Sushil Kumar, a migrant worker, walks along a highway with his family to return to their village, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of the coronavirus, March 27 2020. Picture: REUTERS/ADNAN ABIDI
Sushil Kumar, a migrant worker, walks along a highway with his family to return to their village, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of the coronavirus, March 27 2020. Picture: REUTERS/ADNAN ABIDI

Chennai/Mumbai — The phone line in New Delhi crackled with the voice of Ravinder Singh, an Indian migrant worker desperately seeking help as a nationwide coronavirus lockdown leaves him and millions like him without food, shelter or transport.

With no way to earn a living and all public transport halted, India’s army of migrant workers has been left stranded, with no choice but to undertake long journeys across the country to their homes on foot.

“Nobody thought of people like us, with small children, no money, no food and no way to get home,” said Singh to Saajha Manch, a hotline migrant workers can call for advice. “The disease is already killing people but we will die of hunger. How will we survive?”

Tens of thousands of migrants are seeking help from hotlines like Saajha Manch, which is run by the social enterprise Gram Vani Community Media, even as they undertake the long, arduous journey back to their villages on foot.

Callers leave a message that is picked up by staff who call them back with tailored advice.

Content manager Shweta Sharma said there has been a five-fold increase in the number of calls to the line, which is continuously putting out information on coronavirus. “We have also asked our regular callers to tell us exactly where they are stranded and what help they need,” she said. “We are identifying the most urgent needs of the people, doing surveys and co-ordinating with the government.”

It might take me 10 to 12 days before I reach home, but I don’t have a choice. There was no food, no work in Bangalore after the lockdown
Sahi Ram

India’s prime minister announced a nationwide lockdown on Tuesday, seeking to curb the spread of the coronavirus in the country of 1.3-billion people, which has so far reported more than more than 850 confirmed cases and at least 20 deaths.

Officials say the shutdown of all but essential services is necessary to beat Covid-19 in the densely populated country, whose health infrastructure can ill-afford a widespread outbreak.

A $22.6bnn economic stimulus plan provides for direct cash transfers and food security measures. But many of India’s estimated 120-million migrants simply cannot wait for the government to start rolling out those benefits.

“In the absence of any assurance on wages, shelter or food, migrant workers have no choice but to hit the road,” said Gayatri Menon, a sociology professor at the Azim Premji University in Bangalore. “They should have been assured that they would be taken care of, and constant communication is the key, not sudden announcements.”

Long road home

The last time welder Sahi Ram ate was on Thursday evening after he left the southern Indian city of Bangalore on foot, headed for his home town more than 1,300km away in the western state of Rajasthan.

“It might take me 10 to 12 days before I reach home, but I don’t have a choice,” he said by phone from Tumkur, about 70km from Bangalore, a distance he covered in 18 hours. “There was no food, no work in Bangalore after the lockdown.”

India has suspended all public transport, bringing its vast network of trains to a halt.

Krishnavatar Sharma, whose non-profit Aajevika Bureau runs another help line for migrant workers, said he had been inundated with calls. “They just want to come back home, but for that, we cannot do anything. Our people are trying to contact district administrations and we are trying to arrange food for them.” 

Some workers were hoping to hitch a ride on the trucks carrying basic essentials that are still allowed on the roads.

“It is difficult to walk on the highways as the police are checking every movement,” said Parveen Kumar, who is also walking from Bangalore to Rajasthan. “My friend got hit by a baton.”

Indian police have been filmed beating people who break the lockdown rules. In western Maharashtra state, police stopped two trucks during routine checks and found them packed with at least 300 construction workers trying to get home.

Despite the roadblocks, Sahi Ram said he was going to carry on walking until he got home. “We are looking for food now. The problem is I don’t have money. I didn’t know this would happen and had sent all my money home to my parents. Where will I get money from on such short notice?”

Thomson Reuters Foundation