Migrant workers walk back to their villages along the Mumbai Pune highway during the lockdown in Mumbai, India
Migrant workers walk back to their villages along the Mumbai Pune highway during the lockdown in Mumbai, India © AP

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Sunny Kumar, a 25-year-old construction worker, set out at dawn on Sunday morning, his wife carrying their three-month-old baby, to walk 230km from a Delhi suburb to their village in the state of Uttar Pradesh after running out of money for food and rent.

Construction at Mr Kumar’s building site was suspended last weekend, along with all India’s other economic activity and public transport, for what was touted as a one-day “people’s curfew” to show resolve to fight coronavirus. Neither work nor transport services ever resumed, as Mr Modi then imposed a 21-day nationwide curfew to slow the spread of the deadly pathogen. 

Trudging along the highway snaking towards India’s rural heartland under the hot sun with friends, Mr Kumar said his family had no choice but to join the mass exodus of migrant workers now pouring out of India’s cities for long, arduous treks to distant rural villages — all in violation of the curfew. He said they hoped to reach their village in Etah district, in rural Uttar Pradesh in two days, walking day and night.

“The landlord started harassing us for rent, and refused to give us groceries on credit,” he said. “We decided it would be better to go home — at least we will get food and shelter.”

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With India’s urban elites and middle classes now hunkered down for a protracted lockdown, millions of vulnerable urban migrants — mainly unsalaried workers dependent on daily wages to buy food and rent tiny squalid rooms — are making desperate journeys back to their rural homes to better survive the catastrophic loss of income.

For these impoverished migrants trudging in long columns along the highways amid rising daytime temperatures, the risks are immense. A group of migrants was killed after being hit by a truck, while one former Delhi restaurant delivery man suffered a heart attack walking to his home in Agra. Food and water en route are scarce, given the shutdown.

Some have tried other dangerous methods of getting home. Police in Maharashtra last week found 300 desperate migrants crammed in the back of container trucks, which were due to carry them back to their villages in distant Rajasthan.

The full scale of the looming humanitarian and public health crisis was clear this weekend as Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and poorest state, started to provide buses to help ferry home migrants still stranded in Delhi. Tens of thousands of people thronged the bus station and packed into buses, ideal conditions for the virus to spread.

Critics say the unfolding chaos is a direct result of the Modi government’s failure to anticipate how India’s poor urban workers — mainly informal labourers without salaried jobs — would respond to a sudden loss of all income, or instructions to spend all their time inside overcrowded rooms in urban slums.

“It’s the fallout of the hasty and unplanned lockdown,” said economist Reetika Khera, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. “A lockdown is good for people like us who have space at home, but not for people who live in cramped spaces — and the lockdown is an economic disaster for them.”

“In every way possible, the government has completely disregarded this large chunk of the population,” she added. 

In a radio address on Sunday, Mr Modi defended the nationwide shutdown, saying he had no option to contain the virus, given other countries’ experiences. But he also tacitly acknowledged the hardships it will impose on the poor, as he appealed for forgiveness.

“Such strong measures were absolutely necessary,” Mr Modi said. “Especially when I look at my poor brothers and sisters, I definitely feel they must be thinking ‘What kind of prime minister has placed us in this difficulty?’”

But for migrants now in the midst of their journeys such as Mr Kumar, home may be out of reach. On Sunday, New Delhi ordered local authorities to seal all state and district borders and prevent people from walking on national highways. Other states did the same. Delhi also said all migrants who left cities after the lockdown began would be treated as violators and put in quarantine for 14 days in government facilities.

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A week after the cessation of all economic activities — and the departure of millions, New Delhi has now instructed states to ensure that labourers receive wages at the place of their work without any deduction for the lockdown period, and barred landlords from trying to collect rent from such tenants. Yet lawyers say it is unclear how such orders can be enforced.

The orders are no consolation to Anup Kumar, who recently arrived in Noida, a Delhi suburb, from his hometown of Hardoi, 450km away, to take up a job as a nursing assistant at a new hospital.

The hospital never opened due to the pandemic, and the 25-year-old is now stranded, sharing a tiny room with three others, where he fears he could fall ill. On Sunday morning, he walked nearly five hours in the heat, trying to get to the bus station, only to be turned back by police at Delhi’s city limits.

He is outraged at how the lockdown was imposed without warning, leaving so many stranded. “Why didn’t the government think of people like us earlier,” he said, a handkerchief covering his mouth, and his eyes bloodshot from heat and exhaustion. “If people don’t die of corona, they will die like this, battling to get on a bus.”

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