By 9 April, India had witnessed 192 deaths due to reasons related to the COVID-19—not necessarily from the virus directly—according to media reports compiled on the website of Thejesh GN, a public-interest technologist. A significant number among these casualties were migrants who died while trying to get home in the week after the centre announced a countrywide lockdown to combat COVID-19. The announcement— which just gave a notice of four hours—had predictably left migrant workers, who were surviving on hand-to-mouth jobs, without food, transportation, medicines or even a roof over their heads. While these consequence could be foreseen at the time of the announcement, the government’s response to the crisis seemed like an afterthought.
It was only on the second day of the lockdown that the government announced a relief package of Rs 1.7 lakh crore for vulnerable sections of society. On the fifth day, the ministry of home affairs issued an order under the Disaster Management Act to state and union territory administrations to restrict movement of migrants. The ministry asked states to keep all migrant workers who were going home “in the nearest shelter … for a minimum period of 14 days as per standard health protocol.” In the rush to sweep them away from public glare, the administrations of Haryana and Chandigarh hurriedly decided to convert indoor stadiums into temporary prisons. Meanwhile in Uttar Pradesh, health officials sprayed industrial disinfectant on migrants workers. These blows were delivered with condolences—on 29 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi apologised to his “underprivileged brothers and sisters” in a radio address and said there had been “no other way” to contain COVID-19 but to place the country under a lockdown.
The home ministry’s order termed the movement of migrant workers as “a violation of the lockdown measures.” It also prohibited employers from deducting wages and declared evictions from rented housing as a penal offence during the lockdown period. These amounted to little more than an unenforced governmental advisory to employers and landlords, and several experts spoke about the need to do more in terms of providing relief. But rights-based provisions available for migrant workers remained unenforced.