Millions of people switched off their lights and came out onto their balconies and doorsteps with lamps, candles and flashlights yesterday, responding to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to “challenge the darkness” of the coronavirus crisis.
Modi, who last month imposed a three-week long nationwide lockdown, asked citizens to turn out their lights for nine minutes at 9pm yesterday and to display lamps and candles in a show of solidarity.
People across the country switched off lights.
Some lit firecrackers, played drums, clapped and chanted slogans against the coronavirus.
In some big cities like Mumbai and New Delhi, residents of some housing associations stood in balconies and sang patriotic songs.
India has recorded 3,577 cases of the illness, with a death toll of 83.
Authorities worry that the healthcare system would be overwhelmed if the disease took deep hold in the country of more than 1.3bn.
Many of Modi’s supporters praised the “show of lights” by sharing pictures on Twitter of their neighbourhoods and saying it felt like Diwali - the annual festival of lights.
In the national capital, Modi and President Ram Nath Kovind lit lanterns.
Bharatiya Janata Party chief J P Nadda lit candles and federal minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi released a video holding a candle in hand.
Among business leaders, Biocon chief Kiran Mazumdar Shaw tweeted a photo, holding a candle.
She said: “Lit the flame of unity for universal fight against Covid-19.” 
But the prime minister’s call also drew criticism from people who called for steps to help millions of daily wage earners squeezed out of a living amid the lockdown, which was imposed nationwide on March 25.
“Only a brain-dead country can celebrate with lights and firecrackers at the time of a pandemic, while millions are jobless and hungry and in real fear of death,” a Twitter user with the handle @ashoswai said.
The lockdown has severely affected the supply of essential goods as well as people’s morale.
While various sectors of the economy, especially hospitality and manufacturing industry, have already taken a beating, those who haven’t faced the economic ramifications are overwhelmed with the idea of working from home, often resulting in domestic confrontations.
Modi’s lights-out plan put enormous pressure on officials manning power generation stations and the national grid.
They scrambled to increase staffing to ensure that the sudden gyration in power demand across the country did not lead to any power surges or outages.
India’s Power System Operation Corp (POSOCO), which oversees the national power grid, had ordered all senior officials to be present at generating stations, substations and load despatch centres across India between 6pm and 10pm yesterday.
The country’s electricity demand fell more than 25% to 85.3 gigawatt (GW) from 117GW within a span of four to five minutes as people switched off lights, said Power Minister R K Singh, adding the transition was handled smoothly by engineers.
India’s power consumption has already plunged over the last 10 days, as the lockdown has forced most industries to suspend operations.
Earlier in the day, a member of the West Bengal child’s rights body and a known “TMC (ruling Trinamool Congress) intellectual” Prasun Bhoumick posted a Facebook message warning people of Bengal against switching off lights as urged by Modi.
He warned that those who ignore the message would have their homes marked by a chalk.
The opposition BJP immediately responded, calling it an intimidation tactic.
Bhoumick wields considerable power in West Bengal.
The West Bengal Commission of Protection of Child Rights, of which he is a member, in May 2019 “took cognizance of “ molestation allegation against the BJP candidate Nilanjan Roy from Diamond Harbour, just days before the general elections.
The WBCPCR at the time demanded immediate action against Roy.
Calling it a “a conspiracy to malign”, BJP leader Mukul Roy had accused the WBCPCR of being part of the conspiracy as commission members like Bhoumick and June Maliya had been campaigning for the ruling Trinamool Congress.
When contacted yesterday, Bhoumick said he was exercising his freedom of expression.
“Of course it’s a political post,” he conceded.
He argued that the call for switching off lights by the prime minister has given rise to concern among many about grid failure.
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