India’s coronavirus lockdown was set up to be the harshest in the world. It was, for example, the only country that sought to restrict movement and prevent all travel.

This sort of draconian lockdown could only have worked if extensive welfare provisions had been made, which would have allowed migrant workers to stay back in big cities even without employment. This did not happen. The situation became so dire that many migrants began to walk, cycle or hitchhike back home, sometimes travelling more than 1,000 km to get home from the cities in which they had been working.

On April 29, just over a month into the lockdown, the Union government decided to start running special “Shramik” trains for stranded workers. This meant that workers who had been trapped since March 25 in urban centres, mostly in West and South India, would be able to travel back to their homes, mostly in the East and the North.

Through May, Shramik trains transported as many as 50 lakh workers. But – in a sign of how complex the battle against the pandemic is – it has also led to a spike in Covid-19 cases. This isn’t surprising given that workers who had been stuck for more than a month in coronavirus hotspots are travelling to rural areas that were relatively free of the pandemic. “Had the migrant persons been allowed to go home at the beginning of the epidemic when the disease spread was very low, the current situation could have been avoided,” said a joint statement on Sunday by the Indian Public Health Association, Indian Association of Preventive and Social Medicine and Indian Association of Epidemiologists.

Workers from West Bengal who had been stranded in Ajmer arrive at Howrah. Credit: PTI

Uttar Pradesh and Bihar

The largest number of Shramik train passengers – more than 40% – headed to Uttar Pradesh. This has meant that rural areas of the state are now experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases. When the Union government decided to open up inter-state rail travel on May 1, Barbanki district in central Uttar Pradesh had no cases. However, within a month, the number cases shot up to 147. On a single day – May 20 – the district recorded 95 cases, with more than half being migrants.

A similar rise was seen in the eastern district of Jaunpur, which now has 169 cases – a phenomenon that authorities attributed to workers returning from Mumbai.

The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath, also flagged the fact that migrants had an extremely high test positivity rate: 75% of people returning from Mumbai were Covid-19 positive; the figure for Delhi was 50%.

Bihar, which has accepted the second-largest number of migrants (35%) via the special trains seems to have also been affected in a similar manner, with a number of rural districts seeing increased caseloads through May. In Bihar, the highest caseload is in the district of Patna – which fits the general pattern seen till now in India, with urban centres being the principal hotspots. However, the second-highest caseload is in the southwestern and mostly rural district of Rohtas.

Madhubani, a very rural district on the Nepal border, had the fourth-highest number in the state.

Cases have shot up across Bihar since interstate rail travel was opened up on May 1, increasing by more than seven times across May.

Like in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar has also found an alarming number of returnee migrants carrying Covid-19 back from urban hotspots. As reported three weeks after the Shramik trains were started, around 26% of people returning to Bihar from Delhi tested positive.

To make matters worse, reports have emerged of Bihari workers jumping out of trains before they reach the station in order to escape the mandatory 14-day quarantine.

While industrial states like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu (top row) have their caseload concentrated almost totally in big cities, poor states like Odisha and Bihar (bottom row), which have received migrants over the past month, have a Covid-19 distribution that spans the state, extending even to rural areas.  Note: Intensity of red varies by district ranking within each state. All data as of May 29. Source:

Odisha and Bengal

In Odisha, breaking the India-wide pattern, the highest caseload is held by a rural district rather than a big city. More than 22% of all cases in the state are from Ganjam district, the highest in the state – with most infections being brought back from Surat.

Unlike many other outmigration states, West Bengal had allowed a very small number of Shramik trains, thus getting back only a small proportion of its stranded migrants. This changed, however, on May 19 when the Modi government removed the requirement for a destination state to give consent to Shramik trains.

Till now, West Bengal has reflected the pattern in states like Maharashtra and Karnataka, with large urban centres (in this case, Kolkata and Howrah) being the site of the overwhelming number of cases. However, as migrants return, the coronavirus is spreading even to rural districts. When on May 19, the Centre decided to do away with state’s consent in running trains, for example, Uttar Dinajpur district had only 13 cases. As per state government data, however, in just 11 days until May 30, that figure went up by nearly 12 times to 154.

Similarly, in the same period, Murshidabad has seen cases go up by nearly seven times. In Malda, the number of cases tripled. All three districts are predominantly rural with high labour outmigration.

The West Bengal government has blamed the Union government for running trains without informing it, calling it an “unplanned influx”. It has also faulted the Indian Railways for not enforcing social distancing norms on Shramik trains. “The Centre wants to turn West Bengal [into] Maharashtra, Delhi or Gujarat,” Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said on Thursday. “Will you take responsibility if the disease spreads across Bengal?”

Faced with these large numbers of returnee workers as well as the after effects of the super cyclone Amphan, West Bengal on Friday significantly relaxed its quarantine norms. While earlier, all returning migrant labourers were sent to institutional quarantine, now this would apply to only five states: Maharashtra, Delhi, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The rest would be expected to self-quarantine at home.

Migrant workers try to board a crowded bus in Ghaziabad on March 29. Credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Flights too

While most of the increase in cases due to the relaxation of inter-state movement restrictions has occurred in the less developed state of the east and the north, Karnataka has seen an increase due to this phenomenon too. On Friday, as Karnataka recorded its single highest number of positive Covid-19 cases, as many as 92% were people with inter-state travel history.

As a result, like West Bengal has asked for fewer trains, industrial states like Karnataka and Maharashtra have pressured the Union government to reduce the number of flights into the state.

The statement by three medical professional associations flagged the grave danger due to this reverse migration: “The returning migrants are now taking infection to each and every corner of the country; mostly to rural and peri-urban areas, in districts with relatively weak public health systems (including clinical care).”

All data is of May 29. Unless otherwise mentioned, source for all Covid-19 states is