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The coronavirus lockdown sends migrant workers on a long and risky return journey. New


Under confinement, the wealthy Indians isolate themselves inside, work from home and have their groceries delivered.

But outside their windows, it’s a different story: poor workers crowd the streets, hungry and homeless.

In a video posted on Twitter, a woman calls a crowd of people who gather under her window. They cry out to him desperately: “There are 400 of us here without food. We need help. There are many children. “

Empty of most vehicles, Indian highways are lined with scruffy and poor pedestrians, many of which carry all their belongings in bundles on the top of their heads. Some baby cradles in their arms.

“I just want to go home,” a man sobs to an Indian television reporter. He says he is trying to walk from the capital New Delhi, where he worked, to his home in the eastern state of Bihar at least 600 miles away.

Although the toll of coronaviruses in India seems low, the government reports around 1,200 active cases and 35 deaths in a country of 1.3 billion people. Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed one of the strictest and most important bans in the world, ordering all residents to stay in their 21 days from March 25, with a few exceptions for essential workers in stores power or law enforcement.

The foreclosure has left tens of millions of migrant workers unemployed. They often come from rural areas but live most of the year in Indian mega-cities, serving as day laborers, construction workers or domestic help.

Most are believed to have no savings. Many lived in factory dormitories, now closed, and were stranded when the government cut bus and train service last week. They are vulnerable to starvation and infections.

Advocates for the poor say that, even though they support locking to save lives, the way it has been implemented with seemingly little advice for the poorest of the poor in India may mean that locking in itself puts endangered more lives than coronavirus.

“The persistence of the poor in India is very, very short. People like casual workers, rickshaw pullers and migrant workers live mostly hand to mouth in the best of times, “Jean Dreze, an Indian economist of Belgian origin, told NPR a telephone interview from its base in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand. . “Now overnight they are told they have to spend 21 days inside their homes?” Naturally, many of them already lack food. “

Activists across the country have sent videos of the plight to New Delhi food rights activist Anjali Bhardwaj who posted them on Twitter. “Heartbreaking videos and photos of people carrying their young on their backs and traveling hundreds of kilometers to return to their villages from cities like Delhi,” she told NPR.

“Much better planning was needed for this type of locking,” says Bhardwaj.

Many Indian migrant workers who are we believe at least 120 million, perhaps more are now trying to walk to their villages of origin, hundreds or thousands of kilometers from the urban areas where they migrated to work. Dozens have been killed in road accidents on the way.

All non-essential travel is prohibited as part of the national lockdown. Buses and trains were stopped and airports closed. “Dozens of people trying to return to their villages found themselves stranded along the way because public transport was suddenly stopped,” says Bhardwaj.

On a highway outside Delhi, a family is walking with their 10-month-old child. “If we stay here, what will we eat?” a woman asks a television reporter.

Last week, the Indian Minister of Finance, Nirmala Sitharaman, ad more than $ 22 billion in coronavirus relief. Sitharaman told reporters that the top priority of the government is “to bring food to the poorest of the poor, to put money in the hands of those who need it immediately.”

But many economists say this is not enough.

“We need a much, much bigger, at least two or three times as much stimulus,” says Jayati Ghosh, professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “And we need clear indications that the government is concerned about supply chains and how to maintain them.”

Any disruption in food supplies could be particularly deadly for the poor. But India already has the largest food ration distribution system in the world and also has the largest food stocks in the world. Government officials said they have enough grain to feed the poor for at least a year and a half.

Dreze called on the Indian government to start releasing these stocks.

“The government could very easily open the warehouses and provide immediate assistance to these migrant workers or anyone at risk of hunger,” said Dreze. “But there is a lack of sense of urgency [in terms of food aid] and a tendency to hope that all will be well and that the government will be able to get away with a limited relief plan. “

Ghosh, the Delhi-based economist, says that the coronavirus response in India has tended to focus on the elite.

“There has been a lot of fanfare in bringing stranded Indians abroad to some relatively affluent people,” Ghosh told NPR. “But these migrant workers have to travel very, very long distances. They are not only vulnerable to hunger. They are also vulnerable to many diseases. “

On Saturday, the authorities of the most populous state of India, Uttar Pradesh (more than 200 million inhabitants) ad a humanitarian gesture: they would send 1,000 buses to bring these migrant workers home. In a few hours, hundreds of thousands crowded at Delhi’s Anand Vihar bus station.

The police beat them with long sticks, trying to keep order. There was no social distancing.

The fear is that these migrants may spread the coronavirus from urban areas where they worked to rural areas where there are not enough hospitals. With a fraction of hospital beds and ventilators per capita in developed countries, Indian doctors and public health experts warn an explosion of coronavirus cases could overwhelm their hospitals on a larger scale than is happening in Italy and the United States and lead to millions of deaths.

Since the weekend, hundreds of makeshift soups and shelters have been set up to welcome migrants staying in cities. Tuesday the Supreme Court of India ordered the government to ensure the safety of all migrant workers in transit.

In his weekly radio talk on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi apologized especially the poor for the chaos caused by the foreclosure of India.

“I made some decisions that made you suffer, my poor brothers and sisters,” said Modi. “But for a nation like India, it was necessary.”

Many migrants who cross India this week say they realize the severity of the coronavirus crisis and respect the government’s blockade, but have no choice but to travel.

“I realize that the police have stopped the movement of people for security reasons,” said a migrant worker named Bhanwarlal, who has one name. “But I have no other option. My family is alone, and now I don’t have a job, so I can’t send them money. “

Indian TV interview with Bhanwarlal went viral, turning him into a famous “handyman” of this massive exodus. Originally from Rajasthan in northern India, Bhanwarlal works as a day laborer in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and was recently injured on the job. His left leg was in plaster.

Tuesday, Indian television filmed him sitting on the side of a highway outside the town of Bhopal, ripping bandages from his foot. He had managed to hitchhike over 300 miles to his hometown. But he had 150 left on foot.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To learn more, visit


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