NEW DELHI — For seven weeks, Vipin Kumar has huddled in a cramped shack in India's capital with his wife and three children during one of the world's strictest lockdowns. His job as a construction worker vanished overnight, and any money was long gone, forcing the family to survive on meals distributed at a nearby school.
Now he faces the most difficult decision of his life: whether to wait, penniless, for work to resume, or begin a perilous 270-mile journey home on foot.
“I don’t know how else to go back, and there is no money to stay,” said Kumar, 28.
Kumar’s predicament is shared by tens of millions of Indian migrant workers who are stranded in large cities without an income, longing for the refuge of homes hundreds of miles away. The choices they make will reshape their lives, with profound consequences for India’s economy and the country’s fight against the coronavirus.
India’s lockdown — which shut down nonessential businesses and all forms of long-distance travel — is expected to end on May 17. Some restrictions are likely to continue, although the government has yet to disclose which ones.
In recent weeks, the country has taken tentative steps toward a partial reopening of society, even as the number of coronavirus cases rises. India has reported more than 81,000 confirmed cases and 2,600 deaths.
While a few factories and businesses have resumed operations, the economic distress caused by the lockdown is immense. Laborers who migrated to cities for work — often poorly paid with no job security — have been among the worst hit. The disappearance of their jobs, coupled with the fear of the virus, triggered a mass exodus of people on foot, the largest since India became independent and Pakistan was created.
That migration continues nearly two months on: Men, women and children have walked, bicycled, hitchhiked, pulled handcarts and stuffed their bodies into concrete mixers in a desperate bid to get home. Dozens have perished in accidents or from sheer exhaustion. Last week, a group of migrant workers were crushed to death by a freight train after they fell asleep on a railway track after walking for miles.
The dangers of the journey mean that for migrants, it is “no longer a trade-off between lives and livelihoods but between lives and lives,” said a report last month from researchers trying to alleviate the plight of stranded workers. The group’s latest report found that nearly half of the workers who contacted them had less than a day of food supplies left.
In late April, more than a month after the lockdown began, the government took its first steps to assist migrant workers who wanted to go home. It allowed buses and then special trains to transport stranded workers. But that exercise has been mired in confusion, and the supply of transportation is limited.
On Thursday, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman promised to distribute free wheat or rice to nearly 80 million migrant workers for the next two months. The government also plans to develop cheap rental accommodations for workers in cities and boost its program to guarantee jobs in rural areas to help migrants who go home.
The mass exodus will “make it difficult to reopen the economy,” said Amit Basole, an economist at Azim Premji University in Bangalore. But “there is no easy solution. You cannot stop people from leaving.” Bringing the workers back to the city will also be a challenge given the uncertainty, Basole said.
Migrant workers are caught between whether to stay or go — and some are being forced to stay by employers who don’t want to lose their workforce. In the state of Karnataka, after a meeting with real estate developers, the government ordered that the special trains for migrants be halted. The decision prompted outrage and a court challenge and was swiftly reversed.
Krishnadev Rai, 35, a construction worker in Bangalore who hails from the northern state of Bihar, was relieved to hear about the special trains and longed to reunite with his wife and children 1,300 miles away.
The police told him that he could not leave without the permission of his employer. The company relented after a protest by the workers, said Rai. But on May 13, work restarted at Rai’s construction site, and he changed his plan overnight. He needs to earn money before he returns home, he said. “What else can a poor man do?”
Local governments are encouraging workers to stay where they are by offering financial assistance to those who are formally registered with the authorities. Bihar, a poor, populous state that is a major source of migrant workers, said it had made cash transfers to over 670,000 people across the country. It was also reluctant to accept workers returning home, to prevent the spread of the virus. More than a million workers have already returned home from major cities.
Kumar, the worker stranded in New Delhi, said his patience was running low. “We are trapped inside and suffocating,” said the father of three. He said he had run out of excuses to give his 4-year-old daughter, who cries for milk the family cannot buy. He knows migrants have died trying to reach home, but one day soon, he said, he may have to take his chances.
Some of those who got home say it was worth the risk. Chandra Mohan, a 24-year-old plumber, left Delhi in the first wave of migrants in late March. He reached his village after a three-day journey partly on foot. There is no work in the village either, but his family survives thanks to their small farm.
He is a relieved man. “I am glad I left,” he said. “Some of my friends who stayed back regret not coming.” Mohan said he will not return to the city until the pandemic ends.
On Thursday morning, the same desperation that led Mohan to leave was on full display on a highway on the outskirts of the nation’s capital. Anish Singh was one of dozens of men and women with their lives bundled on their backs trying to get home.
For the last 20 years, Singh has driven a bicycle rickshaw through the streets of Delhi. Now, after weeks with no work and little food, all he wanted was to be with his wife and children. They, too, were barely eating, since he could not send them any money during the lockdown.
Unable to read or write, Singh, 36, could not navigate the online booking process for the special migrant trains. He planned to work as a farm laborer back in the village. Ahead lay the road, already baking under the summer sun. He had 340 miles to go.
“I will walk as long as I can,” he said. “I have no other option.”
Tania Dutta contributed to this report.
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