Within hours of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing a nationwide lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19, a mass exodus of migrant labourers began across the country and continued for days to come. The threat of hunger, evictions and unemployment created by the lockdown forced hundreds of thousands to move towards their villages from urban centres. Even now, some are on their way home. On 29 March, the ministry of home affairs issued a set of mandates for state governments to deal with the migration, asking them to stop the labourers at the borders. The home ministry also asked states to enforce a 14-day quarantine for those who had crossed state lines and encouraged authorities to take action against those violating the lockdown. By then, accounts of police brutality against the walking migrants had already begun to emerge, and continued to be reported.
The Bundelkhand region in Uttar Pradesh, which covers seven districts, has seen a great influx of migrants coming back from neighbouring states. “The government’s double standards have been made evident,” Shyam Sundar, a teacher who hails from Itaha Devipur village in Bundelkhand’s Chitrakoot district, said. Sundar is the headmaster of a primary school. “It is bringing people in from abroad, but it does not seem to value the lives of labourers from villages.” Today, the average labourer is in crisis. He said he had been in touch with labourers who have returned to many villages in Bundelkhand. They told him “the terrible ordeals they have faced to come here,” he said. “The contractors have not paid them. They don’t have rations or food, and no drinking water. And they have had to travel thousands of kilometres … you only think.”
Other troubles awaited the returning migrant workers. On 13 and 14 March, there was a terrible hailstorm in Bundelkhand, Sundar said. The entire crop was ruined. “The roof tiles of these poor labourers’s homes, the cement sheets, their huts and their roofs have been completely destroyed,” Sundar said. He added that he had helped the labourers buy plastic sheets to cover their huts, “because there is still a full risk of rain.” He said he understood the plight of the migrant workers as he had worked as one himself, in Gujarat and in Punjab. “The government, the contractors and the factory owners, treat workers like parts of a machine,” he said.