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Starving migrants head back to villages as unrest grows in India amid lockdown

Migrants heading home in India
Migrants heading home in India © RFI/Murali Krishnan

With the spread of Covid19 and the still continuing lockdown, a large number of migrant workers and daily wagers in India have been left in the lurch without even the basics.


Food is scare and hunger is a constant companion as tens of thousands of the migrant workforce, who have seen their incomes collapse, head back to their villages across the country from urban centers.

An unfolding tragedy

In their desperation to reach home as the lockdown entered its fourth phase on Monday, unrest and has spread in metropolitan cities with scuffles breaking out as migrants scurry to board bus and train services.

Losing patience, many with their families and meager belongings are walking hundreds of kilometers braving inclement weather and hunger.

“It is one of the biggest-ever exodus of people in recent times. Poor laborers are dying from dehydration. They have been killed in road accidents. Kids are suffering from heat and humidity. And almost all of them are battling hunger and have been left penniless,” Pradeep Kumar,  a trade unionist told RFI.

Many blame the lack of in-depth planning while strategising implementation of lockdown as the main reason behind a large-scale reverse migration of laborers.

“COVID-19 has exposed the condition of the country’s labor force. More than 100 million workers have reportedly lost employment,” said Nitin Sinha, a labor law expert.

What’s of greater concern is that the total workforce of India, around 90-92 per cent (about 450 million) is informal, which means they work without social and employment security.

Frustrated migrants who are unable to reach home are venting their ire at the authorities. Demanding immediate travel arrangements, migrant workers on Sunday hurled stones at the police and damaged vehicles on a national highway near Rajkot in western Gujarat.

For some migrant laborers walking back home on foot day after day on unforgiving roads, painkillers have become an inseparable part of their lives in transit. The medicines help them bear the pain of cuts, blisters and swellings, offering temporary relief to keep them on their feet for a few hours more.

Accidents and weather

“This is unlike any other disaster. It's not limited to one area or time frame, and for millions of people, apart from the health crisis, it's also a fight for survival,” Anshu Gupta of NGO, Goonj, told RFI. His organization has been undertaking disaster relief and humanitarian aid for struggling daily wagers.

According to various estimates the lockdown has caused more than 300 deaths of migrants returning home that includes road accidents, denial of medical care, exhaustion, police excesses and even suicide.

The worst road accident occurred on Saturday when 25 migrant workers were killed and several injured when a trailer truck they were travelling in rammed into a supply lorry near Auraiya in northern Uttar Pradesh.

Last month, a 12-year-old girl, Jamlo Makdam died while taking a 150-kilometre trip on foot from a village in southern state of Telangana to her native Bijapur district in central Chhattisgarh. She died of exhaustion after the three day trudge.

When the lockdown was announced on March 24, it was estimated that around 10 million migrants were stranded across the country and housed at various shelters and food camps being run by the government, NGOs or their employers.

Authorities are now evacuating people along the eastern coast ahead of a super cyclonic storm in the Bay of Bengal on Wednesday. The cyclone comes when there is a spike migration in the eastern states of West Bengal and Odisha which are seeing a larger number of them return home.


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