India’s first case of novel coronavirus was detected on 30 January 2020 in the State of Kerala. As the number of confirmed Covid-19 positive cases started to increase the government clamped Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 on 11 March 2020. Then came the announcement of ‘Janta curfew’ on 22 March. The Indian railways decided to stop all passenger trains beginning at midnight on 23 March. On the same day India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, in his address to the nation announced a twenty-one-day lockdown to combat the spread of the virus. Except for essential services, all commercial, industrial, religious and cultural activity was to stop. India also shut down the transport services: city and state buses, local transportation, domestic flights, were all suspended. Residents were required to stay home. Most states also sealed their borders restricting movement within and in between states. ‘Stay home, stay safe’ became the slogan.
The idea of lockdown had already been experimented with in China before it travelled to India. Several other Asian countries from Japan, to South Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan had recommended and experimented with variants of localised and regional lockdowns to combat the coronavirus. Italy had become the first European country to travel down the route of lockdown. China, the first country to experience a Covid-19 outbreak, had shut down the city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, and then closed large parts of the country. Its efforts earned China praise from The World Health Organization as ‘perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history’. But the lockdown in India was even bigger. Its three-week lockdown would directly affect 1.3 billion people; it would be extended two times more. The first lockdown was between 23 March and 14 April. The second, extended lockdown covered 15 April to 3 May. And the third, from 4 May to 17 May.
The lockdown triggered the second biggest migration in the history of India. There are an estimated 139 million migrants in India – men, women and children, mostly daily wage workers, who leave their homes to seek work and employment far and wide throughout India. Suddenly these migrants were trapped without work, with no money, far away from home. The poignancy of the first migration, due to partition, is obvious. But the poetics of the second has to be seen by foraging through the stories of those who had to travel back to their homes.