India coronavirus lockdown | Migrant workers and their long march to uncertainty

Blamed for leaving their homes in defiance of the lockdown, hungry, and cash-strapped, migrants struggle in packed shelters, while those who managed to reach their native places face hostility. Ajeet Mahale, Jatin Anand and Omar Rashid report on their plight

Updated - April 04, 2020 08:12 am IST

Published - April 04, 2020 12:15 am IST

Migrant workers begin to walk to Madhya Pradesh from Mumbai.

Migrant workers begin to walk to Madhya Pradesh from Mumbai.

“In my 20 years in Mumbai, I have never seen such a sight,” said Gopal Das as he recounted his ordeal on March 21 at the Lokmanya Tilak Terminus. Gopal was among the sea of people who had attempted to board what would be the last few trains out of the city to their homes hundreds of kilometres away. Gopal, a construction worker, did not manage to board the train. And nothing had prepared him for what was to follow.

Gopal is from Bhagalpur, Bihar. He said he and his friends spent nearly four hours trying to get tickets. “A few people who had clambered on to the trains fell on the platform. A little later, we heard that all the trains had been cancelled. Since there was no public transport, we walked for three hours to our room in Bandra (East) with ₹250 in our pockets. We were still hoping they would start the trains. We didn’t think it would last this long,” he said.

Full coverage | Lockdown displaces lakhs of migrants

Visuals of hundreds of workers wearing gamchas, carrying heavy backpacks and wailing children, and walking on national highways, boarding tractors, and jostling for space atop multi-coloured buses became defining images for days to come in India. To fight the novel coronavirus , States began imposing restrictions on the movement of people. Then the Prime Minister announced a nationwide 21-day lockdown . This tough measure was met with fear, anger and frustration in many parts of the country, including Mumbai.

No transport, no jobs, no food

In its own capacity to contain the spread of COVID-19, the Maharashtra government put in place a series of restrictions in the days leading up to the March 24 nationwide lockdown. On March 20, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray imposed a lockdown in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad and Nagpur until March 31. Suddenly, in just a few hours, lakhs of migrant workers living in the city found themselves without work. To make matters worse, there was little or no guarantee that they would get basic amenities such as food and water. This forced thousands of migrant labourers to flock to the city’s major train termini — the Lokmanya Tilak Terminus and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus — as well as train and bus terminals in other cities. Following the Chief Minister’s announcement, the Railways operated 14 special trains on March 20 and 21, eight of them from Mumbai, to various destinations such as Patna, Howrah, Danapur, Gorakhpur, Manduadih and Balharshah. Long-distance passenger services were initially shut only on March 22 on account of the Janata Curfew. However, the suspension of services was extended to March 31 and then to April 14 after the Prime Minister announced the lockdown. Shahrukh Malik, a driver of Ola and Uber cabs, said: “Had we known this was going to last this long, we would have gone home much earlier and returned after two-three months.”

Coronavirus lockdown | Migrant workers not welcome back home in Bihar

Worse was to follow. City-based civic organisations were flooded with distress calls from workers across the city, who were in dire need of food. Sadrul Sheikh’s phone has been ringing constantly for a week. He and his team, spread across the city, are part of the Jharkhandi Ekta Sangh. “We have managed to give ration to only 1,200 people. This is a fraction of the number of people who need help at the moment. With each passing day, the calls increase. I am now getting around 1,000 calls every day,” he said.

According to the 2011 Census, Maharashtra has the highest number of migrants in the country (2.3 million). But activists say that the Census fails to capture seasonal migration that occurs for around four to five months. For 20-year-old Digambar Rai, the last week has been a nightmare. He arrived in Mumbai from Jharkhand on March 21 in the hope of earning for a few months before returning home. He had no idea about the lockdown; he was told that he could earn around ₹400 a day as a construction worker. “I have not even worked a day, so I have no money. I am struggling to get ration. I am relying on other workers from Jharkhand to help me,” he said.

According to Raghav Mehrotra, a researcher at Aajeevika Bureau, an organisation that works with migrant labourers, what connects all the migrant workers in the region now is that they have all lost their jobs and wages. “In the communities that we work in, migrant workers typically work in small garment workshops. They stay at the site of work and rely on local dhabas for their daily food. We have managed to get them basic ration by transferring money to their nearest grocer, but cooking the food is a real challenge,” he said.

Coronavirus lockdown | CIDCO opens exhibition centre to migrants

Many migrant workers have banded together to ask for help. Manas Raut from Odisha lives and works in Rabale on the outskirts of the city. Raut said he and 70 other workers from his State were provided aid after they sent a distress call on the Internet. Many set up their own helpline numbers. “None of our employers have been in touch with us. We are struggling to make both ends meet during this lockdown,” he said.

