Police levy thousands of fines as Indians chafe at mask rules

New Delhi (AFP) –


Indian police are having a field day handing out fines to people who do not wear a mask during the coronavirus pandemic.

Many people just cannot get used to the accessory, which has come to symbolise the new normal, having been made compulsory in most big cities.

New Delhi shared-ride driver Munish Tiwari said he had received two tickets for 500-rupee ($6.50) fines since taxis got back on the road a month ago, which had wiped out a day's earnings.

"It is just not comfortable and I cannot breathe when I have to wear it," he said.

"I have to wear it when there are passengers, but as soon as the door closes and they are gone, normally I take it off. I am easy prey for the police."

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently chided the country's 1.3 billion people for being "careless" about social distancing.

Offenders in cities across India tell similar stories to Tiwari's.

India has almost 880,000 virus cases and more than 23,000 dead, and experts say the peak is still weeks away. But both rich and poor say they feel awkward or uncomfortable covering up their face.

Masks hanging from people's ears -- or not covering their nose -- are a familiar sight on the streets. Many wear no mask at all.

Delhi police say they have issued more than 42,000 fines since March -- 792 on Sunday alone -- to people not wearing masks or flouting other social distancing rules.

Police across India have reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, which range from 200 rupees in Bangalore to 1,000 rupees in Mumbai.

Bangalore police chief Hemant Nimbalkar announced on Twitter last week that his force had collected mask fines worth more than $132,000 in one month.

"We are not at all proud of this feat," he said, appealing for greater respect for social distancing as cases surge in the southern city.

- 'It is exhausting' -

In Firozabad, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, offenders escape a fine but have to attend a four-hour class on social distancing and write 500 times "A mask has to be worn".

But the message is still hard to get across.

Harish Kumar, an artist who sells religious souvenirs outside a Hyderabad temple, said that being overweight already made breathing difficult for him and wearing a mask exacerbated that.

"When I am in my shop I take off the mask and when I go out I wear it," he said.

On one Hyderabad street, AFP came across teacher Sunitha Michael with her mask clenched between her teeth. Her excuse was that she had just finished a phone conversation.

"Quite frankly, I hate having to wear a mask as it is exhausting, but I have to comply with the guidelines," she said.