The announcement of a nation-wide lockdown in India led to thousands of migrant workers returning to their home villages after being forced out of their jobs and left with no means of earning an income.
Many people migrate to big cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata in search of better job prospects, or choose to work in the textile or diamond industries of Gujarat.
Thousands of these migrant workers come from two of India’s most populous states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which have a combined population of more than 350 million.
The local governments of the two states ordered a mandatory 14-day quarantine for the migrants who would return. India is a federal republic, meaning that each state has its own local government legislation.
However, reports disclose that most people have either left these facilities completely or have been slipping in and out of quarantine. Some migrants leave the facilities at night to join their families, but come back during the day for the free food. For instance, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, there have been numerous reports of violations of the 14-day quarantine period from a number of districts.
The village chiefs have been unable to ensure that people would remain in quarantine due to a lack of police or security personnel, according to BBC Hindi’s Samiratmaj Mishra. He added that village council elections are due later this year in Uttar Pradesh. As a result, he claimed, no village chief can afford to “antagonise” people at such a time.
Amitendra Srivastava, a local journalist from Pratapgarh, said that five people who returned to his village did not go to the quarantine centre set up in the community. There was no response from the police and the control room when they were contacted by other villagers.
Earlier this month, as many as 16 migrants escaped from their shelter in Bulandshahar district in Uttar Pradesh by breaking the window. The group had previously made a video in which they complained about the lack of food in the shelter.
Senior superintendent of the police of Bulandshahar, Santosh Singh, said that all the migrants were caught by the evening and re-quarantined, adding that the “security of the venue has been beefed up so that no such incident takes place again”.
There were other similar complaints about the conditions of these facilities, with many migrants protesting about overcrowding, lack of food and soap, or filthy toilets.
Amarnath Tewary, a journalist from Bihar, spoke to several villagers who complained that shelters in the state lacked basic necessities such as electricity, toilets and beds, or didn’t have doors or windows. He also added that even some village chiefs admit that they can’t force people to live in such “squalid conditions”.
However, all this is causing concerns about the virus spreading in the community.
“In my village, lots of migrant workers have returned from Gujarat and Delhi. They never went to any quarantine centre and they have been roaming freely in the markets here,” said Manoj Kumar, who lives on the outskirts of the state capital.
“No-one maintains social distancing here, the local bank is overcrowded and at the vegetable market, it’s a mad scramble with so many people around,” he added. He also criticized the authorities for failing to control the situation.
The news of the squalid conditions in quarantine centres comes after the lockdown forced thousands of people to embark on the long way back home to their villages.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi apologized for the lockdown which has caused “difficulties in your lives, especially [for] the poor people”, although he added that these tough measures were necessary in the fight against the novel virus.
The PM has been proactive in helping Indian migrant workers that were left stranded abroad, arranging special flights to help them come home. However, the failure to anticipate the exodus of workers at home had dire consequences for the thousands of people who were forced to walk home. This is because lockdown also meant shutting down all means of public transport.
Most cite the sudden lack of an income as the reason they have left. Pushpendra, a worker who earns 500 rupees (around £5) a day, said: “there is no ration, we waited for a week but there was no way to continue living without food”. Another worker, Siddharth Singh, said they had been “asked to leave by our landlord, employer. At least at home, we have our families”. Ram Mendhe, who works in a brick kiln in Gujarat, left because there was “no work”.
Most of these migrants work in essential industries, doing jobs such as constructing houses, cooking food and delivering takeaway, plumbing toilets or delivering newspapers.
A 90-year-old woman, whose family sold cheap toys at traffic lights in a suburb just outside Delhi, was left with no choice but to take on the 100km-long walk home. On the way back, she and her family were eating biscuits and smoking traditional hand-rolled cigarettes to stave off hunger.
Others had even bigger journeys ahead. A father and his 5-year-old boy set off on a 700km-long journey from Delhi to their home in Madhya Pradesh State: “when the sun sets we will stop and sleep”.
Another migrant worker, Goutam Lal Meena, who earned up to 400 rupees (around £4) a day and sent most of his salary home, had to survive on water and biscuits on the way.
“I walked through the day and walked through the night. What option did I have? I had little money and almost no food”, Mr. Meena added.
A 26-year-old automobile worker named Rajneesh reckoned that his 250km walk back to his village would take him about four days. His worst fear was that some wouldn’t make it: “we will die walking before coronavirus hits us”.
This was not an exaggeration. In March, a 39-year-old man complained of chest pain and exhaustion during his journey from Delhi to Madhya Pradesh. He later collapsed and died of a heart attack after having walked almost 200 kilometers. The man worked as a home delivery boy for a private restaurant in Delhi and was the main ‘bread winner’ for his family.
In another incident, a road accident killed a group of eight workers who were returning to Raichur in Karnataka. The group comprised mainly labourers and an 18-month-old toddler.
Four people, including a one-year-old baby, died in a forest fire while taking the forest route instead of the main road, which had been blocked off due to the lockdown.
Another group, comprising three workers and two children, were killed in a car accident in Haryana, as they were trying to make their way home.
The pandemic may be a major killer, but it seems that social inequality is also ravaging Indian society with an ever-increasing death toll. In a country of 1.3 billion people, many of them stuck in the quagmire of poverty, the virus is wreaking havoc- but particularly for those at the bottom of the social spectrum.