The long walk home: Modi's coronavirus lockdown triggers mass exodus of India's desperate migrant workers

The long walk home: Modi's coronavirus lockdown triggers mass exodus of India's desperate migrant workers
Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are desperately trying to return home, after India's nationwide lockdown to contain the coronavirus sparked a mass exodus.
6 min read
06 April, 2020
Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have fled cities amid India's lockdown. [Getty]
When the lockdown in India left Shahnaz Ahmad, 35, without work and unable to feed his family, he was desperate to get back home.  

Carrying his six-year-old daughter on his right shoulder and with a bag packed with clothes slung around his left, Shahnaz, along with family members, began the 145-mile trek from New Delhi to Agra, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), on the morning of 26 March.  

"Had we stayed in Delhi, my children would have died of hunger," Shahnaz, who was working as a labourer in Gurgoan, a city situated near the Delhi-Haryana border, told The New Arab.

"As the lockdown had left me jobless, I couldn't afford the rent of our dwelling and I was unable to feed my family. I preferred to go back to my village where I won't have to pay rent and food is cheaper."

India's working class found themselves on the receiving end of the 21-day lockdown, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 24 March for 1.3 billion people to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, without any prior warning and less than four hours to prepare. 

Except for essential facilities, all other services including the private sector, educational institutions, government offices, shops, factories, train services, restaurants and hotels will remain closed until 14 April. 

Millions of migrant workers, who were living a hand-to-mouth existence, walked back hundreds of miles to their villages as the lockdown left them jobless and hungry

Following the announcement, which was declared hasty by critics, millions of migrant workers and daily wagers, who had come to cities to earn a livelihood and were living a hand-to-mouth existence, walked back hundreds of miles to their villages as the lockdown left them jobless and hungry. 

"The government should have thought about migrant workers like me before taking a sudden decision," said Shahnaz. "We were left with only two options: either die of hunger or due to coronavirus." 

Read more: Fear spreads faster than infection at Rohingya refugee camps 

As traffic came to a halt and train services were suspended, on the next day of lockdown migrant workers in large groups, mostly with flip-flops on their feet, could be seen walking along deserted roadsides with their belongings and some accompanied by children and the elderly. 

Modi's hasty announcement of the unprecedented lockdown drew strong flak from experts, who believe the central government initially took the coronavirus threat for granted, as the country had reported the first case of Covid-19 on 30 January.  

They said the lockdown was necessary but it should have been implemented with proper planning. 

A boy, a ragpicker by profession, walks along a deserted roadside in Delhi. [TNA/Muzamil Mattoo] 

"The government had enough time to prepare for the outbreak of Covid-19 in India," Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association and a member of the politburo of the Communist Party of India told The New Arab 

"Until the whole month of February went away, the government didn't recognise the danger of coronavirus and the outcome is what we are witnessing today." 

After the government suddenly announced the lockdown, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, who were desperate for food and shelter, were stranded in large cities.

In the city of Mumbai alone, there were 10 million migrant workers, living 10 to 12 people in small rooms, making it difficult for them to maintain social distancing, Krishnan told TNA.

Three days after the lockdown was imposed, Shukla, 45, along with 12 companions left Delhi towards Jhansi, a district in UP. Shukla's group, who were working at a construction site, had no permanent residence in Delhi.

"We were living in a makeshift shelter near the construction site. We survived the last three days on biscuits and water. We were also running out of money," Shukla, who had to walk 295 miles to reach home, said. "It will take us a few days to reach our hometown but we have no other option."  

Migrant worker deaths 

On their long journey back home, at least 22 migrant workers have died over the past week. Some migrant workers suffered heart attacks after walking hundreds of miles, while others including children and the elderly died in road accidents.  

Many were harassed, beaten, and sent back from the borders by the police for defying the lockdown and breaking rules of social distancing. In several videos that made the rounds on social media, police were seen beating migrant workers, making them squat, crawl and do sit-ups. 

Ranveer Singh, 38, who was working as a delivery boy with a restaurant in Delhi, collapsed and died due to a heart attack, after he walked hundreds of miles from Delhi towards to his hometown Madhya Pradesh, according to The Indian Express. Ranveer was just 62 miles away from his home when he took his last breath. 

After a series of videos that went viral on social media, showing the massive exodus of migrant workers triggered by the 'unplanned' lockdown, the UP and Delhi governments arranged buses to take migrant workers home. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered at Delhi's Anand Vihar Interstate Bus Terminal at a time when social distancing was critical to check the spread of the coronavirus.  

Later, videos on social media showed massive crowds waiting to board buses being beaten by police to keep the order. 

Fearing that migrant workers who returned from cities to the countryside may spread the coronavirus, many were sprayed with disinfectant, prompting outrage. In Bareilly, UP, video footage showed a group of workers squatting on the ground while medical and fire department officials in protective suits used hosepipes to drench them in disinfectant. 

Migrant workers with their belongings walking back home from Delhi amid lockdown. [TNA/Muzamil Mattoo]

Later, Bareilly's district magistrate said an investigation into the incident had been opened. "The team of Bareilly Municipal Corporation and Fire Brigade had instructions to sanitise the buses, but they sprayed the workers in fervour," he wrote on Twitter. "The video has been investigated and the affected people are being treated under the direction of the CMO." 

Besides being sprayed with disinfectants, migrant workers who reached home have also been held in quarantine areas, which are worse than jails.  

"Migrant workers have been held without food and water in a small place, making them more vulnerable to the virus," Krishnan told The New Arab. "In the name of quarantine they are being exposed to greater danger and that is why people are avoiding quarantine centres, as they refer to it as a punishment." 

Read more: Emerging from brutal Indian clampdown, Kashmir braces for coronavirus 

In one more incident, according to Reuters, police in the Gujarat state of India fired tear gas to disperse a stone-pelting group of around 500 migrant workers, who defied lockdown against the coronavirus and tried to go home as they have been left without jobs. 

When the criticism over the plight of migrant workers grew, Modi apologised to Indians for the 21-day coronavirus lockdown. 

Calling the lockdown harsh, Modi in his monthly address broadcast by state radio, said, "The lockdown has caused difficulties in your lives, especially the poor people. I know some of you will be angry with me. But these tough measures were necessary to win this battle." 

The total number of coronavirus cases in India has surpassed 4,800 and the death toll stands at 137. But experts believe India, which is the second-most populous country in the world, will witnesses a tsunami of coronavirus cases in coming weeks. 

Muzamil Mattoo contributed to this report from New Delhi 

Aamir Ali Bhat is a Kashmir-based freelance journalist who reports on human rights abuses, culture and the environment. He writes for The New Arab, Kashmir Ink and Free Press Kashmir.

Follow him on Twitter: @Aamirbhatt3