Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 92, 20 May 2020

India: Left in the lurch in lockdown, millions of migrants walk back home
Dr Alok Gupta

In the news

Amidst spiralling cases of COVID-19 pandemic, the first spate of nationwide lockdown began in India on 25 March for 21 days, which was subsequently extended three more times till 31 May. It brought untold and unique misery and hardships across the cross-section of the Indian populace. Worst of all was the mass exodus of internal migrant workers from urban to rural home. International migrants were brought home by special planes with adequate precautions and quarantine facilities and in organized manner.

Issues at large

First is the disrupted livelihood. According to the World Bank, the lockdown impacted the livelihood of 40 million internal migrants of India; the magnitude of which was about two-and-a-half- times that of international migration. Reportedly, India's 90 per cent of the workforce - an estimated 450 million are in informal sectors. Lack of national database has caused a lack of social security coverage; ill-organized welfare schemes for them, and assurance of even minimum wages; even though governmental claims are to the contrary. 

Second is the empty stomachs and the long miles to walk home. Loss of employment created chaotic and painful conditions, and many walked empty stomach for hundreds of miles, with meagre food support from philanthropic organizations, individuals, and non-governmental organizations. The exodus of labour from workplaces has forced lockdown on manufacturing sectors and other centres of economic activities, thereby causing tremendous loss to the economy, for want of labour. Social distancing was a casualty as many migrants walking on highways herded together while hitched-in trucks and whatever kind of vehicles they came across on the way. This may contribute towards the further spread of the epidemic to other cities and rural India. 

Third is the Government's miscalculations, ill-preparedness and insensitivity towards the migrants which have led to the deepening of crisis. The governments – federal and State should have forecasted the problems that the lockdown would cause to migrants in terms of livelihood, loss of income and dislocation. Besides the failure to predict, the strategies that the governments pursued were haphazard and lacked consensus. 

In perspective

First, migrant workers started trudging across a hundred to thousands of kilometres to reach their village and home, on highways, barren field, and railway tracks. Mass media and social media remained flooded with heart-rending stories of emotional breakdown to death. Several of them lost lives on account of dehydration; tiredness and fatigue; ran over by freight train; being hit by trucks and other vehicles on the road; and from other ailments. 

Given the scale of their desperation to return home would not fade easily from public memory. It was indeed an unprecedented crisis. Several faces of state police were revealed: some butchered them with rods; some made them stay on roads; some drenched them with sanitizing chemicals on roads to disinfect them; while some were hospitable enough to offer food, water, clothes and slippers to the toiling millions. It raised several issues necessitating sensitization of police force. 

Second, hardly there was any alternative available to the Government as the cases of COVID-19 started surging by a thousand on a daily basis. Leveraging time and allowing migrants even few days to commute their destination would have caused havoc towards spreading the virus exponentially. It was also required to create adequate health infrastructure. Before announcing nationwide lockdown, Government may have pressed the administration to facilitate commutation of migrants on buses and special trains and could have continued to carry out the same for next five days in a meticulously organized manner to manage and mitigate the crisis that ensued.

Dr Alok Kumar Gupta is an Associate Professor, at the Centre for Political Studies, in the Central University of South Bihar, Gaya.

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