NEW DELHI : For daily wager Ramakant Verma, the immediate challenge is not coronavirus, but finding food. Like millions of faceless people who keep India’s cities humming, Verma is now weighing plans to leave Noida, as food, water and money run short in the city, amid an unprecedented nationwide lockdown.

The 29-year-old feels that much before the pandemic gets him, he and his family may starve to death as the lockdown deprives them of work and livelihood, driving them to the streets. While the rest of India gets busy with hand-washing, masks, sanitizers, and social distancing, migrant workers and daily wagers are preparing to leave cities on foot if the situation continues.

“We will not die of corona but hunger," said Verma. “I came to Noida two years ago from Bundelkhand in search of a better life. But for the last one week, we are without work, without enough ration and whatever we had saved is almost over," said Verma, a father of two.

Agreed Ajay Kumar and Madhu, also migrant workers. While Madhu, a house help, said she is planning to return to her Meerut home since she can’t even collect salaries with societies blocking her entry, Kumar said if the government does not reach out with food and water over the next couple of days, many people in his locality will leave for their home towns. He said while borders are closed, one can still move within the state.

“Whatever the government has announced, it is for people who have a definite identity…. We don’t have ration cards nor are we registered as construction workers. But we need immediate attention. Several people have started leaving for home and we all perhaps will leave by 31 March," said Kumar from Hamirpur in Uttar Pradesh. Such a reverse migration could bring the pandemic from city to villages where healthcare facilities are grossly inadequate.

The situation is no different in Karnataka. While some who had left for home before the lockdown, are stuck there with some friends and family members still in Karnataka, tens of thousands in Bengaluru are awaiting government support.

Mohammed Ahadur, a migrant labourer in Bengaluru left for Assam at the end of February. Though he was unsure how things would play out, he continued with his plans to go back home and return when things are normal. Several of his friends and other people from the colony are not so lucky as they are now stuck without work, he added. “Things are not very different in Assam either. Everything is locked down, but at least I am home," he said from Assam over the phone adding “Police are beating up people if they step outside their homes in our colony."

Experts said that both the centre and states must move beyond mere lip service to control the situation.
Experts said that both the centre and states must move beyond mere lip service to control the situation. (Photo: Reuters)

In Pune, daily wagers and hawkers are facing a harrowing time, said Manisha Singh, a charity professional now raising funds for them. “The industrial belt of Pune has a good population of informal workers, hawkers, vendors and with the state on complete lockdown, people are facing uncertainties. The government is talking about washing hands—How is that possible when they don’t have enough drinking water? Authorities are talking about social distancing. No; it’s not happening. A 10-feet by 10-feet room is housing a four-to-five member family and the slum clusters are busy places. Is it possible to practice social-isolation at such places?" asked Singh, adding that inter-state migration will happen not because of health reasons but for survival.

Vipin Tada, superintendent of police in Amroha, a district in Uttar Pradesh almost concurred. “Currently, there is no outflow of people due to the lockdown, but a lot of people are coming here as they have lost daily wage jobs in Delhi-NCR. We have made arrangements for the people gathering at bus stands and borders. We have deployed special vehicles to transfer them to their homes. Police and doctors go in the vehicle, and if someone is found to have symptoms of coronavirus, we are isolating them so that they don’t spread the disease if they are infected," Tada claimed.

Thaneshwar Dayal Adigaur, secretary of Delhi Asangathit Nirman Mazdoor Adhikar Abhiyan, a union of unorganized construction workers, said while this is just the beginning of the 21-day lockdown, things are looking grim from here.

“So many migrant labourers in the past 2-3 days have made desperate attempts of going back to their hometowns. But now that all means of public transport have been shut, we have been witnessing how hundreds of people from cities like Delhi have begun to walk to distant places towards Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh," Adigaur said, adding that hundreds of migrant labourers are stranded on roads with very little or no access to food or night shelters and financial assistance.

“While the Union government has announced a relief package for unorganized migrant workers, the key problem here will be not everyone among them has bank accounts and even if they do, imagine those who are in transit or otherwise—how will they have access to banking services?" he questioned.

As some people infected by the coronavirus may not show any symptoms, the mass migration of people may increase the chances of community contagion, said doctors. “The movement and flocking of people for whatever reasons defeats the purpose of social distancing. However, there are little signs of community transmission in India, some of the people may be carriers of the disease. Prevention is always better than cure," said Jugal Kishore, Director at the Vardhman Mahavir Medical College and Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi.

While union health ministry feels that states are doing their part, there is not much action on the ground, migrant workers and unions said. Experts said that both the centre and states must move beyond mere lip service to control the situation.

“If the governments want these people to stay put, then they should organize some kind of support system for them in the states that these people are in. There should be an assessment of the numbers and then organize free meals and run community kitchens for them. I don’t know if this was factored into the plans when the government announced the 21-day lockdown. The government should also organize some kind of transportation. Bihar government, for example, should organize some kind of transportation—buses or special trains—for these people to go back. If the capacity is 500 in a train, then maybe have 100 people in it and run several services, to ensure people get back home," said N.C Saxena, a former rural development secretary.

Sharan Poovanna in Bengaluru, Elizabeth Roche, Gireesh Chandra Prasad and Utpal Bhaskar in New Delhi contributed to this story.

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