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India faces mass migration during lockdown

Ankita Mukhopadhyay
March 29, 2020

India's efforts to control the spread of the novel coronavirus have fallen into disarray. Thousands of workers have started flouting the lockdown rules to migrate back to their home state.

Migrant workers atop a bus in India
Image: Reuters/A. Dave

India's effort to contain the coronavirus pandemic has gone into disarray after thousands of migrant workers started flouting lockdown rules to head to their homes, fearing starvation following the imposition of a complete lockdown.

On Saturday, the government of India advised state governments to stop the mass migration of workers by providing them relief such as accommodation and relief camps. The states have been directed to use state disaster relief funds for the purpose.

The central government's directive comes at a time when several migrant workers, particularly in the capital city of Delhi, started moving on foot to reach their home state, after all transport services were stopped owing to a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of Sars-Cov-2 (COVID-19 coronavirus).

Desperate times, desperate measures

State governments have already undertaken several measures, but they weren't able to stem the flow of migrants. On Saturday, the state government of Uttar Pradesh sent nearly 200 buses to return migrant workers to their home state. The government also sent medical teams to screen bus passengers at bus stops. However, there weren't enough buses for all who wanted to board.

To curb mass migration, the state government of Bihar has offered to bear the expenses of migrant workers stranded in other states. The government of Delhi has also started converting schools into night shelters for migrant workers. On March 28, the Delhi government said that it had the capacity to feed 400,000 people every day. Delhi's chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, has also announced that ration shops, which sell basic goods such as rice to the poor, would sell goods for free during the lockdown.

Read more: India: Police under fire for using violence to enforce coronavirus lockdown

"I still appeal to everyone to stay where they are," Kejriwal said. "We have made arrangements for living, eating, drinking everything in Delhi. Please stay at your home. Do not go to your village. Otherwise, the aim of the lockdown will be over.''

Between hunger and coronavirus

Several workers, who survive on a daily wage, are migrating for fear of starvation or being evicted from their homes.

"My landlord wants the rent at the beginning of every month, without fail. He will simply throw me out if I don't pay," Ram Nivas Yadav, an auto-rickshaw driver and migrant from Bihar to Delhi, told DW earlier this week. "I used to earn 400-500 rupees ($5-$6) per day, but now I can't earn anything because of the lockdown. I won't be able to eat anything after 3-4 days", he added.
Read more: Can India's lockdown contain the coronavirus?

Baldev Rai, a shopkeeper and tea seller in Gurugram near New Delhi said he doesn't know about the symptoms of coronavirus or its mode of transmission. "I just want to go back to the farmland in my hometown," he told DW.

India is currently in a 21-day lockdown till April 14. To curtail the economic strain on workers owing to the lockdown, the Indian government has announced a stimulus package of 1.7 trillion Indian rupees ($22.7 billion, €20.33 billion). The package includes delivery of grains and lentils to 800 million Indians for 3 months.

India has reported 987 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, according to John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. The numbers are slowly rising. "The infection is simmering and is waiting to explode. The official numbers that are announced right now are only the tip of the iceberg," Arvind Kumar, a lung surgeon at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in Delhi, told DW earlier this week.

Indian epidemiologist Jayaprakash Muliyil issued a dire warning recently, estimating that up to 55% of India's population could contract COVID-19.

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