What a lockdown means when home is hundreds of miles away

Why We Wrote This

“Stay at home” is a common refrain as countries announce lockdowns against COVID-19. But that can be practically impossible for society’s most vulnerable. That challenge has played out on a massive scale in India.

Altaf Qadri/AP
A couple carrying an infant walk along an expressway in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi, March 26, 2020, trying to reach their home hundreds of miles away. Over the past week, India’s migrant workers spilled out of big cities that have been shuttered due to the coronavirus.

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Like much of the globe, 1.3 billion people in India are under orders to stay inside due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Here, as elsewhere, officials are wrestling with how to balance public health with the economy’s health, particularly for society’s most vulnerable. That question has especially high stakes in India, where some 80% to 90% of the workforce are informal workers, often left out of safety-net schemes. And the challenges perhaps have been most dire for 100 million internal migrant workers, many of whom attempted to walk hundreds of miles home after losing work, and often shelter, during the lockdown.

Officials have since set up assistance, such as soup kitchens, and forbidden migrants’ landlords from demanding rent for the month. But the crisis has shone a spotlight on existing inequalities and resulting challenges that could endure beyond the lockdown.

“There is no simple answer to this tragic dilemma between two humanitarian crises – the spread of the virus and the devastation caused by the lockdown – but some basic principles apply,” says Jean Drèze, an activist and visiting economics professor at the University of Ranchi. “One of them is that no one should be allowed to starve.”

Late last month, as India’s transport came to a halt and its residents prepared for lockdown, Prakash Meghwal began a long walk home. With roughly a dollar and a half in his pocket, and three other people for company, he traced his way through forested land, careful to avoid the main roads whenever possible. Small roadside shops provided them some food during the day and shelter outside their shuttered fronts at night. 

“We were scared,” Mr. Meghwal says. “‘What just happened?’ we wondered. We have never experienced anything like this before in our lifetime.” Six days later, having covered more than 90 miles on foot, he reached his village in Rajasthan state.

For over a decade, Mr. Meghwal worked as a waiter in the tourist hill town Mount Abu, and sent money to his family of six back home. But suddenly, with the new coronavirus shutting down business, there was no work or wages, and he was forced to return home. His household no longer has a source of income.

In the face of a pandemic, a third of the global population is under some form of lockdown, and countries are grappling with how to balance health and the economy – particularly for society’s most vulnerable. And on March 24, with only four hours’ notice, India began the world’s biggest test yet: Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered the entire country of 1.3 billion people to stay indoors for 21 days.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

The announcement did not include any concrete transport, safety, or economic measures for India’s roughly 400 million informal workers, who are estimated to make up 80% to 90% of the total workforce and live without a safety net. With businesses and establishments shut down, they lost their daily wages; many of the country’s roughly 100 million migrant workers have also lost the roof over their head. Balancing either the belongings on their heads or young children on their shoulders, hundreds of thousands tried to walk back home. 

Many have faced hunger and police brutality. At least 22 migrants have died on the way.

Adnan Abidi/Reuters
Migrant workers and homeless people rest inside a sports complex turned into a shelter, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19, in New Delhi, India, April 4, 2020.

Some states organized buses to help the migrants, but bus stops quickly became overcrowded. A few days later, fearing a surge in coronavirus cases due to the movement of migrants, the central government ordered states to seal their borders. It announced food and cash assistance, forbade migrants’ landlords from demanding rent for a month, and ordered that businesses must pay wages for the duration of the lockdown. But the crisis has shone a spotlight on inequalities that predate COVID-19. Those disparities are likely to endure beyond this particular crisis.

“India’s economic growth model is based on the cheap labour of rural-to-urban migrants who often work for less than minimum wages in its high growth sectors. Yet they remain an unenumerated, unrecognized presence in cities,” excluded from many welfare programs, says Nivedita Jayaram of the nonprofit Aajeevika Bureau, which advocates for migrants and laborers. “There is an absolute gap ... the inability of the governments to be able to tell how many migrants are in a city, let alone reach them. The pandemic and lockdown has only exposed this fundamental flaw in India's policy design.”

Most migrants are not included in the Public Distribution System, which entitles poor families to subsidized grains. Owing to the long list of intermediaries involved in employing a migrant worker, the order to pay wages is difficult to enforce too. 

Some states have tried to boost migrants’ support: Kerala, for example, was one of the first states to enhance social security pensions and set up shelters, and New Delhi has opened more than 1,000 food centers. But more is needed, especially in smaller towns and far-flung areas “where hunger is more stark and fear is more prevalent,” says Suroor Mander, a lawyer and activist with the nonprofit Karwan-e Mohabbat.

“There is no simple answer to this tragic dilemma between two humanitarian crises – the spread of the virus and the devastation caused by the lockdown – but some basic principles apply,” says Jean Drèze, an activist and visiting economics professor at the University of Ranchi. “One of them is that no one should be allowed to starve.”

More than hunger

Living in overcrowded homes or shelters, India’s workers have been left more vulnerable to the pandemic. But with such a large population already struggling with hunger, additional measures to address their health and safety have been pushed to the brink. In one state, returning migrants were asked to squat on the road, and sprayed with a bleaching agent. 

According to Manisha Dutta, a public health professional in Udaipur, there continues to be inconsistent, inadequate information about the pandemic, which has led to confusion and fear among migrant workers. Returning migrants are reportedly being screened for the coronavirus in a number of states, but she is worried it isn’t rigorous enough.

Teachers and health workers have hurriedly been asked to step in and screen returnees. Most of them are at the front lines without safety gear and have not received proper training, Ms. Dutta says. In addition, “there are also a number of horrible rumors doing the rounds, some that refer to migrants being disease carriers and taken away by the police. ... So this has all been really intimidating for them.” 

At the best of times, accessing health care is challenging for many migrants. Among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development members and partners, India has the fewest number of hospital beds per 1,000 people. Mr. Meghwal said his young children are frequently ill, but he is no longer able to take them to the nearest health center, about 15 miles away, because of the lockdown. 

Health experts are especially concerned about tuberculosis among migrant workers, particularly at a time when many will be malnourished. India has the highest TB burden in the world, according to the World Health Organization, and the disease disproportionately affects poor and marginalized people.

Preparing for the long haul 

Once India has provided adequate rations and cash distributions, experts warn, it needs to confront long-term challenges, including job creation. 

“The migration system is broken now and this means there will be a shortage of labour in many sectors,” says Dipa Sinha, professor of economics at Delhi’s Ambedkar University. “For instance, this is harvest season in northern India, which relies on migrant farm labourers from states like Bihar. The crops can’t be allowed to simply go to waste.” 

The Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Rural Guarantee Act, which provides at least 100 days of paid employment per year to unskilled laborers, has come to a halt under the lockdown. In the longer run, however, workers’ advocates view it as a crucial system to provide income to migrant workers who’ve returned to their villages, and officials are asking for the strengthening of the act. 

An ambitious One Nation One Ration Card scheme, which aims to make subsidized food available to workers who are currently left out, is scheduled to be operational in June. On-the-ground implementation remains a challenge, however.

The lockdown is scheduled to end Tuesday, but is likely to be extended. As the number of cases rises, many are calling for continued, but more humane, social distancing measures. But for now, many migrant workers’ main concern is their livelihood. With many rural areas’ economies focused on agriculture, returned workers face few job prospects.

“The plan is to go back as soon as I can. What other option is there?” Mr. Meghwal says. “I have to work and feed my family after all.” 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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