On March 23, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a 21-day lockdown (now extended till May 3) to combat the coronavirus. Announced just hours before going into effect, the lockdown has sparked the nation’s worst migration crisis since independence. Millions of migrant workers have since been scrambling to get home, with little luck and almost no help from the government.
India’s biggest cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Delhi and Bengaluru act as a beacon for millions from rural India. These migrants from all over the country are critical to keeping cities moving, taking up jobs like cooking, cleaning, auto repairs, driving taxis, hair salons and other jobs both in the formal and informal sectors of the economy.
The sudden lockdown announcement coupled with the forced closing of most industries left over 100 million migrants stranded. Images captured as they attempted to return home brought back memories of the migration crisis during India’s bloody partition, where 15 million people were displaced.
Many migrant workers in India live on daily or weekly wages, often paid in cash. While jobs are hard to come by and those that do exist often involve long hours and brutal working conditions. Millions are still attracted to these jobs however, as it gives them an opportunity for upward mobility, which is almost non-existent in India’s villages.
Due to the lockdown, incomes have dried up. While the government has requested companies to pay staff during the lockdown, the millions employed in the informal sector aren’t so lucky. Without any money, they cannot afford food or rent, making it almost impossible to continue living in the city.
Living in urban India can often be an expensive affair, even for those in large urban slums. To live in Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum located in Mumbai, residents often end up paying £2 – 3 a month and to put this in perspective, nearly 80% of the population earn less than £52 a year. For them, returning home wasn’t an option, it was a necessity.
Since March 24, millions of migrants have been forced to attempt to make the perilous journey home. As public transport has been closed, they have been forced to walk, often as much as 400 kilometers to return to their villages. Despite the perils the migrants face, like heat, starvation and overzealous policing the exodus has led to the deaths of around 20 people so far.
The state governments have responded to the scale of the crisis by arranging special buses to take people back. It has led to millions waiting at bus stations, crowding areas with no regard for social distancing norms, creating ideal conditions for the virus to spread.
Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvid Kejriwal was one of the few politicians to recognise the dangers and has responded to the migration crisis by calling on migrants to stay put. He has promised to pay their rents and announced that 568 food distribution centres would be opened in the city. The response from the central government, on the other hand, has been anything but helpful. While India was quick to repatriate migrant workers stuck in Italy and other nations, the lack of action back home has left many feeling lost.
“Wanting to go home in a crisis is natural. If Indian students, tourists, pilgrims stranded overseas want to return, so do labourers in big cities. They want to go home to their villages. We can’t be sending planes to bring home one lot, but leave the other to walk back home.”Shekhar Gupta (Founder, The Print)
Right now India’s hotspots for COVID-19 are big cities like Mumbai but, as these migrants return home there is a real fear of the disease spreading to rural areas, where treatment is a bigger challenge. Since there is no mass testing, it is unclear just how large the coronavirus outbreak is in India and experts fear this exodus of migrants could make the issue much worse.
Challenges in Rural India
Despite managing to make it back to their home villages, some migrants have faced a hostile reception and have been turned away, with several villages putting up barricades and refusing entry without health checks. Umesh Singh, 60, a schoolteacher from the village of Baniya-Yadupur in Bihar told The Guardian “We took this decision as outsiders’ entry to the village could put everyone’s life at risk. This is a very dangerous time and we can’t ignore this.”
In places like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, villages are finding it difficult to force migrants to remain in makeshift quarantine centres. Since these facilities often lack proper hygiene facilities and interaction with the outside world is limited, many escape them to go home. Without police or security personnel, forcing people to remain inside is a very difficult challenge. In Uttar Pradesh, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has berated the police force and is asking them to take the strictest action against those escaping the centres.
While India’s middle and upper classes have been able to enjoy the benefits of working from home, the millions whose livelihoods have been destroyed are being left out in the cold. Often forgotten by politicians, their plight is now leading to a migration crisis India has not prepared for. Without economic incentives like those being adopted in the US and UK, migrants who cannot make ends meet will continue to flout the rules and increase the risk of transmission in India, setting back normalisation efforts by months.