Locked down India’s worrying mass exodus

Locked down India’s worrying mass exodus

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In locked down India, with no way to earn a living and all public transport suspended, an estimated 120 million migrants have been left stranded. 

These workers, who had left their homes for a better livelihood working as construction labourers, casual labourers, factory workers, vegetable vendors and rickshaw pullers, work in daytime and purchase daily-use items from the money earned.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday announced a 21-day lockdown to contain the virus spread that has infected over 598,236 people around the world and killed upwards of 27,000. In India, the death toll has risen to 20 and infected more than 900 others as of Saturday evening.

Since the past week, with no source of income to support themselves or their families and in the absence of any assurance on wages, shelter or food, thousands of daily wage earners, many of whom migrant workers from Bihar and UP,  hit the road fearing death from starvation. 

They were left with no choice but to undertake long journeys across the country to their homes on foot.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s  announcement on Thursday of relief measures for three months also triggered fear among migrant workers that the lockdown may get extended, and thus scores of them started leaving Delhi-NCR on Friday.

But the worrying part about this mass exodus from cities to villages is that these migrant returnees may have already unwittingly carried the coronavirus into India’s vast rural swathes.

India’s rural areas are not just unaware but also unprepared and under-equipped to deal with the criticality of the coronavirus. 

And considering these migrant workers are travelling in clusters, all of them could be potentially infected from virus carriers among them by the time they reach their villages. Then the whole purpose of the Government’s 21-day lockdown, to break the transmission cycle of the virus, would get defeated. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked people to stay where they were, but it is clearly not an option for migrant workers, with no jobs, no money,  no savings, no shelter and no food.  

On Day 3 of the lockdown, the home ministry asked the state governments and Union Territory administrations to provide food and shelter to the migrant workers so that they remain at the place where they are. 

Evidently, their movement will render India’s lockdown useless.

Meanwhile, the government has exempted farming operations, farm workers, custom hiring centres of farm harvesters and implements as well as mandis and procurement agencies from the lockdown rules since the nationwide lockdown has triggered labour shortage in many areas, impacting the harvest and marketing of rabi crops. 

To ensure all remain safe in the farming sector, the government’s agri-research body  Indian Council of Agricultural Research on Saturday asked farmers to follow social distancing and safety precaution while handling farm machines and labour in the field.

The government has taken several steps in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but lockdown challenges – from ensuring that essential groceries and medicine reach people, to encouraging social distancing, finding ways to stop mass exodus of migrant workers, to helping the poor through a time of wage disruptions – are serious. 

But, large-scale quarantines  — like what we saw in Wuhan and its surrounding area  — have proven effective in containing the virus, but the size of India’s  population makes it the ultimate lockdown test.