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ERNAKULAM: A deserted street in Kerala’s Kottayam district was abuzz with activity on Sunday as hundreds of migrant workers gathered here seeking to return to their hometown amid the nationwide lockdown.

The crowd, which started gathering since Sunday morning triggering fears of infecting or exposing others, has now dispersed. This is Kerala's biggest violation so far of the nationwide lockdown. With a tally of 165, Kerala has one of the highest number of coronavirus patients in India.

The migrants hit the streets at Paippad panchayat in Kottayam, where official estimates say some 4,000-5,000 migrants currently reside, against about 12,000 before the lockdown.

A local news channel said the superintendent of police in the region, G Jayadev, and district collector PK Sudheer Babu, pleaded with the crowd not to gather in the area.

“We will ensure you have roti, north Indian food, anything that you need. I’ll personally ensure this. Please don’t crowd like this, it is a huge risk," said Jayadev. One of the migrants insisted, “We have to go home."

"None of them say they have a food shortage. They are demanding to return home, which is practically impossible. Both the state and the central directive is to stay wherever you are. They have heard that some northern states like Uttar Pradesh have made arrangements for migrants to return home, which has made them think that they can also return home," said the collector.

The Kerala government in a Facebook post said an officer of the rank of principal secretary will be tasked to coordinate efforts to ease tension among the migrant population. The state has opened 4,603 relief camps on Friday that have housed 1,44,145 migrant labourers.

The collector said he had been keeping a vigil in the locality for the past few days and the food offered to the workers was turned down on account of culinary differences. "We will ensure they are given groceries so that they can cook on their own as per their needs," he said.

The state’s tourism minister Kadakampally Surendran told local channels that attempts will be made to arrange for special trains or buses after consulting with the concerned authorities.

Kerala has an estimated 2.5 million migrant population, slightly less than 10% of its total population. They mostly come from northern states. One out of every four adult males between 20 and 64 in Kerala is likely an inter-state migrant, according to a 2013 study by the state’s labour department.

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