>> Maria Abi-Habib and Sameer Yasir, The New York Times
Published: 2020-03-30 03:57:58 BdST
With businesses shut down in cities across the country, vast numbers of migrants — many of whom lived and ate where they worked — were suddenly without food and shelter. Soup kitchens in Delhi, the capital, have been overwhelmed.
Thousands of migrants in Delhi, including whole families, packed their pots, pans and blankets into rucksacks, some balancing children on their shoulders as they walked along interstate highways. Some planned to walk hundreds of miles. But as they reached the Delhi border, many were beaten back by police.
“You fear the disease, living on the streets. But I fear hunger more, not corona,” said Papu, 32, who came to Delhi three weeks ago for work and was now trying to return to his home in Saharanpur in the state of Uttar Pradesh, 125 miles away.
While dozens of countries across the world are under lockdown to contain the virus’s spread, in crowded and impoverished places like India, many fear that the measures could spark social unrest. Millions of people live in Indian slums, and staying at home for three weeks — as Modi has ordered — is a daunting prospect in such places, where dozens of family members often share a few rooms.
Migrant labourers have been protesting the lockdown across India. On Saturday, thousands came out to the streets in the southern state of Kerala saying they had not eaten in days. Authorities urged them to disperse for their own safety, but they ignored the commands.
Migrant workers rest at a park in New Delhi, March 25, 2020. Millions of migrant labourers in Indian cities live and eat where they work, and the sudden shutdown of businesses has upended their lives. (Rebecca Conway/The New York Times)
But by Sunday afternoon, the central government had ordered states to reverse course and seal their borders, ordering migrants to stay where they are. The reversal added to the already confused rollout of the lockdown, which has prompted state government actions often at odds with the central government’s orders. Police, often confused, have resorted to violence.
India already had one of the world’s largest homeless populations, and the lockdown has swelled its numbers exponentially, workers for nongovernmental organisations say. A 2011 government census put the number of homeless at 1.7 million — almost certainly a vast underestimate in this country of 1.3 billion, experts say.
Modi announced the lockdown, which includes a ban on interstate travel, with just four hours’ notice Tuesday, leaving the enormous migrant population stranded in big cities. Jobs lure at least 45 million people to cities from the countryside every year, according to government estimates.
Many of those migrants are fed and housed at the shops and construction sites where they work, and as businesses closed, hundreds of thousands — if not millions — were suddenly without their homes and a regular source of food.
A group of 13 men walking along a Delhi highway last week, bound for their homes in Uttar Pradesh, said they had not eaten in nearly two days. They had about $3 between them, they said.
“This may have been a good decision for the wealthy, but not those of us with no money,” said Deepak Kumar, a 28-year-old truck driver, referring to the lockdown.
Sirens approached in the distance, and the men ran away, worried it was the police. It turned out to be an ambulance, and the men regrouped and set off again.
Aid workers warn that the situation could deteriorate into violence if the desperation increases and people continue to go without food.
Soup kitchens across Delhi are unable to cope with the demand, which aid workers estimate has tripled. Fights have been breaking out. The government has given police no explicit policy for dealing with stranded migrants, and many officers have lashed out.
Pappu, who is unable to return to his hometown, outside a shelter in New Delhi on March 26, 2020. Millions of migrant labourers in Indian cities live and eat where they work, and the sudden shutdown of businesses has upended their lives. (Rebecca Conway/The New York Times)
Usually, the homeless are fed by India’s array of religious institutions: Hindu temples, Sikh gurdwaras and mosques. But now everything is closed, and shelters are feeling the strain.
“The pressure has increased drastically. People can’t walk the streets, and if it remains like this, the situation will explode,” said Nishu Tripathi, 29, a supervisor at a soup kitchen opened by Safe Approach, a Delhi-based nongovernmental organisation.
“Every time we start distributing food, we are charged by the crowd,” he said.
Safe Approach started an open-air soup kitchen in northeast Delhi last week. It now serves 8,000 people. As people lined up for food there Thursday, police cars circled, sirens blaring.
“Leave this place! Go inside. Separate! Separate! Maintain distance!” police yelled through a loudspeaker.
As a group of men and boys, some disabled and hobbling on makeshift crutches, walked along the highway toward the soup kitchen, police officers suddenly began beating them with bamboo sticks. “Maintain social distance!” they yelled.
A boy of about 15 was hit in the mouth, his wails exposing his blood-soaked teeth. An angry crowd formed to console him. “Why would they do that!” screamed a man waiting for food. “He was walking here. Why would they treat us like this!”
Tripathi, the supervisor, turned to reporters. “Go — we cannot ensure your safety,” he said.
Despite government orders to allow the transportation of essential items like food and medicine during the lockdown, vendors complain their delivery trucks are being harassed by police and their stores forced to shut.
People at a homeless shelter for women and children in New Delhi, March 26, 2020. Millions of migrant labourers in Indian cities live and eat where they work, and the sudden shutdown of businesses has upended their lives. (Rebecca Conway/The New York Times)
As lunchtime neared and the crowd grew, Chandael, like Tripathi, advised reporters to leave for their safety.
On Thursday, the government announced a $22.5 billion relief package to support the millions made unemployed by the lockdown. But it is unclear how much that will help migrants and others in India’s enormous off-the-books workforce — believed to make up 80% of India’s 470 million workers — who are likely to have trouble getting access to the benefits.
The aid, including cash and food handouts, is tied to registration in national labour databases, which omit many migrant workers, or a home address, which many migrants do not have.
Modi has said that shutting down for three weeks is India’s only hope to prevent a devastating epidemic. As of Sunday, 980 people in the country had tested positive for the coronavirus, with 24 dead.
Supervisors at a shelter for women and children in Nizamuddin, a neighbourhood in Central Delhi, said the government had given them soap for the first time and that they were under orders to teach those seeking shelter about the coronavirus and force them to wash their hands and take showers.
“It’s hard; they aren’t used to washing all the time,” said Rajesh Kumar, the shelter’s supervisor.
The previous night, he said, about 70 women with dozens of children had started banging on the gate to the shelter, begging to be let in, saying they had been beaten by police for sleeping on the road. But the shelter was full, and he had to turn them away.
He said most homeless people he encountered had known nothing about the coronavirus and had awakened one day to find police shooing them off the streets and ordering them to practice social distancing — a new catchword in India, as in most of the world.
“But where do the homeless go?” he asked.
©2020 The New York Times Company