NEW DELHI - Stranded in Mumbai without work and money since India imposed the world’s biggest pandemic lockdown, Poonam Singh’s spirits lifted when the government announced last week that it would lift restrictions on travel and allow migrant labor to travel back to their villages.
Forgetting his struggle for food and despondency as he was stuck in a tiny room with three others for over six weeks, Singh swung into action to figure out how to secure a passage to his village in Rajasthan.
Five days on, he is navigating a bureaucratic maze as he submits forms to police for permission to travel and scrambles to get a certificate from a doctor attesting he does not have symptoms of coronavirus.
“I don’t know whether there will be a train from Mumbai to my state. My family has borrowed money so that we can rent private transport, but I don’t know whether we will be allowed to cross state borders,” says a dispirited Singh.
The wave of relief felt by tens of thousands of migrants last week when India eased the lockdown has quickly dissipated as they struggle to figure out how to make the journey home.
The government is running special trains to ferry migrants back — more than 70 trains carried more than 80,000 migrants home until Tuesday. But the numbers of those stuck in cities are so large that thousands more are not only waiting, but also uncertain whether they will be able to clamber on to a train.
“There is so much confusion. Migrants have to register their names first with the government, but many are illiterate or do not have access to internet,” says Divya Varma of Aajeevika Bureau, a nonprofit organization that works with migrant labor in the northern Rajasthan state. “Then they have to pay for the fare, but many have no money left. Private buses have begun plying but they are charging exorbitant fares.”
An estimated 120 million migrants have made their way to cities from rural areas to supplement tiny farm incomes. Since the lockdown shuttered cities on March 25, authorities asked them to stay where they were amid worries that they could carry the dreaded infection into the vast countryside where healthcare facilities are poor.
But as construction sites and industries fell silent, many of those stuck in cities were not paid their wages and calls to employers often went unanswered. With all public transport suspended, tens of thousands walked hundreds of kilometers to their villages in an exodus that has been called the biggest in India since its partition into two countries in 1947.
Now once again, some have set out on foot to reach their villages.
Ram Krapal began trudging on Tuesday with four others from New Delhi for his home in Fatehpur about 550 kilometers away in the neighboring Uttar Pradesh state after growing disillusioned about being able to clamber on to a private bus or secure a seat on a train.
“We walked all night,” he says. Did he get tired? “What is the choice I have? I have to cope with the situation,” he says.
One southern state, Karnataka, cancelled trains scheduled to run for migrants and requested they stay behind, citing plans to restart economic activity. The move angered migrants yearning to go home.
“They should not be treated as a factor of production," said Varma, decrying the move." They deserve dignity and humanity.”
The growing frustration among migrants over not being able to return to their villages has sometimes erupted onto the streets — hundreds of workers pelted police with stones in the western city of Surat, a hub of migrant labor earlier this week. The police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. Similar protests have been witnessed in other cities.
The government says it has taken measures to assist the stranded migrants, setting up relief camps, distributing food and cash to the poor.
However not everybody could access these facilities. “I made so many calls,” says Poonam Singh, who used to make about $ 300 every month working in a workshop to polish diamonds during the five years he spent in Mumbai. “We requested the police for help, but no one came to give us food. A Good Samaritan gave me $ 50 and a kitchen close by agreed to supply us meals because we have no means to cook. We used to eat from roadside vendors.”
A controversy has also erupted over low wage earners being asked to shell out money for their train fare at a time when most are destitute — the main opposition Congress party has decried it as "inhuman" and offered to pay the fare.
The federal government however said it has subsidized the cost heavily and asked state governments to cover the rest. But many of those who have travelled on trains say they had to pay up to $ 10 for their ticket.
While India’s stringent lockdown has won praise for helping to control the spread of coronavirus, critics have slammed its handling of migrants and compared it to the government’s sensitive evacuation of Indians stranded abroad amid the pandemic.
India repatriated hundreds of its citizens in foreign countries before shutting down its airports in March. In an even bigger operation that gets underway Thursday, the government plans to repatriate about 200,000 Indians overseas by air and naval ships — it will operate 64 flights to bring back 15,000 in the first phase.
However, the migrants stranded within the country did not get the same treatment, says independent political analyst Neelanjan Mukhopadhyay. “The government on the one hand says it is committed for the last person in the line, but it has shown it is working more for those in the top of the line, not those at the bottom of the pyramid.”