The lockdown has also exposed the lack of a safety net for migrant workers. For instance, many construction workers found that they were not eligible to receive funds under the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Fund. Gopal said several contractors he knew had left for their homes after realising that there was going to be no business. “None of them have picked up my phone in the last one week,” he said.

A shelter for nobody

In Uttar Pradesh, 10 days after the Prime Minister’s announcement, facilities such as the Jaypee Sports Complex on the Yamuna Expressway, the largest of its kind created by the U.P. government in Gautam Buddh Nagar to provide shelter to migrant workers possibly stranded in the sprawling district, lay vacant. The complex has the capacity to accommodate 2,000 people.


Sprawled over approximately 12 acres en route to Agra, the camp consists of an estimated 57 large tin sheds, some designated ‘family sheds’, all lined with wooden panels to protect occupants from the sweltering summer. The sheds have mats with clean white sheets, bedding, sanitation and potable water facilities. There are separate toilets for men and women. What the complex lacks since it became ready on March 30 is something very significant: the very people for whom it exists.

Coronavirus lockdown | In Bareilly, migrants returning home sprayed with 'disinfectant'

“No one is coming here. What can be done about it? It looks like all of them have left. But when the administration decided to set up this camp it must have done so based on some logic,” said an official associated with the upkeep of the camp, the largest among the 28 created over 60 kilometres between the U.P border, which commences at Noida, and Jewar, where India’s largest airport is scheduled to come up. The State administration had sought to put arrangements in place to provide shelter to 6,050 migrant workers according to an order issued on March 29 evening.

These measures, in addition to appeals made by the Chief Ministers of U.P. and Delhi and the Prime Minister himself, seemed to have been too little too late. Most such shelters in the Gautam Buddh Nagar district, sources in the U.P government familiar with developments in this regard said, were either vacant or had “very thin occupancy”. In the capital, though there was significant occupancy at such shelters, food arrangements could only be made incrementally over several days.


A trickle and then a deluge

On the night the Indian Railways announced that all passenger trains would be suspended, there was a trickle of migrant workers — most of them daily wage earners who no longer had the means to sustain themselves and the family members accompanying them. The trickle turned into a deluge at certain points by March 28 — places in Anand Vihar in Delhi bordering U.P.’s Ghaziabad; in Manesar, Faridabad and Gurugram in Haryana; and in Noida and Greater Noida in U.P.

While a majority of the migrants were seen boarding buses already overflowing with passengers, hoping against hope to reach their homes hundreds of kilometres away, others, sources in the government said, had walked endlessly on highways linking States before the borders were sealed. They walked along the banks of the Yamuna river, through the wilderness of U.P., and through unused railway tunnels before being told that the borders were shut.

Migrants from Delhi in Lucknow.

Migrants from Delhi in Lucknow.


Those who had tried and failed, over two consecutive days when the lockdown was eased in U.P., to find any means of travelling home returned to their rented accommodations to live a life of uncertainty. Some from States such as Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal, located far away from the NCR, decided to stay back. “We first thought of going. Even if the trains were not operational we thought we would take buses. We packed our bags and went to Zero Point because our family begged us to try and travel somehow as things seemed to be getting worse. But there were no buses except to Agra and they were mostly full. It would have taken us weeks to get to Kolkata. So we came back,” said Pradeep Haldar, employed as a security guard in Greater Noida.

“Did you see what they (the police) are doing to people looking for buses? I shudder to think how many times they will beat my husband and me if we try going to Ranchi. And what for anyway — getting on those crowded buses will expose us to the risk of contracting the infection,” said Manju Kumari, a resident of Jharkhand, employed as a house help in Greater Noida’s Omega-I.

Coronavirus lockdown | Treat migrants humanely, Supreme Court tells officials | Editorial: Uncritical endorsement

On March 28 morning, a Saturday, Zero Point on the Yamuna Expressway was packed with migrant workers who chose to put their urge to reach home above the need to practise social distancing lest they contract SARS-CoV-2. They were there as the district administration had announced that 200 State-run buses had been arranged to ferry commuters to various locations in the rural parts of U.P. every two hours from the area. Bound mainly to Agra, Aligarh and Lucknow, migrant workers and their families thronged to the location to try their luck at boarding any vehicle, en route home, till midnight.

Manish Kumar, who was employed at a factory in Kasna and was among the hundreds seeking to inch closer home, in his case to Kanpur, said: “Any form of transport which takes me anywhere close to my destination from here will do at this point. I’m going to die soon anyway. If I stay here it will be of hunger; there is no one here to even beg for food. Everyone’s pockets are empty. If I contract the infection I can at least die on my own soil.”

