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.
Sundar said he had given up his school’s keys to the panchayat head, so that the government could set up facilities to quarantine the returning workers. Another principal living in Chitrakoot, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he had gotten his school cleaned for the same purpose. The second principal was worried about the situation the quarantined workers would face. “You must understand that there is no toilet arrangement nor any fans,” he said. “The condition of these government schools is not right. If the labourers escape coronavirus, then they will be killed by malaria or dengue.” The government had not made any arrangements ahead of time, the second principal said. “The government’s failure is before us.”
The second principal said that the village pradhan had asked villagers to surround the village and keep a watch. The police had instructed the pradhan to let them know of anyone who returned home. These returning workers were to be examined and immediately quarantined in the school, he said. “If you travel across Chitrakoot, you will see that most homes are locked up. These people go to UP, Punjab and Haryana to work on kilns and are now returning from there. Their houses have been completely broken in the hailstorm.”