India on Sunday took urgent measures to halt the march of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers across states in an exodus prompted by a 21-day national lockdown to control the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), with the government ordering the closure of borders and announcing steps to ensure food, shelter and wages to informal workers who form the backbone of the economy.
Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana launched coordinated efforts to control swelling crowds of migrant workers retreating from the National Capital Region (NCR), arranging about 2,500 buses to take people off the streets and ferry them to their hometowns. While officials worked through Saturday night to transport stranded workers from Anand Vihar in the Capital to bordering areas, by Sunday morning, the operation shifted to Lal Kuan in Ghaziabad. From Lal Kuan, long-range buses took people to their villages in several districts of Uttar Pradesh.
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the lockdown beginning March 25, highways across the national capital and other metropolises have teemed with people walking hundreds of kilometres with their belongings. While stranded migrants cited the shortage of money and food as reasons for leaving big cities, health experts warned that an exodus could run contrary to the purpose of the lockdown — breaking the chain of infections.
On Sunday, the Centre asked state governments and Union Territories to “effectively seal” state and district borders to stop the movement of the migrant workers. Those who have already reached their destinations will be put in 14-day quarantines for violating the lockdown to make sure they haven’t contracted the infection.
In an order, the Union home ministry said: “Movement of a large number of migrants have taken place in some parts of the country so as to reach their home towns. This is a violation of the lockdown measures on maintaining social distance.”
It said that to effectively implement the lockdown “and to mitigate the economic hardship of the migrant workers”, district magistrates and police officers were being directed to take a host of measures. The five measures are: temporary shelters and provision of food for the poor, including stranded migrants; 14-day quarantine of those who have already moved; uninterrupted wages and exemption from paying rent for a month.
“If any landlord is forcing labourers and students to vacate their premises, they will be liable to action,” the government said.
Many of India’s estimated 100 million migrant workers have walked along arterial roads in the National Capital Region (NCR), tried to hitch rides in commercial vehicles and gathered in thousands at bus terminals to leave for their towns and villages since Tuesday midnight.
The number of cases of Covid-19, caused by the pathogen Sars-CoV-2, rose to 1,139 on Sunday, according to official data from the states. The death toll climbed to 30, a sharp jump from 21 a day earlier.
On Sunday, thousands gathered at the Anand Vihar bus terminal, images of which were widely shared on social media to portray their plight amid the unprecedented lockdown. The crowds thinned as about 500 buses ferried them in an emergency move. However, many still waited to be picked up, sleeping on pavements and surviving on food packets provided by the government and passersby.
Many have walked for days to reach their villages in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, with the government having completely shut down Indian Railways passenger trains, interstate buses and Metro rail services. The governments of Delhi and UP and Haryana arranged buses in concerted efforts to bring the migrant workers back to their villages and control the swelling crowd.
Jagtap Singh, who worked at a toy factory in Shahdara before it was shut, said: “We have been told that UP buses are waiting at Lal Kuan to take us to the interiors of the state. I have to go Etawah.” He spent Saturday night shuttling between the Anand Vihar and Kaushambi bus terminals but failed to board a bus due to the massive crowd.
At a news briefing, home ministry joint secretary Punya Salila Srivastava said: “We have asked the states to make arrangements for shelters so that the migrant workers who have violated the lockdown and travelled could be put in quarantined for 14 days at their destinations. Health workers are being prepared for this.”
The government said DMs and police officers should be made personally responsible for the implementation of the directions.
“It was noted that, by and large, there has been effective implementation of the lockdown guidelines across all States and UTs. Essential supplies have also been maintained. Situation is being monitored round the clock and necessary measures are being taken as required,” the government said. It was impressed upon all the states that three weeks of strict enforcement is essential to contain the spread of coronavirus; this is in the interest of everyone, it added.
In a video conference with chief secretaries and state police chiefs, cabinet secretary Rajiv Gauba and Union home secretary Ajay Bhalla asked them to ensure there was no movement across cities or on highways.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi apologised to the public on Sunday for imposing the three-week national lockdown, calling it harsh but “needed to win” the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed at least 33,000 worldwide.
“I apologise for taking these harsh steps that have caused difficulties in your lives, especially the poor people,” Modi said in his Mann Ki Baat radio address. “I know some of you will be angry with me. But these tough measures were needed to win this battle.”
In a column published in The Indian Express on Sunday, Nobel Prize winners Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo said that more aid for the poor was needed because of the situation arising from the lockdown. “Without that, the demand crisis will snowball into an economic avalanche, and people will have no choice but to defy orders,” they wrote.
Delhi reported 23 fresh positive cases on Sunday, taking its count to 72, while more people tested positive in adjoining Noida, Maharashtra and Bihar, among other states. The new cases included a SpiceJet pilot with no history of international travel, a doctor and a junior commissioned officer in the Indian Army.
Globally, the death toll crossed 33,000 on Sunday, with more than 20,000 deaths in Europe itself. Nearly one-third of the world population is under lockdown to check the spread of this virus, with jobs, manufacturing and all economic activities coming to almost a standstill. The confirmed infections worldwide has topped 700,000, with the US topping the list.