It was a Thursday afternoon, a little more than two weeks ago, when started to compare the situation in India with the Netherlands. I was talking to a old friend in the Netherlands, listening to how bad the situation there was; shops had to shut down, everyone was ordered to work from home and there was already a steady spike in the number of Corona cases. Here in India with ‘only’ 100 identified cases in a country of 1.3 billion, everyone around me was feeling safe. However, not long after my talk with him things slowly started to change here. More and more people started to get worried and a lot of people started wearing masks. While the numbers in a lot of European countries started to spike at a fast pace, people in and around me started to feel a bit more worried about the situation here. After a 3 day lockdown in Maharashtra, Prime Minister Modi announced a full day of social distancing, the Janta curfew. While some people were hoping that things would normalise after this full day of lockdown, PM Modi further announced a 21-day period of total lockdown. We had just finished day 8 of the total lockdown, and it was a great moment for me to share some of my thoughts and experiences.
State vs Federal government: contradicting policies: The 21-day lockdown was announced by PM Modi on Tuesday 24th March. His televised speech was a much anticipated event, lots of people – Indian friends and colleagues – watched with anticipation to what he had to say. With a little less than 200 million viewers, it was seen by many. While most people were expecting some hygienic advice and tips about social distancing, nobody expected the harsh and disruptive announcement; a total lockdown of the country for 21 days. Unfortunately, there were a lot of questions at the end of the speech, because what some of the new policies meant for people was open to debate. The country is so huge, that there were actually various official government entities sending out policies and some of them were contradictory. And even if things were clear, a lot was open for discussion. For instance driving around; it’s a bit unclear if people are allowed to do this at all, or only for ‘essential’ travels. And then: what is considered ‘essential”? My weekly drive to a nearby hiking trail might be essential for me, but the local police on the roads might be having different thoughts about this.
In a war-like situation, the first thing that dies is the truth: The Indian government is doing a lot to provide people with reliable sources of information. That is very important in a country like India; a lot of people rely on dubious news sources and there is a lot of misinformation around during this crisis. I’ve seen a video of a group of people, praying with candles, while shouting ‘go, Corona, go’. Furthermore: our help and cook at our house will not eat chicken anymore, because she thinks it could contain the virus. Some have people started to eat more garlic, because they believe it’s going to create a stronger immune system, which can prevent the Corona Virus from entering their bodies.
No transportation: stay where you are: India has suspended every form of transportation and closed all its borders. There are no domestic and international flights, no buses and no trains. One should keep in mind the size of the Indian Railways, which is one of the largest employers in the world, with over a million employees. It’s services are being used by millions every day. As Corona initially seemed to be a ‘city-disease’, people thought it would be good to travel back to their villages. As a result, the railway stations were packed with people, one or two days before Modi’s official announcement. Not only could they have infected each other at the railway station, they’re now stuck in the villages for a long period of time. Even if the railways do start working at the end of the 21-day lockdown period, it will be days, weeks and in some cases even months before everything is back to how it was before the lockdown.
Hotels: only open for people who are stuck there: Observing a society in total lockdown is surreal, it almost feels like a real life version of a Steven Spielberg film; if there are no cars on the road and all the shops are closed it feels like walking around in the city on a Sunday, but this time it’s a Sunday on steroids. On the second day of the total lockdown I decided to go for a longer walk outside the society. We discussed this at home, asking if there was any risk fto me or others while walking outside. We were both fine about this, but gave ourself some restrictions: keep a distance from other people and don’t mingle. As the streets were completely empty, it was very easy to follow up on this. After 45 minutes I approached the JW Marriott in Pune, one of my usual hangout places. It seemed empty but the doors were open. PM Modi’s ruling said hotels could remain open to cater to the guests who are stuck there. However, restaurants are closed, only room service is available. It made me think: what if you’re a tourist and you’re stuck in this lockdown but you’ve run out of money. Would the JW Marriott ask you to vacate the hotel?
