The harshest coronavirus lockdown in the world has particularly impacted one group of Indians: migrant workers. Stuck far away from home, with wages often discontinued, so bad was the situation of migrant labour that many set off to walk or cycle home across state borders, travelling hundreds of kilometres in a heart wrenching feat of human endurance.
Two months after the lockdown was was announced, with millions of migrant workers still stranded, the situation is turning volatile with multiple instances or unrest, forcible roadblocks, stone pelting and even attacks on police being reported.
In Rewa on the Madhya Pradesh-Uttar Pradesh border, for example, migrant workers broke police barriers and entered Uttar Pradesh. This happened in spite of a lathi charge by the MP police, reported Rajasthan Patrika.
Similar violence also erupted on the Madhya Pradesh-Maharashtra border in Sendhwa, as thousands of migrants blocked National Highway 3 and pelted stones, alleging that the MP government had failed to arrange either food or transport for them, reported NDTV.
Earlier on May 3, the same border had seen heavy stone pelting as Madhya Pradesh refused to allow in migrants from Maharashtra. The violent reaction forced MP to change its stand and it has, since then, allowed people to cross the border, in spite of the fact that lockdown rules at the time barred them.
Sunday also saw a road blockade on the Bihar-UP border, with 25,000 people jamming the National Highway 2. The same highway was also blocked on the same day at the other end of Uttar Pradesh in Mathura district, with migrants angry that the Uttar Pradesh government had not provided them enough buses to travel east.
On Sunday, Uttar Pradesh also saw large numbers of migrants travelling by foot, block the highway in Saharanpur. The law and order situation turned so bad in this instance that buses carrying migrant labour from Ambala to Saharanpur had to turn back, reported the Hindustan Times.
Amongst all states, though, Gujarat seems to have seen the highest levels of violence, with multiple instances of desperate workers vandalising property and clashing with the police.
In Bahruch district, Thursday saw two highways being blocked, while the next day workers pelted stones at the police, demanding that they be sent back home. Earlier on May 13, migrant workers had blocked a highway in Kutch district and pelted stones at passing vehicles, alleging that there were means arranged to take them home.
On Sunday, confusion over the scheduling of a worker train, saw panicked migrants erupt and start to pelt stones and vandalise vehicles in Rajkot. In the melee, one journalist was also injured, reported the Quint.
On Monday, this unrest even reached Ahmedabad, with workers clashing with the police. Eventually more than a 100 people were arrested with the police connecting the violence to anxieties around returning home. “One of them gets a message confirming the journey and everyone else gets the message as they forward it,” Ahmedabad ACP MA Patel told the Economic Times. “The next thing you see is a few hundred people on the road instead of one.”
Part of this might have to do with Gujarat’s poor response to worker welfare. “When it comes to migrant welfare, Gujarat has been very poor – maybe the worst amongst all the states,” explains Tanmoy Ghosh, General Secretary of the Bangla Sanskriti Mancha, a social organisation that works with migrant labour. “The situation of migrant labour in the state is alarming.”
With the Union government now running worker trains for nearly three weeks, the number of migrants transported back home using the Indian Railways is 20 lakh. This might seem like a large number – but it’s actually only a small fraction of the total of 5.6 crore inter-state migrants as per the 2011 Census. Much of this resistance is due to the fact that destination states are wary of receiving their own migrants, given they fear the spread of the coronavirus in rural areas.
On Tuesday, in a bid to fix this system, the Union government removed its initial stipulation of both source and destination states having to agree for a worker train to run. Now “the consent of the termination state is not necessary” as per a new standard operating procedure issued by the Indian Railways.