Coronavirus lockdown | With nil hopes at Zero Point, migrants face police batons

Families carrying whatever they could get their hands on before undertaking their journey lined the boundary wall of the highway as small groups of civil society volunteers offered them vegetable biryani, sealed cups of water and hand sanitiser.

Animesh Kumar, an out-of-work factory hand who sought to travel to his home in Bihar’s Munger, was among them. “Things are really bad here. You know what is happening; then why do you keep asking? I’ve told you I’m on my way. I have nowhere else to go, I will come home soon, trust me,” he assured his mother over the phone as he broke down. “They should have allowed us to come here two days ago,” he complained when asked what was wrong and if he needed any assistance. “For two days — first in the morning and then in the evening — I tried to come here so I could catch a bus or use any other means to go home. The police beat me every time I tried to reach the expressway on both days. I will get on any bus, any vehicle; I’ll start walking from wherever it drops me,” he said.

After many hours, having realised the futility of their efforts, many decided to return to their rented accommodation. Anand Kumar, who operates a pan shop in the Alpha-I area near the transit hub of Pari Chowk, was engaged in an animated discussion with his roommates Sunil Kumar Gupta and Gupta’s sibling, Anil. “They are charging ₹1,000-₹2,000 per passenger and the buses themselves are jam-packed. Where will you people sit? What if you get infected,” he asked the Gupta siblings.

At the end of a four-hour-long wait, Sunil and Anil decided to abandon their effort to find a ride. According to a police official deployed on duty near the point, they were not among the “fortunate” ones who had been able to find transport till midnight on Saturday. “What’s the point of being stuck with nothing on either side of Zero Point,” Sunil asked. “Let’s go back home,” he told Anil and Anand as they began their five-km-long walk back “home”.

Editorial | Short end of the stick: on assistance to migrant workers

On Monday morning, as strict enforcement of the lockdown returned to the area, the same police personnel who were trying their best to assist migrant workers board the buses used their batons and sticks to “persuade” hapless migrant workers to go to shelter homes.

As those like Ram Kumar and his family of seven, who had travelled from Manesar and could reach Zero Point in Greater Noida only on Monday morning, sought to try their luck, Sunil and Anil were busy persuading their landlord against throwing them out since they would be late with the rent this month. “We were able to convince him; both of us pooled in some money. It looks like it will be enough to tide us through the lockdown till April 14,” Sunil said on Thursday, almost a week after he tried — and failed — to keep his promise to his mother that he would return home.

Not quarantined

U.P. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath instructed officials to prepare a list of migrants who had started moving into the State last week. He said they must be identified, medically inspected and put under home quarantine if they were suspected of having the virus.

However, officials on the ground find it difficult to contain the people in these quarantine homes. In districts like Sultanpur, Rae Bareli, Hapur, Hathras and Azamgarh, the police have lodged cases against people for jumping quarantine. In Sultanpur, 26 persons of a 115-capacity quarantine home fled after jumping from the second floor of the building using a bedsheet. All of them were later located. In Lakhimpur Kheri, a Dalit man who had returned from Gurugram was found hanging in the field after the police allegedly beat him up for jumping quarantine. The matter is under probe. In Hathras, the quarantined persons gave the panchayat secretary the slip when he left the premises after dinner.

Coronavirus lockdown | U.P. villages tense as many skip quarantine

While a number of migrants said they underwent thermal screening at the bus station of their native district when they deboarded, many slipped under the radar. A group of migrants from Sitapur district returning from Gurugram on March 29 said they went straight to their homes without getting screened as they arrived in the wee hours. “Our bus arrived at 3:30 a.m. There was nobody there,” said Shivpal Singh. No official approached him either, he said. Another migrant in Gorakhpur district narrated a different story, however. After reaching his village, the locals forced him to get a medical test done before allowing him entry, even though he didn’t show any symptoms, he said. As a bargain, he later decided to stay under quarantine in his house and not at the primary school built outside the village.

As efforts to control the pandemic continue, U.P. has witnessed a sharp rise in figures over the past week, coinciding with the entry of migrants and the revelation of the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi.

Meanwhile, in Mumbai, apart from the pandemic and the economic situation it is a bleak future that worries people. For the construction workers of Mumbai, the peak season consists of the months of March, April and May as construction activity stops once monsoon starts to set in. With most of the season lost in the crisis, several workers will have to head back home. Digambar, who had come to the city in hopes of earning some extra money, said that he would be taking the first train back. Gopal agreed with him. “There is no question of staying back. The city will be half empty once the trains start,” he said.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.