India’s domestic migrants risk death on treacherous walks to home villages during lockdown

Millions of migrants are reversing their journeys from villages to citiesas lockdown sparks widespread unemployment

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On a blistering hot summer afternoon, Sanjay Kumar stands beside a long, winding highway that connects New Delhi to his far-away hometown, waiting for his wife to pacify their starving infant son and toddler girl.

The family of four have been on the road since dawn, attempting to reach their home village some 300 miles away after being evicted from their flat in the capital.

Their landlord ordered them out of the one-room flat this month, after only two months as tenants, because of their inability to pay rent.

"We don't have any money left to sustain ourselves here and want to return to our village," Mr Kumar told The National on Thursday, as his wife Pushpa Kumari struggled to nurse their one-year-old child by the roadside.

“We haven't eaten anything for more than 10 hours. We are exhausted from the heat and there’s nothing to eat. She can’t produce milk to feed him,” he said.

Pushpa Kumari, 25, along with her husband, has embarked on an arduous journey on foot to their village some 300 miles away. Taniya Dutta/The National

The couple are not alone in their struggle. Nearly 100 million migrant workers have been hit by economic hardship sparked by the world's largest pandemic lockdown.

The Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE) found 122 million people have lost jobs since the lockdown was declared.

Some are walking hundreds of miles on foot or hitchhiking to reach their homes from cities, in scenes reminiscent of the country's partition in 1947.

Last month, the government told the country’s supreme court during a hearing on the crisis that “no migrant workers were on the road” and authorities have constantly appealed to people to stick to the lockdown.

But every day, the humanitarian crisis unfolds a little more on highway NH24 in Ghaziabad, an industrial town near Delhi that connects several Indian states.

Thousands of men, women and children carry bare essentials and survive off packets of biscuits and bottled water as they attempt to go back to their homes, where the cost of living is cheaper and family networks support one another.

More than 200 domestic migrant workers have been killed in road accidents and dozens left injured over the past six weeks. At least 30 more have died of exhaustion after undertaking long journeys on foot or by bicycle.

Many are avoiding highways and travelling to avoid bypass checkpoints, where police forces are turning people back.

Earlier this month, 16 migrant labours were struck and killed by a goods train in Maharashtra state after they slept on a railway track to take a break from hours of walking.

If we don't die of coronavirus, we will definitely die of hunger here

Mr Kumar, 30, moved to the city in search of a bright future along with his family in early March and began working as a gardener at a shopping mall for a monthly wage of US $100. But three weeks into his job, India imposed the nationwide curfew, crushing his plans.

“My dreams are shattered…I thought our life would improve here. We were poor in the village, but I am completely destroyed here,” he said.

He was paid half of his salary, a portion of which he paid as rent for his house and used the remaining to feed his family for a month before taking loans from his labourer brother to feed his children.

“I brought my family here to give them a better life, my kids a better education but what is left for us here? We have nothing. If we don’t die of coronavirus, we will definitely die of hunger here,” Mr Kumar said.

Most migrants in India earn roughly $100 a month and lack savings to sustain themselves for more than a few days without work. The country lacks adequate social security or housing policies to cater for the vast populations that live in cities, where cost of living is high.

They work as construction workers, street vendors, taxi drivers, domestic help and across India’s vast industrial and economic sectors that have come to a halt since March 25 because of the lockdown.

As it became clear thousands, if not millions, would lose their livelihoods due to lockdown measures, the government promised a one-off payment of 500 rupees ($6) to India’s poorest. Most migrants have denied receiving any help and the government has not released the number of recipients.

Migrant workers rest on National Highway 24, near Ghaziabad city on the outskirts of New Delhi. Taniya Dutta/ The National

Labour rights activists blamed the government for the pain and distress of the migrants.

"They have been reduced to refugees in their own land…Locking them down with just four hours," Nikhil Dey, of New Delhi-based charity Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghathan, told The National, referring to Prime Minister Naraendra Modi's rushed declaration of lockdown measures.

As outrage and protests mounted over the government's perceived apathy on the issue and demands that the government facilitate the return of domestic migrants to their homes, the railways began running special services to return those stranded to their home villages.

So far, about one million people have used the services, despite controversy after the passengers were asked to pay regular fares after registering themselves with the government under a tedious online system.

Krishna Shah, a tailor, has been trying to leave Gurgaon city near Delhi for his village in Bihar for the past five weeks after he ran out of savings and his landlord refused to waive his rent.

Krishna Shah has set off on a 1,000-kilometre-long foot journey with his 11 friends to his village in eastern state of Bihar. Taniya Dutta/ The National

Mr Shah, 27, tried but failed to register himself on an online system for days, eventually deciding to set off on foot 1,000-kilometre journey along with a group of 11 others from the village.

“There are thousands of men like me waiting for tickets…if the government wanted to help us, it should have made the process easier for us to get train tickets,” said Mr Shah, who worked for a garment factory in the city for eight years before being laid off.

Activists said that the government’s evacuation efforts were poorly planned and have caused further misery amid uncertainty about the timeline to resume the businesses.

"The trains and cash transfers have suffered from very serious planning shortcomings," Shankar Gopalakrishnan, a labour rights activist, told The National.

Mr Modi this week announced that his government planned to extend the seven-week long lockdown, although hinting at easing some restrictions to restart the economy, as he launched a US $266 billion economic package that includes monthly food aid for migrant workers.

But many like 19-year-old Vinod Verma were unimpressed.

Mr Verma had walked for 12 hours from other end of the capital city to leave for his hometown in Kanpur after his roadside food stall was shut in the pandemic, forcing him to take loans and charity to survive.

Panting and sweat dripping from his face, he slowly dragged his worn-out suitcase on the black tar road, as he inched closer to a police checkpoint, where hundreds of migrant workers like him were stopped.

"We do not know what this government is planning for us. We have received no help yet," Mr Verma told The National.

“If the lockdown continues, what is the point of staying here if we cannot restart work and earn with dignity? I cannot rely on alms forever,” Mr Vinod said.