India: Migrant workers leave cities as COVID measures bite | Business and economic news


Migrant workers are crowding train stations in India’s financial capital Mumbai to return to their home villages now that coronavirus control measures have dried up work in the hard-hit region.

“What do I do now?” asked Ramzan Ali, who earned up to 500 rupees ($ 7) a day as a laborer but has been out of work for two weeks.

He arrived at Kurla station on Friday morning and joined a long line to buy a ticket to board a train to Balrampur, his village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Ali, 47, hopes to find work in the village to feed his wife and four children.

Similar scenes were also starting in New Delhi, where some migrant workers feared they would be stranded if a lockdown was declared.

The state government of Maharashtra, home to Mumbai, on Wednesday imposed lockdown-like restrictions for 15 days to verify the spread of the virus. It closed most industries, businesses and public places and restricted the movement of people, but did not stop bus, train and plane services.

An exodus ensued, with panicked day laborers carrying backpacks on overcrowded trains leaving Mumbai. Migration raises concerns that the virus could spread to rural areas.

Migrant workers from the state of Bihar, wearing masks, wait for a train at Lokmanya Tilak station in Mumbai, India [File: Rafiq Maqbool]

Maharashtra has been at the center of the recent record spike in new infections in the country. India on Friday recorded another high of 217,353 new cases in the past 24 hours, pushing its total since the start of the coronavirus pandemic to more than 14.2 million. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare also reported 1,185 deaths in the past 24 hours, bringing the death toll to 174,308.

The rush for migrant workers was not as desperate as it was last year, when Indian Railways suspended all passenger train services in a severe and sudden scale lockdown national. This forced tens of thousands of working poor people to walk or drive trucks and buses in the intense heat as they tried to return home.

Additionally, New Delhi, northern states like Punjab and Haryana, and western Rajasthan state have yet to see a large-scale movement of migrant workers because it is harvest season. Large farms hired laborers to harvest wheat and other crops and prepare to sow new crops.

Mohammad Aslam, 24, is a tailor in Mumbai, but said he was inactive for 18 days. He was queuing to board a train with relatives and others heading to the town of Muzaffarpur in eastern Bihar state.

“My extended family has a farm there and I can make money working there,” he said.

Shiva Sanjeev, 27, desperately wanted to get on a train because his 70-year-old grandfather is seriously ill in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh state.

“I get frantic calls from my parents and other family members to return to my hometown,” he said.

After orders to stay at home on weekends in New Delhi were announced on Thursday, several migrant workers said they feared a lockdown was not far away. A large crowd of migrant workers waited outside the capital’s Anand Vihar train station on Friday, with authorities only allowing confirmed ticket holders to enter the platform.

Sonu Sharma, a carpenter who works on construction sites, was waiting to board a train to his hometown, Begu Sarai, in the eastern state of Bihar.

“My work will stop on Saturday. I don’t want to be stuck here without a job if there is a lockdown, ”Sharma said.

He was in the Indian capital in March 2020 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a strict nationwide lockdown. For three months, he did not leave his house, living on his savings.

“But this time around, I have no more savings,” he said. “In case there is a lockdown, I will have nothing left.”

Azad, a construction worker who uses only one name, said after last year’s lockdown declaration he was unable to find transportation to return to his village in the Bihar State.

“It took me five days to walk home. It was horrible, ”Azad said, adding that it was safer to get home before things got worse.





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