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Indian homeless people and stranded migrant workers stand in circles marked on the ground to maintain social distancing, to receive free food from the disciples of Ramakrishna, a Hindu religious group, at Ramakrishna Ashram, in New Delhi, India.Getty Images/Getty Images

A month after the pandemic began in earnest last year, a quiet, bespectacled former senior civil servant began noticing extraordinary things on the streets of New Delhi. They were the sort of things urban India has not experienced for more than a century: signs of mass hunger on a truly epic scale.

He witnessed lineups more than two kilometres long, of people squatting for many hours in hope of receiving “a ladle of very basic, even cold food.” There were “dazed and desperate women and men, even children, rushing down empty roads … whenever there is news or rumour of food being distributed somewhere.” An estimated 13 million people defied police and walked hundreds of kilometres along back roads to reach the slightly better food security of their remote villages.

These were skilled workers, general labourers, domestic servants, and ironically a great many cooks and food sellers, all defying police beatings and mass lockups in order to get something, anything, to feed their children. They often failed.

Harsh Mander, 66, was one of the few people in India able to observe the full effects of the coronavirus pandemic. As someone who works on the streets with the homeless and the very poor, he was able to crisscross the country and observe what life was like for the majority of its people. As the head of the Centre for Equity Studies, the founder of national campaigns devoted to the needs of the homeless and victims of sectarian violence, and as one of the world’s most respected thinkers on poverty and sectarian violence, he was uniquely placed to understand the context of what was happening in 2020 and 2021.

And he realized it was not the pandemic itself, but rather the terribly ill-conceived and unsuccessful government attempts to control it, that had provoked the worst mass-starvation event since the early 1940s. It’s an economic and humanitarian emergency that continues today and that, he concludes, has claimed more lives than the virus itself.

“India chose a pathway to deal with the COVID crisis which was spectacularly anti-poor,” Mr. Mander told me. “It devastated, overnight, the livelihoods of a large segment of our people – whose livelihoods at the best of times are shaky.”

It began when Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to the airwaves, in March of 2020, to give India’s 1.4 billion people four hours’ notice to get home and stay there, for an indefinite period of time. People caught on the streets would be rounded up and put in overcrowded quarantine centres. The world’s largest lockdown was based on a concept that had been used with some success, at that point, in Italy and in New York City.

It was grotesquely ill-suited to a country where most urbanites share rooms with many others. This made “staying home” far deadlier than being on the streets.

Mr. Mander told me about the lethal paradox India’s poor faced: “If the majority of people in most cities are sharing a one-room shanty with many others, how can they possibly keep a social distance? When 100 people share a common toilet, how can they stay safe?”

Mr. Modi devoted only about 1 per cent of GDP to compensating people for lost income – and only those with an employer received anything. About 85 per cent of India’s poor majority are labourers, small merchants and servants who do not have identifiable bosses and as a result received nothing.

Mr. Mander published his observations in an eloquent and carefully documented book, Locking Down the Poor: The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre, and in a series of articles this year.

And now he is being punished. Last month his and his children’s homes and those of several activists, lawyers and actors were raided by the Indian government’s notorious Enforcement Directorate, an economic-crimes unit that Mr. Modi has been accused of using to intimidate and silence critics. The government has suggested it may press charges of abetting terrorism, money laundering or hate crimes – and hundreds of respected Indians have spoken up to say those claims have no basis. I met with Mr. Mander in Germany, where he is attempting to defend himself.

As most of the world saw it, India largely escaped the worst of the coronavirus pandemic until the horrific events of the Delta-variant outbreak during the spring of 2021. Mass funeral pyres choked cities, hundreds of corpses filled the Ganges river and a medically sophisticated country known for being the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer somehow found itself without enough vaccines, oxygen or intensive-care beds.

That outbreak was the first time the pandemic struck India’s growing middle class, and it brought the country’s crisis to the world’s attention. But it masked the larger calamity that had been taking place for a year.

“It is not the virus that has devastated the poor, even after this second wave,” Mr. Mander told me. “It’s the policies that we chose to deal with the virus – and those reflected much older notions of settled inequality that are India’s root problem.” The solution to this catastrophe, Prime Minister Modi appears to believe, is to stop things like this from being said.

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