Migrant workers walk along a road to return to their villages, during the nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus, in New Delhi. Picture Source: Deccan Herald
March 24, 2020? In times of a pandemic, when you’re locked inside your house preoccupied with household chores, working from home, or binging on the highly recommended web series, it is really easy to lose track of dates.
4 hours? That’s about the time you get as a migrant labourer in India to plan your next month’s survival because your country just got shut. Oh, and you also have to maintain ‘social distancing’ to prevent getting infected, reach your home hundreds of kilometres away — with all modes of transportation shut, arrange for food and hygiene with barely any income. Sounds harsh? Well, there are just at least a 100 million like you.¹
It’s been a month since a country-wide lockdown in India. What followed has been termed as “one of the biggest mass movements of people in the country since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947”². Just last week, Aadarsh Singh — a dairy business entrepreneur in Mirzapur — served water and some refreshments to a group of 15–20 individuals. They were on their walk back from Lucknow to Jharkhand — a 130 hour journey by foot. When Aadarsh asked them the reason, one of them said, “corona se mar jayenge…warna waise bhi mar jayenge” [if not from corona, we will die anyway]. In another case, 50 workers came back quarantined together, hiding in a single truck. The lucky ones are able to sneak their way back in small pickup trucks with milk containers or in larger trucks with ‘passes’.
The extent of mass movement is not the only sight of India from 1947. Communal hatred reached historic levels in the past few months courtesy Indian media and the porous flow of propaganda on social media, especially WhatsApp³. The fear is compounded for some by the ‘Communal-20′ virus. “Corona nahi hamein yahan musalmaan hone se maardenge — ab marna hi hai toh apne ghar jaakaar marein” [even if we protect ourselves from Covid-19, we might die because of being a Muslim (with what we’re hearing) and if we have to die, we might as well go back home to die], said a Bengali Muslim migrant labourer working in the National Capital Region.
The internet is awash with stories of the hunger of daily wage labourers in cities and despite surplus of foodgrain stocks, the shock to rural India’s agriculture supply chain and micro enterprises is real. ILO estimated that nearly 400 million Indians, including migrant workers and daily wage earners, are at risk of being pushed deeper into poverty because of the pandemic. India has already gone more than “21 years” behind — only time will tell us how far.
Meanwhile, some states like Madhya Pradesh are now trying to bring back ‘their’ labourers nearly a month after the lockdown⁴, and the Centre is trying to reassure the Supreme Court that “there is no necessity for migration of workers to shift from place of their occupation to the place of their residence and rush back to their villages.” According to the statistics by the Ministry of Home Affairs, states, UTs and employers have arranged for relief for around 3 million individuals⁵ (of the 100+ million who would be in need).
In China, migrant workers were transported back home to ensure the lockdown. Although its lockdown started around the same time as India, Bangladesh explicitly allowed a window of 5 days for migrant workers to move back to their villages.⁶ No one can be expected to foresee every outcome in a crisis, but there appears to have been a considerable failure — whether on the part of a single government or collectively, is a matter for debate. For those who are developing strategies for “after the lockdown is lifted” and “once we return to normalcy”, it may be worth taking out a few minutes to read reports by Jan Sahas, Stranded Workers Action Network, & start following journalists on ground and question, are we doing enough?
On India’s highways, its migrant labourers are leaving their bodies as they leave urban cities⁷. They’re all reaching ‘“home” — some perhaps not the one they expected to.
 Aajeevika: ~120 million. Covid-19 Through a Migration Lens, World Bank: 100+ million
 In Pictures: The long road home for India’s migrant workers, Al Jazeera — Apr 22, 2020
 In India, Coronavirus Fans Religious Hatred, New York Times — April 12, 2020
 MP prepares to bring back labourers stranded in other states, News18 — Apr 24, 2020
 No Need for Migrants to Go Back to Hometown, Centre Tells SC, News18 — April 27, 2020
 Not China, not Italy: India’s coronavirus lockdown is the harshest in the world, Scroll — March 29, 2020
 22 Migrant Workers, Kin Have Died Trying to Return Home Since the Lockdown Started, The Wire — 20 March, 2020
The views expressed in the article are those of the author’s and not necessarily those of Development Alternatives.
This blog first appeared as an editorial in Development Alternatives Newsletter April, 2020