Mornings are better than evenings: I don’t know why, but going outside for some groceries feels much better in the mornings. Yes, there are police everywhere, but everything feels relaxed and ok. Some shops are open to buy essential goods and the fruit and vegetable sellers are all working overtime to provide people with the things they need. After 5 or 6 pm things tend to turn more grim. Police start blocking more roads and groceries stores and other food outlets are ordered to shut down. In the evenings, the city feels empty, without a soulless.
Fear of crime, anarchy and more illegal businesses: I still feel relatively safe, while walking around and doing some grocery shopping. However, at times it also makes me feel a bit worried; what if things tend to worsen and people start to panic? Or even worse: what if people start to steal and rob? These thoughts reminded me of Mad Max, the long running sequel about a society in fear with goods and supplies in scarcity. The aggression and anarchy in the movie gives you 93 minutes of suspense and entertainment. But thinking about it again, it gave me some fear: could something like this also happen in India? There are some unfortunate groups of people, with no funds and no access to essential goods.
Alcohol sales stopped, underground market flourishes: A Mad Max scenario could happen with liquor, because beer, wine and spirits are not considered essential goods during this lockdown; All wine shops have had to close. I’m not sure if that was a right decision and I’m not talking about myself, because our private bar is well stocked up. We’re in the middle of the lockdown now and the black market seems to be flourishing. Bars and restaurants are trying to sell their stock and you can even order a home delivery of this. This is of course all illegal and the buyers are paying a hefty price: some of the offered prices are quite ridiculous.
Slums: all the men are back and they don’t know what to do with themselves: I still feel very privileged with my living conditions; I’m living as a King, when compared to most of the population in India. I went out for a walk the other day and passed the nearby slums before heading to the main road. I don’t mind walking in dirty areas in India but I’d never seen something like this; almost every adult male of this slum seemed to be at home and they were all grouped together at a central square. Most of them were staring at me, some in a funny way and others a bit more surprised. These men are cleaners, the autorickshaw drivers, couriers, swiggy deliverers or just day labourers. And all seemed to be jobless. The sight was surreal and painful at the same time, because daily groceries are mostly bought by using their daily salary. I don’t think these people have any financial backup, so most of them must be struggling and they are probably counting the days for this lockdown to end.
Inequality: even higher during Corona Crisis: During my walk to my posh neighbourhood supermarket I couldn’t forget the slums and the drama happening there now. It’s hard offer help, because where should one start? And a thought is: am I the person to supposed to support them? This should be picked up by the government. However, there is one thing I can actually do: voice my dislike of the tremendous inequality. The disparity between the security guard at the gate and the CEO of any specific company couldn’t be any bigger here in India and it’s getting worse because of the Corona Crisis.
Things we cannot do: going to restaurants amongst many other things: This is the first time in my life to experience life in a lockdown situation, so I don’t have any comparison. However, I’m a news junkie and have read a lot of devastating and heart-breaking stories about people in wars. The meat market in Kabul was generally open during the Afganistan war. And apart from the constant fear of getting arrested, people also had fun, even during the grimmest days of the second world war. Having said all this, I need to admit that the city has changed. Not only has the soul of it disappeared, lots of the everyday fun is also gone. The soul a city is kept alive by small things; the chai wallah, who sells its hot chai to the autorickshaw drivers and the special breakfast restaurant that has been in the city for decades. Unfortunately the soul of Pune is on a pause, and I can’t wait for its return. I love my home cooked meal, but I really miss going out to some of the fineer restaurants and bars and meeting people.
Conclusion: this too shall pass: With 12 days to go, there is still a long road ahead of us. Furthermore: we don’t know if Modi is going to open up the country at the end of this period. The future in India is unclear and some people are fearful about it. For me It’s very simple: India is now my current home and I will accept any policy declared by Modi and his government. I will survive and even enjoy myself from time to time. I will spend more time on learning new things and upskilling, and I know this too shall pass.