Over 200 citizens on Saturday urged the Narendra Modi government to provide immediate assistance to migrant workers stranded in several parts of India due to the three-week lockdown imposed to contain the spreading coronavirus.

In a statement, academics, economists, social activists, and other concerned citizens said the government should provide free food, medical care and sanitation to the migrant workers who are unable to reach their homes.

The signatories included economist Jean Dreze, activist Harsh Mander, historian Ramachandra Guha, and several professors from universities across the world.

“The sudden imposition of a 21-day all-India lockdown on 24 March 2020, at just four hours’ notice, has led to horrific consequences for many,” the statement said. “This decision, taken without proper planning, completely overlooked the disastrous impact it would have on 90% of our labour force. Extremely disturbing reports of the plight of lakhs of migrant labourers in different parts of the country keep pouring in. Many of them are stranded and starving in the industrial belts where they work.”

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The signatories pointed out that many migrant workers have been forced to undertake journeys for hundreds of kilometres on foot to their villages in the absence of public transport. “Others, in desperation, are packing themselves in lorries, at the risk of contracting or spreading the virus,” the group said.

The citizens urged the government to pay attention to their situation immediately. “The government must use the network of anganwadis, panchayat bhavans, government schools...to set up feeding centres to arrange free cooked food, medical care and sanitation,” the statement read. “Foodgrains to the tune of 585 lakh metric tonnes are available in godowns of the Food Corporation of India and Central Warehousing Corporation [even before the wheat harvest]. Some of it can be used to prepare cooked meals and/or take-home rations in these centres.”

The group said food assistance should be given to the migrants without any hurdle of the paperwork. “This will still leave more than enough food in the godowns to fulfil the finance minister’s announcements and maintain adequate buffer stocks,” the citizens added.

To ease Covid-19’s economic impact, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had on Thursday announced a Rs 1.70 lakh crore relief package that will provide direct cash transfers and ensure food security for certain sections of the society.

The signatories also urged the government to arrange sanitised bus and train services to make sure stranded workers reach home safely amid the outbreak. “Others trapped at their distant workplaces must be assured of a secure living space with enough food, soap, sanitary pads and medical care,” they said. “This is a national emergency and lakhs of people are in danger of perishing in hunger and trauma. We, therefore, make this urgent appeal for an immediate response to the humanitarian crisis, to prevent it from snowballing further.”

Earlier in the day, the Uttar Pradesh government arranged 1,000 buses to ferry migrant workers trying to return to their villages amid the countrywide lockdown. The nationwide lockdown, which entered its fifth day on Saturday, has left thousands of workers in the informal sector without jobs and any means of sustenance.

The total number of coronavirus cases in India rose to 918 on Saturday, including 19 deaths and 80 recoveries.