Yet, panic has brought this nation of 1.3 billion to a virtual standstill in the wake of the global pandemic. This abrupt and total freezing of social and economic activity across the country has rudely uprooted at least 40 million lives. So much so that over 200 people had reportedly died already by April 13 trying to return home, awaiting food, or attempting to get to a hospital amidst the national lockdown.
There is only one word that describes the cause of these casualties: apathy.
As India completes a month under lockdown, it is unlikely that these deaths, unrelated to coronavirus as they are, will make it to public consciousness or the government’s consideration.
Quartz India, thus, attempts to briefly record at least a few of the lost lives behind those raw statistics.
A son, brother, husband, and father of three, Singh was among the millions of migrant workers oiling the lives of middle-class Delhi. Three years ago, when he found a job at a restaurant in the city, it did not upgrade his life dramatically. But it did earn him more than his meagre farm income back home in Morena in central India’s Madhya Pradesh state.
However, even that didn’t last.
As India shut down on March 25, his employer shut shop, making living in the big city simply unaffordable for him. Singh decided he’d be better off with his family in Morena.
On March 26, around 3am, he, along with several other migrant workers like him, began walking back home, some 325 kilometres southwards. Along the way, they battled intermittent rain, hunger, thirst, and the summer heat. Indian highways aren’t known for washroom facilities either. Sometimes Singh would get lucky and find a vehicle to hitchhike on, The Times of India newspaper reported.
Even then, he took two days to reach Agra, 200 km and usually a two-hour bus journey away from Delhi.
In Agra, Singh paused for rest on March 28, with roughly 80km more to go. He sat down before a local hardware store, fatigue getting the better of him. The store owner offered him some tea and biscuits and a small carpet to lie down on. But that hardly helped. “Lene aa sakte ho toh aa jaao (come and get me if you can),” he told his brother-in-law over a 42-second call, according to The Indian Express newspaper.
Shortly after, he suffered a cardiac arrest. Singh hadn’t contracted coronavirus. He died merely trying to reach his family in Morena.
Millions of Indians, especially the poorest of them, depend on India’s leaky public distribution system for rice and wheat.
In Bihar, a mere 60km from the state’s capital Patna, one family of five didn’t have access to even that. Rakesh Musahar’s earnings as a ragpicker and his father Durga Prasad’s income as a porter—together a measly Rs250 ($3) a day—just about staved off hunger, according to The Wire. The lockdown wiped out even that bit.
When the little boy took ill on March 26, his parents had to knock on neighbours’ doors for funds to buy medicines. His last meal was probably on the night of March 24. “After that, we did not have any food cooked at our home. We would have surely cooked something if we had any ration,” Rakesh’s mother, Sonamati Devi, told The Wire.
On March 26, the young, overworked, and emaciated boy reportedly died of hunger.
No autopsy was done on the body and it was a challenge to even reach the crematorium. The local administration couldn’t care less.
Indian students often travel miles across the sea to study. Most, however, can only afford marginally better off regions within the country. Logesh was one such from the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
A native of a small town called Namakkal, Logesh was attending college in Wardha, some 1,300 kilometres to the north in the state of Maharashtra. He lived in a small accommodation with other migrant students and workers from Tamil Nadu.
When the lockdown began, Logesh and his roommates decided to wait it out. “However, five days later, things did not improve for us,” Rahul Dravid, an acquaintance of Logesh’s, later told The News Minute.
On March 29, they decided to walk back home instead of starving. In three days, they covered 500 kilometres, stopping along the way at shelters and helped by volunteers. Sometimes, trucks gave them a lift, at other times the police.
On April 1, they reached a government shelter in Secunderabad, Telangana. Home was still 800km away, but he could take no more. Logesh collapsed in a dining hall after having food, according to The Times of India newspaper. A medical examination said he’d suffered a cardiac arrest. His companions said Logesh had no illnesses or underlying medical conditions.
His body arrived at his Namakkal home two days later. His companions reached theirs on April 4.
Some journeys do change lives.
At 12, Indian children are usually in the last year of middle-school. The whole wave of high-school drama and teenage hormones is yet to come. But an alternate reality awaits the millions sucked into the labour force instead.
Makdam belonged to the latter group.
She had been working on a chilli field in Kannaiguda village in Telangana for the past two months, according to The Indian Express newspaper. She had already braved three weeks of the lockdown, which was initially supposed to end on April 14. But when prime minister Narendra Modi announced an extension till May 3, she was left with no other option.
Living on the margins of society, her community, the Makdams, has little or no access to proper healthcare or education. The only child of her parents Andoram and Sukamati, she had joined some women and other children from her village for seasonal work.
In India, children under the age of 15 are not allowed to work. But her group had at least three other children.
Their trek back involved crossing hills and forests, under the oppressive 40 degrees celsius heat. On April 18, Makdam died, collapsing due to a possible electrolyte imbalance just 30 kilometres from her home.
In all likelihood, she was already malnourished. It hardly matters anymore.