India: Thousands of migrant workers protest against coronavirus lockdown extension

Workers beg to be allowed to return to their villages, angry at lack of work, food and sanitation under strict weeks-long lockdown

Adam Withnall
Wednesday 15 April 2020 13:27 BST
Coronavirus in numbers

Thousands of migrant workers across several major Indian cities have protested against the extension of India’s national lockdown, demanding they be allowed to board trains and return to their villages.

Prime minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation on Tuesday to announce that lockdown measures, including a near total shutdown of public transport, would remain in place until 3 May.

Districts that have seen fewer confirmed cases of coronavirus will have their measures eased slightly from 20 April, but for many poorer labourers in India’s informal sector it means at least two more weeks stranded with no work and only scant support from public services.

When the lockdown was first announced three weeks ago with just a few hours’ notice, tens of thousands of migrant workers decided to make dangerous long journeys away from cities by foot, in order to spend the lockdown in the relative comfort of their home villages.

Dozens died on the road, leading Mr Modi to apologise for the way the lockdown had been enforced and insist that “these tough measures were needed to win this battle” against the virus.

On Tuesday, around two thousand people in Mumbai responded to the lockdown extension by gathering outside the city’s Bandra West train station, saying they needed access to food and supplies or to be allowed to leave the city.

Police used baton charges to disperse the protest, but images of the incident were widely shared and led to concern online that people in the densely packed crowd were not observing social distancing rules.

Two men were charged with inciting the crowd to gather, one a man who described himself as a social activist and had posted a video online calling on migrant workers to protest, the other a journalist for the TV channel ABP, who had reported that trains would be running for the workers only.

And in a separate incident in Surat, Gujarat, more than 500 textile workers whose factories have been shut during the lockdown also protested, complaining of lack of food supplies and sanitation. “They are restless and anxious to return to their villages,” a police official told The Hindu.

The incidents highlight how difficult it will be for the country of nearly 1.4 billion people to enforce lockdown rules that increasingly place hardship on the poorest in society.

There are widespread reports of returning migrant workers skipping quarantine facilities in various states, complaining of squalid conditions and a lack of food and water amid rapidly rising temperatures as northern India approaches its summer.

In Bulandshahar district in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, a group of 16 people including women and toddlers who were under quarantine after crossing state borders escaped their facility by breaking out through a window.

Police, who have been told by the state government that they will be held responsible if the virus is allowed to spread through rural areas via returning workers, quickly rounded up the ground and re-quarantined them. “Security of the venue has been beefed up so that no such incident takes place again,” local police chief Santosh Singh told the Hindustan Times.

The easing of some measures from 20 April is unlikely to address the concerns of these restless migrant workers - but it could ease growing concerns about the supply chains bringing food and essential supplies to people, particularly in towns and cities.

India’s home ministry said that from Monday, farmers would be allowed to return to work and activity in key industries such as coal, mineral and oil production, and manufacturing for IT hardware and many essential goods, could resume.

Couriers will be allowed to start operating in cities, as will electricians, plumbers and repairmen. And the inter-state transport of goods, both essential and non-essential, will be allowed - potentially opening up major bottle-necks for commerce at state borders.

Most people will still have to stay at home, however, and the easing of measures will not take place in scores of districts across the country that have been identified as virus “hotspots”. These have effectively been sealed off, with only police and emergency services personnel allowed to enter and exit.

India has had 11,439 confirmed infections, government data showed on Wednesday, a jump of 1,076 from the previous day, and these include 377 dead. The numbers have begun rising sharply since the middle of March, when the government started rolling out testing more widely.

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