Traffic Jams and Flourishing Markets: Uttar Pradesh’s Idea of a Lockdown


Traffic Jams and Flourishing Markets: Uttar Pradesh’s Idea of a Lockdown

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

On the 13th day of India’s strict 21-day lockdown, (which has now been extended), many housing societies were completely sealed in Uttar Pradesh’s Noida. Housemaids were banned, buildings were sanitised thoroughly, and security guards maintained a strict eye even on essential supplies going inside the front gates. Things were, however, dramatically different 130 kilometers away in India’s most populous state. In Aligarh – known for its prestigious university and lock industry – a group of men were more interested in blaming the media at their daily adda.

“All of them are dogs. They are now turning coronavirus into a Hindu-Muslim disease. Bas zeher ugal rahe hain mediawale,” said Saleem, a trader and a respected man of the Upar Kot area in the old town. When another man from the mohalla tried to come closer, Saleem held up his arm. “Aye, door rehna hai, pata nahi hai kya,” said the man sitting among five other people. Everyone laughed.

Like much of Uttar Pradesh, social distancing hasn’t picked up too well in Aligarh. UP faced a major challenge after the nationwide lockdown when the migrants from metropolitans began returning back to their villages. The state administration responded by beating them up, shaming them on social media, assembling them like a herd and disinfecting them with harmful chemicals. That didn’t help much either.

The state has always had a chaotic relationship with law and order, something that successive governments have desperately tried to rein in with police encounters and vigilantism. Although over 800 people have been found to be coronavirus positive in Uttar Pradesh, the testing rates are still low compared to other states. Almost everywhere in the state, the administration is finding it tough to make people follow social distancing norms.

On March 22, the day of the Janata Curfew, many residents of the state came on the roads to bang utensils to praise healthcare workers, eventually defeating the purpose of social distancing. In Pilibhit, the district magistrate and police officials themselves led a crowded march to “celebrate” the voluntary curfew, complete with conch shells and thalis. In Bijnor, 16 working-class men hid in a milk tanker to reach their homes after the lockdown was imposed with a four-hour notice. While people thronged markets in Ghaziabad, shopkeepers in Moradabad simply kept their eateries open, liquor shop owners in Lucknow supplied their merchandise illegally to “select” valued customers.

But even in such polarised times, people move between the two areas.

In Aligarh, the chaos exists with an unhealthy dose of religious polarisation, which intensified after many members of Tablighi Jamaat were found to be coronavirus positive in Delhi’s Nizamuddin. It led to concerns over rising islamophobia and hate crimes. However, the age-old feeling of nonchalance cuts across hardened religious boundaries. The Muslim areas are tinged by a helplessness. In Hindu areas, rumours are abuzz with stories of “hidden families” affected by Covid-19, even though no confirmed case was found in the city until the second week of the lockdown.

That didn’t stop a group of four young men gathered in the Kanwari Ganj area and discussing conspiracy theories. “I definitely know of houses which have infected people,” said one of them, holding an expensive smartphone in his hand. The claim didn’t go uncontested. “How do you know that? You are talking shit because you don’t have much else to do nowadays. Don’t believe all these rumours,” said another man in the group.

But even in such polarised times, people move between the two areas. Even after the police put ropes to restrict people going from one locality to another, bikers found corners to reach the other side – mostly to buy essential items.

Even in Hindu-majority areas, men roam on the streets, share gossip and sit in the narrow lanes for hours, until a rare police contingent drives them inside their homes. The more cautious ones stand in their balconies or peep from their windows to catch uneventful happenings on the street. But the mayhem starts everyday from 7 am and ends at 11 am – when the lockdown is relaxed for shopping for groceries. Hundreds gather in the main market of Mahaveer Ganj, queuing outside shops and rubbing shoulders with each other to buy vegetables and cereals. There are traffic jams every day. Social distancing can take a hike.

The more cautious ones stand in their balconies or peep from their windows to catch uneventful happenings on the street.

For some reason meat of all kinds is now contraband. When I got the tip that a shop is selling it secretly somewhere in the Muslim ghetto where I live, I left home during the relaxation hours for some “guerilla shopping”. Smiling and prodding strangers, chatting under my breath with suspicious men, I felt like I was asking for heroin. I eventually found the shop, and paid twice the price I usually do – and not a minute too soon. A plainclothes policeman arrived and started abusing the shopkeeper, taking out his smartphone and snapping many photographs of the butcher and his shop.

For so many people, like the butcher who suddenly lost his business due to the lockdown, social distancing is not really a choice. For people like Najeebullah, who used to be a Swiggy delivery man, flouting norms is a measure of their desperation. Najeebullah leaves his home everyday – a rental near Baraula bypass, a slum on the outskirts of Aligarh, that he shares with his wife and three children – recites the dua of Yasin Sharif so that Allah protects him from the virus. From ₹600 per day, his daily earnings have dropped to ₹200 – of which ₹100 is spent on petrol.

He now depends on tips from his wealthy customers whom he delivers groceries to. “Some pay ₹50-100 extra and it keeps me afloat,” he said. “Maut to ek hi baar aayegi. Nahi niklenge to khayenge kya?” Najeebullah is certain that hunger will get to him before the virus does, echoing the sentiments of many poor people in the country. What purpose will social distancing then serve?