New Delhi: Casual labourers and their families poured out of metro cities across the nation for the third day on Monday, prompting at least the Delhi government to offer wages and rent-free accommodation to plug the spread of the new coronavirus.
The unprecedented movement of the poor in the wake of a three-week national lockdown continued undeterred by the sealing of state borders. But the misery of their often hundreds of kilometres long trudge to their home towns and villages was eased by authorities who erected makeshift shelters.
In the national capital, police surveilled the moving mass by drones, and officers on patrol said they were trying to persuade migrants to remain in one place.
“We are trying to educate people to the best extent possible. We are trying to create an awareness about how the government has made provisions for their food, their stay and how their rent will be waived and the government will make up for the loss of wages as well," said a senior Delhi Police official.
Teams of Delhi Police have been talking to migrants heading for the border areas about “how they could put themselves at greater risk and infect people in their villages and families as well".
The movement, which began on Saturday, catching authorities off-guard, continued in spite of incidents of excesses. A group of men and women, having made their way to Uttar Pradesh from Delhi after walking through Sunday and Monday, were sprayed with a disinfectant in Bareilly, causing outrage.
Authorities in the town carried out a “cleansing drive" on the group as they waited at a bus stop. According to government officials, the group was sprayed with a diluted mixture of sodium hypochlorite which is commonly used in laundry bleaching.
“This was done by overzealous employees either due to fear of the virus or to prevent it from spreading. The district magistrate has reprimanded them," said Lav Agarwal, joint secretary, Union health ministry.
Meanwhile, taking cognizance of a central government order on Sunday for states to take action, the Aam Aadmi Party government of Delhi set up shelters across the city to accommodate migrants who want to leave.
While Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on Sunday appealed to migrants to not leave the city, his administration made provisions for feeding and lodging people in existing night shelters, and converted over 300 government schools into shelters.
The Union government, in the meantime, told landlords across the country to waive rent for the period of the lockdown. Addressing a briefing, Kejriwal said, “after a month if they were unable to pay rent, the Delhi government would come up with a scheme to ensure that landlords get the rent due to them."
On Monday afternoon, police officials clashed with migrant labourers who were on the move in Maharashtra’s Surat district. In Kerala’s Kottayam district, local police registered cases against 2,000 migrants, following a large-scale protest by migrant workers.
In Hyderabad, Rachakonda police commissioner Mahesh Bhagwat said, “We are supporting around 3,000 people from Odisha, West Bengal and other areas. They are present in the same areas where they were staying."
Pretika Khanna and Neetu Chandra Sharma from Delhi, Sharan Poovanna from Bengaluru, Nidheesh M.K. from Ernakulam and Yunus Lasania from Hyderabad contributed to this story.