India’s migrants flee to their villages as covid-19 prompts new lockdown4 min read . Updated: 14 Apr 2021, 07:00 PM IST
- Trains are packed with workers leaving cities as the country records more than 150,000 cases a day
As Covid-19 roars back in India, migrant workers who had just started to resettle in the cities they left during last year’s outbreak are packing up to return to their villages again.
Mumbai and its state of Maharashtra are at the center of the fastest-growing outbreak in the world, with more than 150,000 new cases a day across India. The western state has imposed nighttime curfews and shut down malls, eateries, bars and places of worship.
A complete lockdown, with most people required to stay at home, could be coming soon, said Rajesh Tope, the health minister for the state.
The trains going to the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the biggest sources of migrant workers, have been leaving Mumbai packed without even much room to stand, said Sanjay Kumar, a security guard of the Railway Protection Force who is in charge of crowd management.
“There’s been a huge rush," he said. “People are trying to get out because they’re worried the government will stop the trains again."
Lalit Singh, who works in a factory cutting tiles, got stuck in Mumbai for months with no work in a tiny apartment during the national lockdown that started in March last year. Expecting another one soon, he and his wife have packed up and boarded a train with their 5-year-old son to make the more than 20-hour journey home to his village in the Himalayan foothills in the state of Uttarakhand.
Following a three-month lockdown in Mumbai last year, he went home to his village for seven months. After India’s infection rates plunged and business seemed to be returning to normal, his former boss sent him a train ticket in January to return. He needed the money, so he came back. Now the virus has rebounded, his job has disappeared and he is going home again.
“We are sitting empty-handed again. There is no work," he said. “We don’t want to go through that misery we experienced last year again so we decided it’s better to leave now."
Workers and policy makers are trying to avoid the messy mass migration of 2020, when the sudden announcement of nationwide lockdown gave people hours to react and left millions of workers from villages stranded in the cities.
Migrant workers are critical to India’s economy. Laborers travel from poor villages with few employment opportunities to work in construction and services in the cities. They are employed as cooks, cleaners and household workers. The money they send home—often the bulk of their family’s income back in their village—has helped raise much of the country out of extreme poverty.
When India declared a lockdown in March last year, the vast majority migrant workers who are paid by the day lost their jobs within hours. Many found themselves confined by the thousands in private or government-run facilities with just a few shared toilets and little food.
The scenes of the thousands who set out on foot—often walking hundreds of miles to get home as all trains and buses were stopped—is one of the most enduring images of India’s first attempt to hold back the pandemic.
Even as daily infections are rising higher and faster than they did in the initial waves last year, New Delhi and state officials are broadcasting that the lockdowns won’t be as tight or sudden this time.
Anticipating that the latest wave of migration could lead to shortages of workers at factories, state authorities have tried to quell panic by saying they don’t plan to shut down industries, as happened last year. The state said it would provide ways for people to get to work, even if public transportation is largely shut down.
“Workers should have no doubt that the factories and industries in their respective areas will continue to operate regularly," said Maharashtra’s labor minister, Hasan Mushrif.
When the nationwide lockdown happened early last year, it was the largest in the world and one of the most stringent. Early in the pandemic, India, like other countries, wasn’t sure what it was dealing with, how deadly Covid-19 could be or how to help people who got it. In the quarter of the lockdown, India’s gross domestic product contracted more than 20%, making it the worst-hit major economy for that period.
New Delhi is now more confident that it has a better understanding of the virus. Economists say it won’t risk strangling growth again. The country has already vaccinated more than 100 million of its population of nearly 1.4 billion.
Still, India’s massive population of migrant workers seems to have been largely abandoned again, said Praveen Rai, a political analyst at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, a New Delhi-based think tank. Mr. Rai said the government should have been more prepared to make cash transfers to the migrant workers.
“None of the states or central government has taken any concrete steps for them," she said. “The situation is grim."
Alisha Ekka, a migrant worker and maid from the eastern state of Jharkhand, returned to Mumbai in December after months in her village. She needs money to help pay for her grandmother’s medical bills but couldn’t make enough in her village. Now she is headed back with little to show for her return to the city.
“I want to get home to be with my family again before I’m left with no option to go back," she said.
Like a lot of migrant workers, Mr. Singh, the tile factory worker, has decided to give up on his dream of making it in Mumbai. Even if the pandemic goes away, he says he won’t return. He would rather do odd jobs and work in other people’s fields for less than $2 a day than deal with the fear and failure he has had to experience this last year.
“What’s the point in coming back," he asked. “You will never know what is coming next."
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.
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