instagram envelope_alt facebook twitter search youtube_play whatsapp remove external_link loop2 arrow-down2

The road to perdition as India locks down 1.3bn

Punishment: Police make rule-breakers squat in circles in Jammu PICTURE: JAIPAL SINGH/EPA

ON ANY normal day this street would be jammed with traffic jostling for space with pedestrians.

Yesterday, a solitary police officer stood guard over five men made to squat in silence in circles in the middle of the road for violating a ban on gatherings of more than three people.

It came as India began the huge task of enforcing a nationwide lockdown involving 1.3billion citizens — almost a fifth of the world’s population.

The country has reported only 519 confirmed Covid-19 cases and nine deaths.

However, there are fears thousands more could lose their lives in densely packed neighbourhoods where three generations of families often live together.

Not a soul in sight: A deserted marketplace in New Delhi yesterday PICTURE: EPA

Prime minister Narendra Modi said that ‘to save India and every Indian’, there would be a ‘total’ ban on venturing out for three weeks.

He acknowledged the lockdown would be a major blow to the economy but stressed the alternative was worse.

‘If we are not able to manage the next 21 days, the country will be set back by 21 years,’ he said, pledging £1.7billion to bolster the health care system.

Mr Modi’s announcement triggered panic buying on Tuesday night. But by yesterday morning, the streets were eerily quiet, with markets deserted and shutters closed in office windows. Once bustling railway stations stood empty.

Although police and security forces are strictly enforcing the order to stay in, people are being allowed out to buy essential groceries.

In Malviya Nagar, one of New Delhi’s busiest neighbourhoods, residents lined up outside open grocery shops.

‘Delhi looks like a ghost town,’ said 29-year-old Nishank Gupta. ‘I have never seen the city so quiet before.’

Yesterday was Hindu new year — which normally marks the start of a nine-day holiday that sees worshippers perform rituals at temples. Religious gatherings are banned under the lockdown but some people — including Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist party — still attended ceremonies.

At a New Delhi pharmacy, accountant Sushil Agarwal tried to look for a silver lining. ‘This is a time for introspection because people can realise what unpredictable things can happen to their lives,’ he said. ‘So maybe something good will come out of this.’