a glass half full.