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India’s Locked-down Cities: The Migrants Living in Limbo

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Just hours after India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, announced an extension to the lockdown he implemented on March 24th thousands of migrant workers gathered in the centre of Mumbai.  

Like so many other countries around the world, India has restricted internal and external travel and social contact to its residents in efforts to stem and contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Following Modi’s announcement, rumours began circulating about train services restarting, and in response thousands of people gathered at stations Mumbai. These people, mostly workers who had migrated across the country to work in the city, were desperately trying to get home. They were met by police, who used large sticks to try and disperse them.

Most internal migrants in India are originally from rural villages and towns. They travel to the country’s major cities to take on jobs as labourers, domestic workers, construction workers, and street vendors.

Across the country, in the city of Surat, and hundreds of textile workers – also internal migrants – had gathered in protest to demand safe passage out of the city and back to their homes.

These people […] were desperately trying to get home

Just one day later, and in Delhi, the capital, hundreds more migrants were discovered living under a bridge on the Yamuna river; having been made destitute by the closure of the businesses they worked for. Unable to return to their hometowns and villages, they had moved under the bridge after the temporary shelter they were living in burned down.

There are an estimated 40 million migrant workers in India’s cities – that’s just counting labourers.

In the absence of work, many of those stranded have been forced into destitution, taking refuge in pop-up shelters, and relying on food handouts from governments, charities and members of the public for survival.

Migrant workers walk along a road to return to their villages, New Delhi, India.
[Image: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui, Aljazeera]

Within these communities, the spread of COVID-19 is rife. Families huddle together for warmth, tens of people share tends, and hundreds cram under dry spots of the city to shelter from rain and the blinding sun.

There are an estimated 40 million migrant workers in India’s cities – that’s just counting labourers.

Some people have even attempted to take the perilous journey on foot. Reports recently surfaced about a 12-year-old girl who attempted to walk 150km across the country to get to her village and family. She passed away after walking for three days, just 14km from her home.

“This lockdown is totally inhuman” lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan told the BBC.

“Those who test negative for Covid-19 must not be forcibly kept in shelters or away from their homes and families against their wishes. The government should allow for their safe travel to their hometowns and villages and provide necessary transportation for the same.”

Within these communities, the spread of COVID-19 is rife.

The lockdown in India, as with many other countries, has positioned a spotlight on the vulnerabilities of poorer, migrant communities. As this pandemic continues, legislation and funding must be put in place to protect them.