Indians are struggling to comply with the world’s largest coronavirus lockdown as the government began the gargantuan task of keeping 1.3 billion people indoors.
Official assurances that essentials would not run out clashed with people’s fears that the disease toll could soon worsen, hitting food and other critical supplies.
In five days, the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has jumped from about 200 to 519, and experts say the real toll is likely to be much higher because of insufficient testing.
On Tuesday, prime minister Narendra Modi announced a three-week countrywide lockdown covering nearly a fifth of the world’s population “to save India and Indians”.
He said the lockdown would be “total”, but officials released advisories explaining that medical, law enforcement, media and other sectors were exempted and that stores selling food and other essentials would remain open.
Television images from many cities and towns showed closed markets and offices. Normally bustling railway stations stood empty, and joggers awkwardly avoided each other to maintain safe distances.
Mr Modi’s speech triggered panic buying as online retailers Amazon and Big Basket, an Indian grocery delivery service, began cancelling previously placed orders and said they had no delivery slots available.
That spurred people to risk fines and other penalties by going out to shop at local stores.
Although the lockdown made provision for people to leave their homes to buy food, TV news and social media showed police striking would-be shoppers in the streets with batons in the southern state of Kerala, the financial hub of Mumbai and New Delhi.
Wednesday was the start of the Hindu new year, according to an ancient lunar calendar, and the beginning of a nine-day holiday in which Hindus normally perform daily rituals at temples. The lockdown order bans religious gatherings and instructs places of worship to close.
Mr Modi acknowledged the celebrations “will not be like they are usually but they will strengthen our resolve to overcome our circumstances”.
“May we all come together to win the important battle that the nation faces against Covid-19,” he said.
Some Indians, including a member of Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, defied the lockdown – which also bans public gatherings of five or more – and attended temple ceremonies.
Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, prayed to a statue of Lord Ram at a makeshift temple in Ayodhya with about 100 other people.
Even as he ventured outside, Awanish Awasthi, an Uttar Pradesh government spokesman, told reporters in Lucknow that the lockdown was being strictly enforced in the state.
He said cases had been brought against 5,590 people for violating orders to stay at home, but denied allegations of police excesses.
In recent days, India had gradually expanded stay-at-home orders, banned international and domestic flights and suspended passenger service on its extensive rail system until March 31.