For Workers Fleeing Indian Cities On Foot, Covid-19 Is The Least Of Their Worries
Arjun Singh, 35, has been trudging along the highway leading out of Delhi with his two children and wife for the past 14 hours. It’s 11 a.m. on Saturday and the entourage, after covering around 40 km under blistering summer heat, has halted under a tree near sector 37 in Noida. They’re hoping that a public transport bus would stop by and take them to their hometown – Mainpuri in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, more than 300 kilometres away.
“It isn’t easy to walk when you have two small kids,” Singh, who worked as an autorickshaw driver in Delhi’s satellite town of Dwarka, told BloombergQuint. His kids and wife are seated beside their only belonging—a large suitcase. “We tried to take buses or other forms of transport, but none stopped. Some rickshaw pullers were good enough to offer rides in between,” he said, adding that he’d stay put as he’s heard that some buses have started operating. “If not, we will continue to walk till we find something.”
Singh is among the hundreds of thousands of India’s labour force that’s fleeing its largest cities ever since a 21-day lockdown was imposed in the country of 1.3 billion to curb the outspread of the novel coronavirus that’s already infected more than 918 people and claimed the lives of 25. Workplaces, excluding essential services, have shut as have all forms of transport, including planes, trains, taxis and interstate buses. And it’s the unorganised sector—comprising nearly 90 percent of India’s workforce, including labourers, daily-wage earners and other workers—that has borne the brunt of the lockdown.
Jaivir Singh, 35, a construction worker from Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, is in a similar quandary. He had started his 170-km-long journey from Delhi at 5 a.m. on Saturday and has been joined by five other people along the highway who were headed in that direction. “There’s no work now, I was running out of rations and water,” Singh said, as he wiped his face. “I had to vacate my rented flat as well as my rental dues were mounting.”
“Earlier I used to send money home. I don’t know how will I sustain my family. I’ll have to figure out something to make ends meet,” Singh said. “Coronavirus or whatever it is that they’re talking about now, is the least of my worries right now.”
To be sure, the government announced last week a relief package comprising various measures worth $22.6 billion to ease the economic impact of the pandemic on 80 crore poor people. The plan, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said, will include cash transfers as well as steps on food security, benefiting migrant workers. Previously, Minister of State for Labour and Employment Santosh Kumar Gangwar had advised all states and union territories to transfer adequate funds to registered construction workers through direct benefit transfers.
Singh, however, isn’t aware of any government scheme nor is he convinced. The contractor whom I work for said he can’t pay me anything as his hands are also tied. “I’ve been told there might be no work for few months, leave aside any money coming,” he said. “How will they get to know about me, I don’t have any documents? Who gives you documents?”
Sensing the situation, volunteers have come to the aid of these people by setting up foodstalls. The Sarvajanik Seva Samiti, for instance, has set up stalls to provide water and biscuits. “We have provided water and biscuits to about 2,000 people in the last five hours,” said Sandeep, a member of the Samiti. “We have set up a few camps across Noida.”
Directive To States
Following the mass-movement of workers from major cities, the Government of India has ordered state governments and union territory administrations to provide the people with food and shelter. “Migrant people who have moved out to reach their home states/home towns must be kept in the nearest quarantine facility after proper screening for a minimum period of 14 days as per proper protocol,” the order, which was issued Sunday, said.
All employers in the industry or commercial establishments, it said, shall pay salaries during the lockdown period.
States have been asked to set up temporary camps along the highways so that workers already on the move can be accommodated, Punya Salila, joint secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs, said during a daily briefing on Saturday.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal also urged workers to stay put, assuring that the state will make all necessary arrangements for their safe stay.
But the appeals don’t seem to be working as the exodus of people is continuing unabated. The Indian Express newspaper reported that more than 300 migrants were recently found crammed into trucks to escape big cities. On Saturday, scores of workers gathered at Anand Vihar Bus terminal to travel back home.
“The cities are deserted, and my family needs me in Bihar,” Sunil Kumar, who works as labourer and operates a small autorickshaw to transport goods, said. “Why would I stay in a shelter home if I have a home and a family that’s expecting me?”
Ismail, who works at a pantry in an IT firm in Delhi, is heading to the Anand Vihar bus terminal, hoping to board a bus to Lucknow along with his new-born child and wife. “Earlier they said shutdown of offices will be till March 30, now it’s been extended till April 15. Who knows when all this end?”
“I didn’t want to take chances. I want to go back home and stay with my family,” he said. “If something happens to me, there will be someone to take care of. But what if the virus hit us?”