At 8 pm on March 24, there were 564 reported COVID-19 cases in the country, with Kerala clocking the highest number at 107, and a country-wide toll of 10 deaths. At that hour, the COVID-19 caseload among the four to eight crore casual migrant wage labourers was very low, and their chance of infecting each other or persons in their proximity was almost negligible.
Yet, they were asked to stay put and immobilise themselves in their urban shelters — a euphemism for the shanties they called “home”. As word spread that all the “factories” were pulling down shutters, they realised that they had lost their informal jobs. Pauperisation loomed, especially in metros and cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Surat, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bhatinda. Overnight, lakhs of these dispossessed workers started their 1,200-km journeys home, on foot, cycle-carts, jugaad scooties, cement mixers — scenes which have been imprinted indelibly on the country’s consciousness.
At each district or state border, they were met with police lathis and bureaucratic obstinacy because the prime minister had announced the world’s strictest lockdown at four hours’ notice, which the police interpreted as licence to dominate the streets. Remember that at this stage, the migrant labourers plodding home had a very low chance of contracting or spreading COVID-19 since the caseload in the country was 564, and asymptomatic occurrence of the virus was proportionally slight.
While lakhs of migrants left on their treacherous journeys home, crores of others were not able to go back because they had small children, pregnant women or older family members with them, or simply lacked the few hundred rupees they needed for this journey. Soon their meagre savings ran out, they were turfed-out by landlords, who, of course, did not heed the government’s “advisory” to forego rents, and hordes of destitute families moved to pavements or under flyovers — lucky if one public toilet was available for 1,000 persons.
Over the next eight weeks, at least two crore migrants and families waited in such alarming circumstances for government help to return home. Data show that during these weeks, the COVID-19 virus made its journey through cities at an exponential rate, from persons who had returned to India from Wuhan, Italy, UK, Spain, the Middle East and from thousands of foreigners who congregated for the Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi.
The migrants who had to huddle together in unhygienic clusters became more susceptible to getting infected, and then infecting others. With each passing day, this susceptibility galloped. By the second week of May, when the Shramik Special trains gathered pace and started transporting the stranded workers and their families back to towns in states, the trains also transported the virus as a free rider in a much heavier “load” than if these casual labourers had been assisted to return to their villages in March. Quarantine centres at which the Shramik Special passengers had been detained, allegedly for seven to 14 days, were so porous that several state governments, such as Bihar, disbanded them.
Startlingly, therefore, the reverse migration of countless migrant labourers in May and June has given a passage to the COVID-19 pathogen to the country’s poorest hinterlands in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and districts in West Bengal and Odisha. This would have been almost completely mitigated if the Shramik Specials had started in March. A doctor in a district hospital in Bihar summed up the current plight in the villages, “Public ko aam ke achaar ki tarah COVID ke tel mein duba diya gaya hai”. (The public has been marinated in this COVID pathogen.)
“Chronology samajhiye”, to use a well-known political phrase: In March, when crores of the migrants had a very low chance of being infected or infecting their neighbours in their home villages with the virus, the government froze their movement, dragging the ban on movement for excruciating weeks. And in May and June and up to today, when the chance of infection is exponentially higher, both to themselves and their contacts in their villages, the government has now provided trains and buses back to their homes on “humanitarian” grounds.
There’s yet another twist. In the last 10 days, buses from Punjab, Andhra Pradesh have reached villages in Bihar, Chattisgarh, UP to fetch the migrants back to their original work sites for paddy sowing or completing irrigation projects. Construction firms, such as the Prestige Group of Hyderabad, have flown back carpenters from Patna. Other firms are flying back painters, granite workers, scaffolding experts from Jharkhand and West Bengal. Will the re-reverse migration be considered a formidable source of COVID-19 infection in the cities? If so, then why are migrants being transported back in double track Shramik Specials, and why are they being facilitated to return to their workplaces? But if they are not spreaders of infection, why were they and others prevented from returning home?
The COVID emergency had been building up since early January, when the Ministry of Health claims it started tracking the virus in China. But in the first three months of the year, other priorities claimed our top leaders’ attention — anti-CAA protests, US President Donald Trump’s visit, including the Motera stadium congregation, communal riots, toppling of the MP government.
There is no evidence that the PMO, cabinet secretariat and various ministries had started implementing an orderly evacuation of susceptible populations from the cities (COVID-19 hotspots) since January, but 12 weeks later when the first precipitate action of the March 24 lockdown did come, it fell it like a guillotine on India’s aspirational poorest who had almost no chance of infecting others. And, now the same migrants are being wooed back. Who devised this irrational scheme? Who approved it? Who will unmask the truth?
The writer is a senior journalist
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines