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India moves migrants to villages amid crisis

Govt initially rejected transport to migrants on grounds it could spread Covid-19 from cities to villages

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Updated: May 03, 2020 04:28 AM GMT
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India moves migrants to villages amid crisis

Migrant workers greet Kerala state officials at Aluva railway station in Kochi as they sit on a train taking them to their home state of Odisha on May 1. (Photo: Arun Chandrabose/AFP)

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Federal and state governments in India are together providing relief to thousands of migrant workers stranded after the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown began some 40 days ago.

Trains and buses have begun services from central and southern areas to the poorer eastern states of Bihar and Jharkhand, the home states of many migrant workers who work in big cities such as Mumbai, Delhi and Hyderabad.

Several train services also started on May 1 from different parts of Kerala. The southern state houses some 2.5 million migrant workers from all across India, mostly from the eastern states of Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha.

The federal government approved non-stop trains from the states of Telangana, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Punjab to the eastern states following appeals from state governments to ferry migrants back to their villages to avoid a crisis.

With most construction sites, restaurants and factories closed, daily wage workers have become jobless and hungry following the Covid-19 lockdown that began on March 25. Several cities have seen migrants demonstrating on the streets to demand travel services to move back to their villages.

At least two people died of exhaustion on the road after hundreds began walking thousands of kilometers to their homes as the government initially rejected transport on grounds that such movement could spread the virus from cities to their villages, spelling a catastrophe.

An estimated 30 percent of Indians, or about 400 million, are internal migrants. The government has no record of them as workers and no system to ensure their welfare.

The current effort, officials said, is planned amid growing demands from states and migrants. State officials and the government are also collaborating to test and ensure that travelers do not have symptoms of Covid-19.

"On the occasion of Labour Day on May 1, the Ministry of Home Affairs has decided to run shramik [labor] trains to transport migrant workers, tourists and students stranded across the country," said federal Junior Home Minister G. Kishan Reddy.

He said passengers are brought to railway stations in government-run sanitized buses following social distancing norms. The host states also provide them with food and drinking water at the stations.

However, some sociologists are wondering what will happen to these migrant workers when they return to their villages in the development-starved region.

A group of migrants from Odisha have called on the state and the federal governments to provide financial help in small towns such as Kandhamal, Kendrapara, Ganjam and Keonjhar.

"Odisha's own economic condition is not good. Now we are returning to these villages where thousands are already struggling for food. Going back home is survival, but there are no plans to ensure our income," said Jatin Mahapatra, who worked in a real estate firm in Delhi and is preparing to go home to Odisha.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's sudden announcement of a lockdown created a crisis in businesses, job markets and industries across India. Many migrant laborers complain Modi ignored them because they are a scattered group who form no voting bloc.

Informal workers are the backbone of the urban economy by cooking food, serving in restaurants, toiling in the construction sector, plumbing toilets, and delivering newspapers and groceries.

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