Hundreds of migrant workers in Delhi and Mumbai on Thursday flocked railway and bus stations to return to their villages, as a record surge in coronavirus cases sparked fears of another lockdown in India.
In Mumbai, trains at the Lokmanya Tilak Terminus were seen packed with workers, many of whom said they were unsure when they will return, reported ANI. In Delhi, long queues were seen at Anand Vihar bus station as migrant workers waited for their turn to get a ticket back home, according to The Indian Express.
“As of now, there is a night curfew in place,” a worker leaving for Uttar Pradesh told ANI in Mumbai. “It is very likely that a lockdown will be put into place. To avoid chaos like the previous lockdown, we are travelling back to our native place. [We are] not sure when, whether we will come back here.”
However, the Ministry of Railways denied reports of mass movement of people. It also claimed that some old videos showing crowding at railway stations were being circulated on social media. “We appeal everyone to avoid sharing such videos,” it said. “People are requested not to believe in such rumours.”
The Northern Railway also refuted the reports. “We had done a walk-through at New Delhi Railway station to check if there is any kind of rush or not,” Chief Public Relations Officer Deepak Kumar told ANI. “I request media to visit all our stations and show the truth.”
On March 24 last year, India began a countrywide lockdown with just four-hours’ notice in a bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The lockdown lasted for nine weeks, and was then either partially or fully extended in different parts of the country. Though the Indian lockdown was considered the most severe in the world, India currently is the third-worst country in the world in terms of the number of infections and the fourth-worst in terms of the number of deaths.
The restrictions effectively put the entire population at home for all but essential items like groceries or medicines. But the world’s largest lockdown turned into a humanitarian crisis for India’s workforce.
It was this time last year that lakhs of migrant labourers spilled out of big cities, with thousands of them walking hundreds of kilometres to reach home as work and incomes vanished. Some died on the way due to illness, while others were killed in road accidents. Many died of exhaustion after walking home in the scorching heat.
As coronavirus infections surge again, workers say they they are unwilling to take the chance this time.
“In the last lockdown, we suffered a lot because work almost stopped,” Ashok, a 34-year-old daily wage worker in Delhi, told The Indian Express. “At this point, we don’t know when things will get better. I cannot feed my family with zero income. And this lockdown has scared us. I don’t know when I will come back or if I will.”
Some also expressed apprehensions that inter-state travel will close and that “they will be stuck”, a manager of a Uttar Pradesh state transport bus at Anand Vihar told the newspaper.
The central government has so far decided against imposing a nationwide lockdown to contain the latest surge but has asked states to decide on imposing local restrictions.
But for the daily wage labourers, this is a problem too. They say that the night curfews imposed in Delhi and Mumbai have led to fewer work opportunities, making it hard to sustain themselves in big cities. “The night curfew could extend if it [the virus] is not controlled soon,” Sudhir, a migrant worker, told the newspaper. “It is better to rush back home...at least we can sustain ourselves there. Here, we will have to exhaust our savings every day.”
‘Allay fears of migrants’
Taking cognisance of the emerging situation, Maharashtra Congress leader Sanjay Nirupam on Thursday talked to state officials, and asked the authorities to allay the fear of migrant workers.
“Many of them fear that a lockdown will be imposed in the state due to rising Covid cases,” he told reporters. “However, our state government has no such plans. We do not want businesses or small businessmen to incur losses.”
Nirupam added that several workers were boarding trains “illegally” and without getting themselves tested for Covid-19. “We are looking into the situation,” he said. “However, I can assure you that none of them can return back to our state without showing a Covid negative report.”