Those who remain in the cities are struggling to survive without work. Many are sleeping in the streets. Though the government has set aside $22.5 billion in relief benefits, an estimated 80 percent of the country’s 470 million workers are outside the formal economy, meaning large numbers are unlikely to obtain aid.
It’s too early to judge the effectiveness of the shutdown, which Mr. Modi is hinting could be extended beyond April 15. Officials say the curve of the epidemic is flattening, but recorded cases of covid-19 as well as deaths continue to rise steeply. There were 7,347 reported cases and 229 deaths as of Friday. The principal beneficiaries of the shutdown appear to be middle- and upper-class Indians who have the resources to shelter in private homes.
Mr. Modi is meanwhile trying to ensure that Indians hear only his version of the pandemic story. Before the lockdown, according to the New York Times, he met with leading media editors and pushed them to produce “inspiring and positive stories”; most appear to have complied. After reports began to appear about the stranded migrant workers, the government obtained a Supreme Court order mandating the publication of “the official version” of the epidemic. But Mr. Modi has not stopped the television anchors who have sought to place blame for the spread of the coronavirus on India’s Muslim community, which has increasingly become the target of the prime minister’s Hindu nationalism.
Mr. Modi is not the only one resorting to heavy-handed measures in the name of defeating the virus. Venezuela’s autocratic regime has deployed the same security forces that violently put down protest marches to force people into their homes. In Kenya, riot police used tear gas and beatings to enforce a dusk-to-dawn curfew. But as the world’s largest democracy, India ought to be setting a standard for how the emergency can be met without resort to repression or censorship. So far, it has not done so.