Just last week, India's prime minister ordered all 1.3 billion people in the world's second most populous country to stay indoors in the largest and one of the most drastic actions undertaken anywhere to mitigate COVID-19 infections. However, with many businesses shutting down in cities all across the country, this lockdown has triggered an exodus of workers as they were suddenly left with neither food nor shelter. (Related: South Asia grapples with coronavirus outbreak: India cracks down and Pakistan leaves patients in appalling conditions.)
A report from the New York Times said that thousands of migrant workers in Delhi, even entire families, were seen walking along the interstate highways. Some of these workers planned to walk hundreds of miles just to get home. However, their efforts were cut short as they were beaten back by police once they reached the Delhi border.
"You fear the disease, living on the streets. But I fear hunger more, not corona," Papu, who came to Delhi for work and was trying to return home to the state of Uttar Pradesh 125 miles away, told the New York Times.
On Sunday, Uttar Pradesh's local government managed to make arrangements to bring many of these wayward migrants home, commissioning about 1,000 buses for transport. Migrants then flocked to the outskirts of Delhi, waiting in mile-long lines to board one of the few buses making their trips. However, by Sunday afternoon, India's central government ordered all states to close their borders and for all the migrants to stay where they are.
As of writing, India has reported 1,251 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 32 deaths. While dozens of countries worldwide go under lockdown to contain their own coronavirus outbreaks, crowded places stricken with poverty like India might not benefit from such measures. Many of the country's people live in the slums and urging people to stay home and practice social distancing would only mean hunger for many Indians.
According to the New York Times, about 80 percent of India's workers are in the informal sector, meaning that they lack contracts and are unprotected by the country's various labor laws. Many of these people are manual laborers working in fields, factories and even on the streets themselves.
Ashu and his two brothers work at one of Delhi's biggest dumps as ragpickers – scavengers who scrounge for scrap metal. After a hard day's work, Ashu can, at most, earn 43 cents a day. However, ever since the lockdown, they have not been able to go back to the dump in fear of being caught and beaten by the police.
"I hear there is a virus from China going around," Ashu said. "But I’m more afraid of the police and not being able to eat."
Some of India's police force have recently resorted to violence. On Monday, March 30, Reuters reported that Indian policemen fired tear gas at a crowd of stone-pelting migrant workers who were defying the three-week lockdown enacted by the country's central government. Around 500 workers clashed with police in the city of Surat, demanding that they be allowed to return home to their provinces because they had no resources left.
"The police tried to convince them that it is not possible since buses or trains are not available…However, the workers refused to budge, and started pelting stones at police," said Vidhi Chaudhari, Surat's deputy commissioner of police.
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