Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked the nation’s poor for forgiveness, as the economic and human toll from his 21-day nationwide lockdown deepens and criticism mounts over a lack of adequate planning ahead of the decision.
“I apologise for taking these harsh steps that have caused difficulties in your lives, especially the poor people,” Modi said in his monthly address on Sunday, broadcast on state radio.
“I know some of you will be angry with me. But these tough measures were needed to win this battle.”
Modi announced an unprecedented three-week lockdown – the world’s largest – which came into effect on March 25 to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
But the decision has stung millions of India’s poor, leaving many hungry and forcing jobless migrant labourers to flee cities and walk hundreds of kilometres to their native villages.
The poor “would definitely be thinking what kind of prime minister is this, who has put us into so much trouble,” he said, urging people to understand there was no other option.
“Steps taken so far … will give India victory over corona,” he added.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in India rose to 979 on Sunday, with 25 deaths.
The government announced a $22.6bn economic stimulus plan on Thursday to provide direct cash transfers and food handouts to India’s poor. A quarter of India’s 1.3 billion people live below the poverty line.
In an opinion piece published on Sunday, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo – two of the three winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2019 – said even more aid for the poor is needed.
“Without that, the demand crisis will snowball into an economic avalanche, and people will have no choice but to defy orders,” they wrote in the Indian Express.
The lockdown is expected to exacerbate India’s economic woes at a time when growth had already slumped to its slowest pace in six years.