The long march to uncertainty
Blamed for leaving their homes in defiance of the lockdown, hungry, and cash-strapped, migrants struggle in packed shelters, while those who managed to reach their native places face hostility.
- Visuals of hundreds of workers wearing gamchas, carrying heavy backpacks and wailing children, and walking on national highways, boarding tractors, and jostling for space atop multi-coloured buses became defining images for days to come in India.
- To fight the novel coronavirus, States began imposing restrictions on the movement of people. Then the Prime Minister announced a nationwide 21-day lockdown.
- This tough measure was met with fear, anger and frustration in many parts of the country, including Mumbai.
No transport, no jobs, no food
- In its own capacity to contain the spread of COVID-19, the Maharashtra government put in place a series of restrictions in the days leading up to the March 24 nationwide lockdown.
- On March 20, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray imposed a lockdown in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad and Nagpur until March 31.
- Suddenly, in just a few hours, lakhs of migrant workers living in the city found themselves without work.
- To make matters worse, there was little or no guarantee that they would get basic amenities such as food and water.
- This forced thousands of migrant labourers to flock to the city’s major train termini — the Lokmanya Tilak Terminus and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus — as well as train and bus terminals in other cities.
- City-based civic organisations were flooded with distress calls from workers across the city, who were in dire need of food.
- According to the 2011 Census, Maharashtra has the highest number of migrants in the country (2.3 million).
- But activists say that the Census fails to capture seasonal migration that occurs for around four to five months.
- The lockdown has also exposed the lack of a safety net for migrant workers. For instance, many construction workers found that they were not eligible to receive funds under the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Fund.
A trickle and then a deluge
- The Indian Railways announced that all passenger trains would be suspended, there was a trickle of migrant workers — most of them daily wage earners who no longer had the means to sustain themselves and the family members accompanying them.
- While a majority of the migrants were seen boarding buses already overflowing with passengers, hoping against hope to reach their homes hundreds of kilometres away, others, sources in the government said, had walked endlessly on highways linking States before the borders were sealed.
- They walked along the banks of the Yamuna river, through the wilderness of U.P., and through unused railway tunnels before being told that the borders were shut.
- On March 28 morning, a Saturday, Zero Point on the Yamuna Expressway was packed with migrant workers who chose to put their urge to reach home above the need to practise social distancing lest they contract SARS-CoV-2.
- They were there as the district administration had announced that 200 State-run buses had been arranged to ferry commuters to various locations in the rural parts of U.P. every two hours from the area.
- Bound mainly to Agra, Aligarh and Lucknow, migrant workers and their families thronged to the location to try their luck at boarding any vehicle, en route home, till midnight.
- U.P. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath instructed officials to prepare a list of migrants who had started moving into the State last week. He said they must be identified, medically inspected and put under home quarantine if they were suspected of having the virus.
- As efforts to control the pandemic continue, U.P. has witnessed a sharp rise in figures over the past week, coinciding with the entry of migrants and the revelation of the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi.
- Meanwhile, in Mumbai, apart from the pandemic and the economic situation it is a bleak future that worries people.
- For the construction workers of Mumbai, the peak season consists of the months of March, April and May as construction activity stops once monsoon starts to set in.