Millions of Indian labourers forced to walk hundreds of miles home amid lockdown


Fleeing a pandemic in a historic exodus, thousands of people are leaving India’s largest cities one footstep at a time as the country’s transport system grinds to a halt amid a government imposed lockdown.

There are no planes, no trains, no interstate buses and no taxis.

Among the thousands is Mohan, a plumber in Delhi on his way to his hometown in Bihar, 600 miles away. He is walking east with 17 other young men, all labourers like him. They were unsure of their route or where they would sleep or how they would eat, but one thing was certain: without work, they cannot survive in the city.

“We’re doomed,” Mohan said bitterly. “If we don’t die of the disease, we’ll die of hunger.”

India has begun a 21-day nationwide lockdown – the biggest in the world – in a desperate bid to stop the coronavirus from spreading out of control in this densely populated nation of 1.3 billion people. There are more than 987 confirmed cases in India, a number that is rising rapidly.

Nonessential businesses are shut, state borders are closed to regular traffic, and people have been asked to stay in their homes except to buy food or medicine.

The suspension of passenger trains, the backbone of India’s transportation system, was announced Sunday with nearly immediate effect. Then, on Tuesday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared the all-India lockdown.

The last time so many people were travelling long distances on foot was in 1947, during the bloody partition of the Indian Subcontinent, said Chinmay Tumbe, the author of a recent book on migration in India. When India became independent and Pakistan was created, millions of people fled to the other side of newly drawn borders. “Even then we had transport options,” Tumbe said. “There were trains running.”

Three days later, Indians are adjusting to a starkly different reality. Reports of widespread harassment of citizens by police have eased even as bottlenecks persist in the distribution of essential goods in some parts of the country.

The speed of the transportation shutdown meant that India’s tens of millions of internal migrants had no time to get home. Indian cities rely on a vast workforce drawn from the rest of the country, labourers who move in search of opportunity and often leave their families behind for months or years. They work construction, drive taxis, staff restaurants and much more, living frugally and returning home each year.

For such migrant workers, who are often employed in low-paid, precarious jobs, the measures are a double blow. The economic shock has vaporised their incomes while the transport restrictions eliminated their normal ways home.

The result has been a walking exodus of thousands of people. Precisely how many are on the move is not clear, but since the lockdown was declared, each day has brought fresh reports of migrants trying to get home. Some have managed to hitch rides on trucks or jam themselves into crowded private buses.

In its rush to institute a nationwide lockdown, India offered no formal help to poor migrants. That stands in sharp contrast to its treatment of citizens stranded abroad because of the pandemic: The government organised special flights to bring Indians home from China, Iran and Italy.

Most of the people walking are men, many of them young, but there are also some families. Payal Kumar, 19, sat on the edge of a sidewalk Friday, using a scarf as a makeshift mask. She was barefoot; her only pair of sandals had broken as she walked. Their water was gone, she was tired and had no idea how long it would take to reach their home 150 miles away.

Near one of Delhi’s long-distance bus stations, migrants converged in the vain hope that some transport might be available. By midmorning, they numbered in the hundreds. Stick-wielding police officers began herding them down the road.

One officer stopped a group of migrants and used a loudspeaker to make an announcement. “You have to maintain a distance of at least one meter from each other,” he said. The weary crowd dutifully shuffled a bit apart. A good Samaritan pulled up and offered biscuits and tea from the back of a motorcycle.

Rajesh Mishra, 30, a painter who had been walking for four hours, listened to the officer’s speech. His home is 500 miles away in the city of Gorakhpur. “We’re stuck,” he said. “Either we stay and die, or leave and die.” Then he turned and joined the stream of people stretching into the distance. (Source: Independent UK)