The calls started coming at 10:30 at night on 30 March, a week into the coronavirus lockdown. It was Jib Narayan Chaudhary, and he sounded frantic.
Knowing I was a journalist, the day labourer was calling for help from the Koteswor traffic police office where he and 22 other co-workers were being held by police who would not let them travel to their homes in Saptari district. He said he had a police travel permit.
I called the Koteswor police station, and the duty in-charge Sudarshan Thapa said: “People do not understand that lockdown means lockdown. You cannot leave the Valley.”
Walking 3 days to get home, Sanjay Mishra
In fact, Thapa said the rules had changed that day, and a permit did not suffice anymore. Travellers also needed a yellow card from the CDO office. Chaudhary and his friends did finally get the card from the Lalitpur District Office and got home on 2 April, after surviving on dry noodles and little money during their long bus journey.
“If we had known that the government would extend the lockdown, we would have made other arrangements. It is always poor people like us who suffer the most in any national emergency,” Chaudhary told me.
We were at the Lalitpur District Office (LDO) in Man Bhawan where there were many kinds of people caught in a lurch by the change in travel rules. Jit Jung Rana Magar from Sindhupalchowk, looked fed up. He needed to leave because his wife is alone with an infant and a two-year-old daughter.
“I have to be there for them. The office asked me to get all the related documents yesterday but now they need more documents,” Rana Magar said, looking lost.
In a corner stood 31-year-old Chinna Maya Tamang who had just lost her 65-year-old mother in Dolalghat that morning. “I have to go home for my mother’s death rites, I don’t know what will happen with the new rules,” she said.
By 10 in the morning, it had turned into a crowd at the LDO, while the policemen at the gate tried to separate them for physical distancing. Some were screaming to allow them in, others shouted through their masks to be allowed in.
Suresh Thapa, the policeman was trying, not successfully, to calm the crowd. He said: “My body already feels sick. We also fear for our families, but it’s our job to follow the rules.”
The people here needed to travel for family emergencies, or because unlike the better-off they had run out of money and food. To travel during the lockdown they needed a permit, and the rules had just been changed. No one seemed to know what the rules were.
“Confusion, confusion, confusion, why can’t there be an effective system?” fumed Rana Magar. “Sometimes, they say they need white pass, sometimes yellow and sometimes just an application.”
Lockdown limbo in no man’s land, Deepak Kharel
While some people continue to walk around at all times of day, others are snared by the ominously-named ‘Multifunctional Rescue and Arrest Device’ and locked up for three hours on the street. Others seem to be able to wangle travel permits fairly easily, while others pay vegetable truck drivers to hide in the back.
The lockdown is supposed to end on Tuesday 7 April at midnight and may be extended further. The desperation of ordinary people trapped in the city is greater than ever, and so is the confusion about what is allowed and what is not. Is it ok to walk out to shop for food? Can I head out to the pharmacy? What if I have a medical emergency?
I called the emergency hotline by dialling 100 just to clarify. “You can leave the house in the morning and evening, maybe just for an hour,” said the operator.
But the police do not seem to know that. Maiya Nepal, 60, is a household help and was detained by police while shopping for groceries at 8:30 in the morning. “Thank god, I wasn’t asked to become a chicken for hours,” she said, alluding to the practice of police punishing people by making them do sit-ups in the middle of the street. “the police need to be sure about the rules and not punish us.”
LOCKDOWN DO’S AND DONT’S
As far as we could figure out from official sources, here is a list of what is allowed and not allowed during the lockdown. This list is not exhaustive, nor is there any guarantee that police themselves know the rules.
According to a statement published by the Home Ministry:
- The responsibility to ensure essential supplies is with local governments.
- Everyone should maintain at least a 1m gap while visiting a store.
- The ward chief to head a committee made up of police to decide on maintaining essential services.
- The committee should trace daily wagers and support them with provisions.
- Shops to create daily packages of essential items, depending on size of families.
- Charities and social welfare groups should coordinate with ward office and the committee.
- Organisations and individuals not allowed to raise money using the lockdown as excuse.
- Double distribution prohibited.
- The Ministry of Finance, Commerce and Health should ensure the supply of essential items and distribute them evenly to all.
Statement by the Metropolitan City District offices:
- Funeral vehicles do not need permits. Except for security vehicles, public and private transport should be off the roads.
- Only essential services like health, security, food supply, water supply, dairy, electricity, telecommunication, news and information, customs, quarantine, waste management will be in operation. All others to stay home.
- People can still go out, but only for urgent medical reasons or to buy food.
- Home delivery services will be given permits for Kathmandu Valley.
- Department stores will be allowed to open for ‘certain hours’ in the morning and evening.
- No vehicles or persons will be allowed to leave Kathmandu Valley unless it is a family emergency like deaths or pregnancies.
- All others need verification from municipalities and have it attested by the district offices.
Rules for vehicle permits: