Covid-19 migrant crisis: How they returned
Millions of labourers spilled out of India’s cities in a desperate attempt to reach home during the lockdown. Their plight holds important takeaways for the country’s policymakers and development strategists
WALKING OR CYCLING
Roughly a week after the lockdown was imposed, workers started appearing on highways, bags slung on their backs, a bundle on their heads and children cradled in one arm. The most famous examples of this were Odisha resident Mahesh Jena, who pedalled 1,700km to get home, and Jyoti Kumari, who cycled with her ailing father in tow, from Gurugram to Darbhanga.
Remember the thousands-strong crowd at Delhi’s Anand Vihar bus terminus in the last week of March? Desperate migrant workers jostled with each other to get back home, often spending nights on the road so that they didn’t lose their place in the queue and eating only a small packet of biscuits. After a few days, some states organised buses to take them home.
The Centre started Shramik Special trains on May 1. Many of them ran from western states to northern and eastern India. Overall, 4,621 trains carried 6.3 million passengers between May 1 and August 31. The trains also ran into rows, first over fares, then delays and finally about poor facilities, especially when the image of a child trying to wake up his dead mother in Bihar went viral. The government denied the charges.
Stuck for months, some workers reached their home states after students and activists raised funds to charter flights. The first such flight took workers from Mumbai to Ranchi in the last week of May; after that, similar flights were funded by student groups, actors, activists and NGOs, though the overall numbers remained small.