In a rare instance of bonding, balconies and verandahs across Indian cities came alive with the beating of thalis (steel plates) sharp at 5 pm on Sunday, responding to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal for a voluntary janata curfew to prevent coronavirus from spreading further.
In what looked like a national celebration, people came out of their houses in full force, some 10 hours after the curfew had begun, to express their gratitude for essential service providers who’ve been working despite the odds. Some even blew conch shells and burst firecrackers, while others screamed ‘go corona, go’.
Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, too, was part of the moment, ringing a bell in her courtyard, joined by family members. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, other Cabinet members also responded to Modi’s call, just like celebrities and general public. Most of them remembered to tweet their videos. In an unusual move, President Ramnath Kovind and his family came to the steps of the Rashtrapati Bhawan to clap.
However, the 7 am to 9 pm curfew turned into a real lockdown with the Centre and many states making back-to-back announcements to tell the people that their movement would be significantly curtailed at least till the end of this month. And, the beats were soon drowned by concerns over how to carry on with business in the coming days.
PM Modi proposed a 'Janta curfew' between 7 am and 9 pm as part of social distancing to check the spread of the deadly virus.
Through the day, roads as well as commercial areas wore a deserted look. Police enforced the curfew wherever people were seen gathering. Petrol pumps were shut in several locations. In several places, the idea of ‘social distancing’ was forgotten, as people came out in groups.
The PM thanked the people for their enthusiastic response. Modi said the event marked “the beginning of the nation’s victory in the long battle against COVID-19”.
A meeting of chief secretaries of all the states held by Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba noted there was “overwhelming and spontaneous response to the janata curfew”. According to trade bodies, as many as 70 million traders and 60,000 markets joined movement. The Confederation of All India Traders has asked the PM to declare an economic package for domestic trade.
आज का #JantaCurfew भले ही रात 9 बजे खत्म हो जाएगा, लेकिन इसका मतलब यह नहीं है कि हम सेलिब्रेशन शुरू कर दें। इसको सफलता न मानें। यह एक लम्बी लड़ाई की शुरुआत है। आज देशवासियों ने बता दिया कि हम सक्षम हैं, निर्णय कर लें तो बड़ी से बड़ी चुनौती को एक होकर हरा सकते हैं।— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) March 22, 2020
In Mumbai, passengers arriving at the airport faced inconvenience. “We waited for 10-15 minutes but there were no taxis, so we had to walk to the nearest railway station," Vaishali Prashant, who arrived from Chennai, said. In Delhi, women protestors at Shaheen Bagh kept their slippers at the site as a symbol of their battle continuing, but stayed home.
AIIMS flyover devoid of traffic during 'Janata curfew' in the wake of coronavirus pandemic, in New Delhi. PTI
The Congress welcomed the people acknowledging their gratitude for those providing essential services, but said it was time to ask whether health workers had sufficient masks, rubber boots and other such protective gear. Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said there were only 30,000 ventilators for a population of 1.3 billion, and one 'isolation bed' on every 84,000 Indians. He said people needed to question why the government had tested only 16,109 people so far and why there was blackmarketing of hand sanitizers.
Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar appealed to MPs to skip Parliament from Monday. “Request all MPs of NCP – Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha — not to go back to Delhi, please stay where you are and assist government agencies help citizens to fight coronavirus pandemic,” he tweeted.
Pawar and several politicians, including those from the Opposition, however, stepped out of their homes at 5 pm to show their gratitude to emergency service providers. Trinamool Congress said it was withdrawing its MPs from the Parliament session. It blamed the government for postponing the decision to call an early end to the Budget session of Parliament.
The government also tried to counter some of the misinformation with the Press Information Bureau tweeting that the “clapping initiative at 5pm is to express gratitude” to those providing essential services, and that it will not create any energy that could kill the virus.
In Kolkata, as sirens blared at 5 pm, Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar came on the grand staircase of Raj Bhavan to applaud essential service providers.