Hari Singh, a migrant worker in Mumbai, walked for two days with just a few stops as he tried to reach his village more than 800 kilometers away in northern Rajasthan state after India announced a nationwide lockdown on Wednesday. He spent the night on the roadside.
He was not alone. There were about 200 others trekking on the road, hoping to return to the sanctuary of their homes and villages.
Singh is among the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers desperate to leave cities where they are stranded without work or money as India shuts down for three weeks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. With all transportation, such as trains and buses, suspended, many are making arduous journeys of hundreds of kilometers on foot, lugging bags or clutching small bundles.
For Singh, 21, even that option did not work — police turned him back after he had trudged over 150 kilometers. Following reports of an exodus of workers from cities, authorities have tightened surveillance to prevent people from crossing states amid fears that they could carry the virus to the vast countryside, defeating the effort to contain its spread.
Back in Mumbai in the tiny room Singh shares with others, the young man who had ventured into the city just a month ago was devastated. The electric shop where he was working as an apprentice handed him about $60, but most of that money has run out. His biggest worry is how to pay rent or buy food. “I will never come back,” he said bitterly.
The help line of Aajeevika Bureau, a nonprofit organization in Rajasthan that works with migrant labor, has been flooded with calls since the lockdown took effect with anguished appeals for help — men wanting to be evacuated from cities because they have run out of money and don’t know where the next meal will come from.
“They got no time to organize their passage because there were just a few hours after the lockdown was announced. People became marooned,” said Aajeevika’s executive director, Rajiv Khandelwal. “We don’t know what the numbers are but thousands are basically just walking back and they are without food.”
Trains and buses went out of service on Sunday with almost no notice, giving people little time to leave.
India has recorded more than 800 cases of coronavirus and 19 deaths but hopes the lockdown will stave off a bigger outbreak.
The clampdown caught migrant workers in its teeming cities unaware. Numbering about 100 million and coming from poorer states, they build roads and swanky buildings, work as shop assistants, security guards and cooks, and do other casual jobs to keep the wheels of metropolises like Delhi and Mumbai running.
The federal government has asked local authorities to provide food, sanitation and accommodation to migrants, but rolling out those benefits will take time. Neither will they be able to access food rations and cash transfers announced under a $22 billion package for poor people, because they don’t have identity cards in cities.
That is why migrant workers are yearning to return to the security of their villages, where they have homes, food and support systems from close-knit communities.
And many are risking a difficult journey on foot despite reports of police turning back those trying to leave. The long trek along highways is not easy — eateries are shut and water is scarce.
Raman Kumar, a resident of a satellite town near Delhi, who operated a small food joint with two friends, hit the road on Saturday morning with two others to his village 600 kilometers away in Punjab state. “It will take me eight or 10 days. I don’t know whether I will reach but I will definitely not turn back. It is better to die,” he asserted. He was hoping to hitch rides with trucks carrying vegetables or food, which are still plying the roads, but he had not met with any success so far. Kumar was able to get one meal from some good Samaritans, who were distributing rice and lentils.
Girdhari Lal, who works as a laborer in Maharashtra, has waited for the past week to collect his dues from his contractor, but has not been able to contact him. Having run out of money, he has no option but to try to reach his village in Rajasthan on foot.
“I will start walking this evening. Will I have a problem? Please tell me if you can find out anything,” he asked me in desperation.
A nonprofit group running shelters for the homeless in the Indian capital says that it has been overwhelmed by migrants knocking on its doors in recent days. “Thousands of such people have started coming to our shelters because their resources are getting exhausted. And we cannot say no to anyone. There is huge pressure on us,” said Vishwajeet Ghosal at Prayas JAC Society.
As the numbers of those exiting cities swells, authorities in some states have begun organizing buses to ferry home those stuck on the road. And there have been heartening reports of people handing out food and water to migrants on the march.
While announcing the lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told citizens that protecting the lives of Indians was his top priority.
In an editorial, the Indian Express said that along with addressing the public health challenge, the country will have to find ways to alleviate the mounting distress of rickshaw pullers, construction workers and other daily wagers.
Those racing to mitigate the impact of the lockdown on the most vulnerable say more planning was needed before the world’s biggest shutdown came into effect. An official at a nonprofit, who did not want to be named, said authorities would have to move quickly to ensure that the prospect of hunger facing migrants does not aggravate the problem posed by the pandemic.
"People should go home. That is where they will be safer,” said Khandelwal of Aajeevika.