Picture a million people, trudging in the heat for hundreds of miles, from cities that once pulsed with opportunity to the rural villages where they were born. This is India’s great reverse migration. It is a physical and symbolic backwards step of epic proportions.
In recent decades, 140 million rural Indians have flooded into cities in search of work, making Delhi the world’s second largest metropolis, and Mumbai the sixth. These are the construction workers, guards, drivers, clerks, hospital and hotel workers that power this behemoth.
Narendra Modi, tea-seller turned prime minister, ought to know a thing or two about vulnerable workers. But the suffering that has befallen this group in recent months is an indictment of his Covid-19 response, one that has put India on a path to overtake the US as the world’s most infected nation.
At the point of writing, India has recorded 7.6 million cases and 115,000 deaths, leaving hospitals at breaking point. Although new cases have dipped in recent days, the upcoming religious holiday season will likely see a spike. Across the country, restrictions and lockdowns have already been lifted. A recent serological survey, which detects antibodies rather than infections, suggests India’s true caseload could be over 63 million.
The country had recorded fewer than 600 cases in late March when Modi forced 1.35 billion Indians into lockdown. With just four hours to gather supplies, panic ensued. Such swift and opaque action bore all the hallmarks of Modi’s burly leadership.
As the economy crashed, more than 100 million jobs disappeared. Seeing that the lockdown had not flattened the curve by May, the country gradually eased its lockdown, paving the way for a surge in cases. Millions of jobless urban workers hit the road, on buses, trains and on foot, distributing the virus across the country. The small state of Bihar alone reportedly saw 2.2 million people return.
While the arrival of Covid-19 was clearly unavoidable, its impact on the ground has exposed the inequalities of wealth, caste and geography upon which economic and health outcomes are based. Modi locked down too early, capsizing the economy without reducing cases. With more clarity and planning, the economic impact could have been reduced, hospitals more prepared and sudden job losses averted – all while bending the curve of infections. His billion-dollar "PM Cares fund", based on donations matched by the government, meanwhile, has attracted controversy for its lack of transparency.
The recent surge is more complex, however. And in his defence, health care in India is usually handled at state level. After eight months, many have grown tired of mask-wearing and social distancing. The country has a serious problem with misinformation, which has seen outrageous claims that Muslims were vectors for the virus, or that a vegetarian diet could keep Covid at bay, proliferate on social media. Successive governments have failed to democratise healthcare provision, while much of urban India, notably its swollen slums, is apt for the rapid spread of a pathogen. India also has some of the world’s lowest Covid-19 testing rates.
It will get worse before it gets better, with the mega-festivals of Durga Puja and Diwali nearing. While some experts fear the government is overlooking health risks to appease the faithful, small traders are desperate to flog their wares after months of slender takings. Kerala’s recent Onam festival does not bode well – cases rose fivefold in the state, which had been one of India’s strongest responders. The coming smoggy winter may also exacerbate the virus.
One ray of light is a world-beating recovery rate of 89 per cent and rising, related perhaps to India’s comparatively young population and aggressive testing and tracing in some areas, such as Delhi.
But Covid-19 is simply the latest misery to befall India as it edges towards authoritarianism. If bold economic promises and an everyman image catapulted Modi to power in 2014, identity politics have kept him there. Following a divisive campaign last year, he was returned with a thumping majority.
His ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has emboldened Hindu nationalists, who have desecrated mosques and beaten up students. In February, 53 people were killed in the capital during anti-Muslim riots. Modi’s controversial citizenship law, meanwhile, offered amnesty to illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, as long as they are not Muslim, prompting nationwide protests.
The press has been muzzled and local journalists increasingly face criminal charges for unfavourable reporting. That has only increased during the pandemic, with dozens of journalists arrested for doing their jobs, accused of spreading false information about India’s Covid-19 response.
Kashmir, which is also claimed by India's arch-enemy Pakistan, is well-acquainted with lockdowns, having been placed under one on security grounds since August 2019, along with a media and internet blackout. And a bizarre war on foreign-funded NGOs has seen 15,000 shut down, including the Indian branch of Amnesty International last month. Many of these charities would, one imagines, have been on the front line of India’s coronavirus response.
Modi has been busy recently, rushing through a raft of laws, some of them popular, to overhaul India’s byzantine bureaucracy and modernise legislation on farming, education and labour, while the pandemic draws attention elsewhere. The prime minister’s critics are the first to admit that his muscular style gets results.
Still, Covid-19 will leave its mark on Modi’s premiership, by throttling India’s economy and leaving millions wondering what became of his lofty promises. Experts predict the Indian economy will contract by 9 per cent this year.
But rising cases and millions of starving workers reflect a deeper malaise in the world’s largest democracy, where the ruling party's focus for too long has been not on harmony, but division. And minorities have reason to fear an economic downturn, which could see the BJP resort to inflaming intercommunal tensions to win votes.
For millions watching civil liberties crumble and Covid-19 cases climb, Modi’s India is fast becoming a nightmare.