Diptendu Dutta / AFP
As India entered its third week of rising coronavirus cases, the number going up to 681 at the time of writing this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi instituted a 21-day lockdown in an attempt to break the cycle of the infection—which started Tuesday midnight. Probably prompted by the irrational behaviour of covidiots who broke curfew rules at 5 p.m. on March 22—who ironically rushed to the streets to pay tribute to medical professionals even after being specifically asked to stay at home—the government has implemented severe measures to discourage anyone from stepping out of their homes unless absolutely necessary.
While most states and union territories across the country were already in partial shutdowns before the curfew started, the nationwide lockdown has made the measures more uniform. Under the Disaster Management Act of 2005, the lockdown comes with a set of rules to ensure good behaviour, and there are various penalties if these are to be violated.
The rules say that those who refuse to comply with the directions given by the Centre or their own state governments can be given a jail term of up to two years and a fine. A similar sentence has been prescribed for all those who hoard money or goods, or make false claims about why they’re out. Meanwhile, those who circulate fake news will invite a jail term of one year, with WhatsApp even initiating a helpline that lets users report the fake news being forwarded. Even government officials who don’t follow the rules have been warned that severe action will be taken against them, including one year of jail time for officers who refuse to do their duty, unless they have a legit reason for not doing so. However, the state of Telangana has even said that if people do not follow the curfew and continue to roam around on the streets, the government might bring in the army and give them “shoot on sight” orders.
The rules make sense on paper. While religious gatherings and socialising are not allowed, medical stores, media, police, grocery stores, delivery boys and those who go out to seek medical help or buy basic essentials have permission to venture out during the lockdown. However, there’s a glaring lack of clarity on how the police are ensuring that people have legit reasons to step out or that they aren’t lying about their intent to do so. The biggest and scariest issue here is that the Centre has failed to put a system in place, and these same grocery stores and delivery boys who are trying to make sure that basic goods reach people are being targeted and even beaten up. In fact, due to delayed permissions and police brutality, a lot of essential goods like vegetables, meat and milk are also going to waste, while in other cases, even grocery stores are filled with too many people, which defeats the purpose of a lockdown in the first place.
There are reports of police using brute force against people stepping out to buy groceries. In a major failing of the system, a man who stepped out to buy milk in West Bengal was beaten by the police, a thrashing that caused his death soon after. According to Buzzfeed News, even doctor are being assaulted on their way to the hospital to treat patients, with police questioning their intent even after seeing their ID cards.
Meanwhile, as coronavirus spreads to slums, there is also an added challenge of how people in these overcrowded areas are going to maintain social distancing, since many large groups live together in small rooms. Ironically, while violators are threatened with jail time, the prisons themselves are overcrowded and hence, releasing inmates.
So even as India has been quick in its action of calling for a lockdown, it’s about time the government applied the same speed into ensuring that systems are running smoothly and people aren’t being unnecessarily targeted.
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