In the capital, Delhi, thousands of migrants, including whole families, packed their pots, pans and blankets into rucksacks, some balancing small children on their shoulders as they walked along interstate highways, in one of the biggest migrations in the country’s recent history. Some planned to walk hundreds of miles. But as they reached the Delhi border, many were beaten back by the police.
“You fear the disease, living on the streets. But I fear hunger more, not corona,” said Papu, 32, who came to Delhi three weeks ago for work and was trying to get to his home in Saharanpur in the state of Uttar Pradesh, 125 miles away.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi apologized to the country for imposing the nationwide lockdown, which was announced with just four hours’ notice on Tuesday.
“I would firstly like to seek forgiveness from all my countrymen,” he said in a radio address. “Possibly many would be angry at me for being locked in their homes,” he added, saying that there was no other way “to wage a war against corona.”
So far, 980 people have tested positive for the coronavirus in India, with 24 dead, according to officials.
India already had one of the world’s largest homeless populations, and the lockdown may have tripled it overnight, workers for nongovernmental organizations say. A 2011 government census put the number of homeless at 1.7 million, almost certainly a vast underestimate in the country of 1.3 billion.
The lockdown, which includes a ban on interstate travel, left India’s enormous migrant population stranded in big cities, where jobs have lured them in vast numbers from the countryside.