Ramesh and Savita, a couple who migrated to the bustling Indian city of Bengaluru two years back from a small village 300 kms away dreamt of a better life. This migration for them was the only way to escape from the clutches of extreme poverty back in the village. Things were going good. Ramesh worked as a painter in commercial and residential buildings and Savita worked as a domestic help. They made between $500-750 per month and were planning to start a family soon. And then corona happened and their lives turned upside down. India declared a lockdown to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Ramesh could not find new work and Savita cannot work as most of the residential complexes have banned the entry of support staff. With limited savings and no source of income, the couple is struggling with high cost of living. With no clarity on what’s going to happen next, the couple decided to leave for their village. Now the problem is with virtually no public transportation available, the couple started walking back to their village which may sound foolish, but clearly highlights the desperation and helplessness of the migrant population.
Similar is the story of Ajit who hails from the Indian state of Rajasthan and works in the national capital Delhi as a waiter. He is the sole earning member of the family and what’s worse is he has three children to look after with his limited income. Now, with the lockdown and all economic activity coming to a halt, Ajit doesn’t even know whether he will be able to pay the current month’s rent. Desperate and helpless, Ajit decided to return back to his village and reached Anand Vihar Terminal, one of the largest bus terminal in the capital New Delhi. As per reports, thousands of migrant workers gathered here after the lockdown was announced in an attempt to return to their home towns and villages. Though the government claims that arrangements have been made for them, these people complain that help never reached them when they needed it the most.
Video Source – Republic TV
The three-week lockdown in India that started from 25th March 2020 has had the worst impact on the jobless and homeless migrant population of India; their lives have turned upside down as they struggle to make their end meet in these unprecedented times. Out of the 1.3 billion population of India, approximately 2 million people are homeless, and many of them work as daily wagers. According to an estimate given by NITI Aayog, 85% of the workers are employed by India’s informal sector, which is a significant concern, especially at the time of such a crisis.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, this was a pre-emptive step taken by the government of putting the whole country under a lockdown. This means that most of the factories, construction sites, and other establishments except a few essential services have been closed. Thousands of migrant workers fearing that they will not get food and shelter wanted to go back to their villages. However, this large-scale migration increases the chances of a wide community spread of the virus.
COVID-19 Pandemic – Jobless and homeless and miles to go home
With no public transport, no trains, and all domestic flights being halted, the migrant workers were left with no option but to walk hundreds of kilometers to their villages. The capital city, New Delhi, has seen the major exodus where the homeless and jobless people thronged on the roads to walk back to their villages. This has defeated the whole purpose of lockdown.
The COVID-19 pandemic has spawned this new crisis in India, with migrant workers across the country walking on highways and railway tracks determined to reach their villages and hometowns. Keeping the situation in mind, several state governments have announced cash handouts and basic food grains to all the jobless and homeless, however, the logistics of delivering the aid still remains a concern.
The narratives that are emerging across the country indicate that there is large-scale distress among this section of the population since private contractors employ most of them. A nationwide lockdown means that they have lost their sources of livelihood.
How are authorities tackling the situation?
To control this colossal migration, state governments, along with police and administration, are working on the front-line. In Delhi, the state government has opened up government schools and created many temporary shelters for such people. However, the sentiment still remains strong that they want to go ‘home’. The Delhi government arranged for various buses to transport these workers to their villages. However, those who will reach home will still have to bear the stigma from their community that they might be the carriers of the virus.
The gut-wrenching scenes of families walking down hundreds of kilometers with little children without food and water have made many NGO’s, charity organizations and even individuals to open up their heart and provide these people with food packets and water.
This novel coronavirus or COVID-19 as it is called is a highly contagious disease, and if even one of the migrant worker carries this infection and reaches his/her village will infect the whole community. This would further spark a widespread outbreak in the country. To avoid this disaster, the Central Government ordered sealing of all state and district borders and a mandatory 14-day quarantine for violators.
The state governments have also made persuasive appeals to stay put and ensured that they would not face any problem in getting food and necessary facilities. In the Southern state of Kerala, the state government had to deploy police and administrative officers to calm the agitated migrant workers who came out on the streets demanding transportation to travel to their native places.
The Haryana State Government claims to have provided 800 sanitized state roadways buses to the state of Uttar Pradesh to bring back migrant workers who are stranded at the Delhi-Ghaziabad border. Many state governments have also made appeals to various industries and commercial establishments not to deduct wages or terminate these workers.
The effect of COVID-19 will be long-lasting on the jobless and homeless people of India
Although the government is taking steps to keep a check on the spread of the virus, India, at the time of writing this article, has over 5000 cases. If the infection spreads to the community and villages, it will be a catastrophe.
Whether the industries, construction sites, and commercial establishments will re-open in full-swing or not after this 21-day lockdown remains a question. Will the lockdown be extended? What will happen when there will be an influx of migrant workers back to the cities? Will there be another wave of this virus?
All these questions remain unanswered as of now. It is a wait-and-watch game for a developing country like India.
The jobless and homeless will have to face the maximum brunt of this pandemic due to uncertainties which this virus has brought about today.