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Panic and confusion as India's migrant workers head home

Ignoring a national Covid-19 lockdown and fearing starvation, jobless people are deserting cities

Panic and confusion as India's migrant workers head home

Thousands of migrant workers crowd into Anand Vihar Bus Terminal in East Delhi to board buses to their states and villages at the weekend. The coronavirus lockdown has sparked a mass exodus from India's cities. (Photo supplied)

India's effort to contain the coronavirus pandemic is in disarray after thousands of migrant workers fearing starvation started flouting lockdown rules to head to their home states.

Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi said the sudden national lockdown announced by the central government has created immense panic and confusion.

In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 29, he highlighted the plight of the poor and called for steps other than the lockdowns announced by India and some developed nations to tackle the deadly disease.

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"It is critical for us to understand that India's conditions are unique. We will be required to take different steps from other large countries who are following a total lockdown strategy," Gandhi wrote.

"The number of poor people who are dependent on a daily income is simply too large for us to unilaterally shut down all economic activity. We must immediately strengthen the social safety net and use every public resource we have to support and shelter the working poor."

In his address to the nation on March 24, Modi asked India’s 1.37 billion people to stay inside their homes for the next 21 days to try to beat the virus, triggering a mass exodus from cities to rural areas.

On March 28, the federal government advised state governments to stop the departure of migrant workers by providing them with accommodation and relief camps. States were directed to use disaster relief funds for the purpose.

Some migrant workers, particularly in capital New Delhi, are even walking hundreds of miles to their home states after transport services were stopped.

On March 28, the state government of Uttar Pradesh sent nearly 200 buses to Delhi to return migrant workers to their home state. The government also sent medical teams to screen bus passengers at bus stops. However, there weren't enough buses for all who wanted to board.

The Archdiocese of Ranchi has appealed to churches in the country to help migrant workers from Jharkhand state stranded in other states.

“These are difficult times and even as we live in lockdown and make every attempt to keep ourselves safe, thousands of migrants are stuck where they are, not knowing where to go, or have hit the road with their families and children without transport, monetary means or alimentary provisions,” said the appeal signed on March 28 by Archbishop Felix Toppo of Ranchi and Auxiliary Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas.

“We write to you as pastors from Jharkhand whose people have been serving often in very humble but faithful ways throughout our country. Many of the stranded migrants who are in trouble are from Jharkhand.”

They suggested that local churches should lobby state governments and local administrations to identify and help these poor people and added that if these people become exposed to coronavirus, the rest of the country will be even more vulnerable.

They said churches can advise people to treat all migrants, irrespective of religion, language or group, with care and concern.

Jharkhand has some nine million tribal people who form 26 percent of the state’s population of 33 million. About 1.5 million people in the state are Christians, at least half of them Catholics.

The reasons for the exodus from cities are the fear of coronavirus and the loss of jobs in the informal sector. Migrant workers cannot feed their families, pay their rents or survive in cities due to the lockdown hitting jobs in construction, manufacturing, restaurants, travel and domestic help.

The introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1991 of Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization accelerated migration in India.

A development model centered on mega cities, neglect of the countryside, the burial of issues of social equity and social justice, and the widening gap between rich and poor led to large-scale distress migration.

It precipitated an agrarian crisis characterized by the failure of agricultural activities, indebtedness and farmer suicides.

These features have resulted in marginal peasants abandoning agriculture, landless workers remaining unemployed and an exodus of these people to other parts of the country for survival.

The vast growth of informal sectors resulted in rapid migration from rural to urban areas. The number of internal migrants as per the census of 2011 was nearly 450 million.

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