India's migrant workers face long walk home amid coronavirus lockdown

LUCKNOW/AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) - After India imposed a 21-day nationwide lockdown on Tuesday to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the plywood factory near Uttar Pradesh’s state capital Lucknow where Surendra Pandey works was forced to shut down.

A migrant worker carries her belongings as she walks along a road to return to her village, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi, India, March 26, 2020. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

On Thursday morning, with no way of earning a living, the 28-year-old laborer set off on a 110-kilometre (68-mile) walk back to his home village.

“I tried catching a bus or truck yesterday, but there is no transport available on the road, so I decided to walk,” he told Reuters, some 30 km (19 miles) into his journey.

“There is no food available on the roads but thankfully a few citizens offer us food, biscuits and water. It’s better to be home than to be here in the city without food and water.”

Officials say the shutdown of all but essential services is necessary to beat coronavirus in the densely populated country of 1.3 billion people, with health infrastructure that can ill-afford a widespread outbreak. India has so far reported more than 600 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 13 deaths.

India’s government announced on Thursday a $22.6 billion economic stimulus plan that provides direct cash transfers and food security.

But for India’s estimated 120 million migrant laborers, the shutdown is a crisis, as wages dry up and many cannot afford the rent or even food in the cities.

Across India, more than a dozen laborers Reuters spoke to returning home said they had been left with little choice other than to attempt to walk back to their home villages after work - and public transport - vanished.


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Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of the eastern state of West Bengal, wrote on Thursday to the heads of other Indian states, saying that manual workers were facing “an hour of crisis”.

Vinod Hathila, 39, a manual worker in Surat, a city in the western state of Gujarat, left for his home town on Wednesday, walking for hours along railway tracks with his 15-year-old son until he found a bus.

With no work, he said he doesn’t know how he will support his family during the lockdown.

“I’ll probably borrow some money on interest from someone,” he said.

Ashok Punjabi, who heads a construction workers’ union in Gujarat, said 60,000-70,000 people working as domestic helps and in other unorganized sectors in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad, had headed to homes in neighboring Rajasthan after the 21-day lockdown was announced, many on foot and carrying their possessions.

“To see young children and women being forced to walk hundreds of kilometers like this is just sad,” said Punjabi, who is also a senior opposition party member in the state.

Kuldeep Arya, a senior official in the Gujarati state capital of Gandhinagar, said 4,000 people had been provided with food and water while trying to return home.

There were similar scenes in India’s capital New Delhi, where hundreds of migrants walked down deserted highways to neighboring Uttar Pradesh this week.

“For two days the ration guys were not giving us any food, we were hungry for two days. So we decided, ‘let us go to our parents’,” said Raju, a 24-year old migrant worker walking from Noida, a satellite town of Delhi, to Agra, nearly 200 km away.

“Since there’s no transport available, we decided to walk all the way.”

Reporting by Saurabh Sharma in Lucknow, Sumit Khanna in Ahmedabad and Subrata Nagchoudhury in Kolkata; Writing by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Euan Rocha and Gareth Jones