The heartbreaking scenes of large crowds of inter-state migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometres from their places of work, mostly in urban centres, back to their villages could have been avoided if the lockdown was planned and executed in a phased and calibrated manner. Instead, it took the form of shock therapy, putting this vast segment of India’s workforce under threat of death by COVID-19 away from their dear ones, or of death by exhaustion and starvation in the company of their near ones. With the alarming spread of the virus, there doesn’t seem to be an escape from either of these.
Reports by mediapersons and researchers suggest that those who decided to return to their places of origin were already living and working in precarious conditions. Employed, but with no employment security or even a semblance of social security, they often resided in makeshift shelters at construction sites, or rented small rooms, often in slums. Many had no ration or Aadhaar cards. When their workplaces were closed down without even a day’s notice, what they lost was their means of livelihood. Rents could not be paid, daily expenses could not be met and no money could be sent home. It was tougher for those who lived with their families. Employers as well as neighbours and friends who could afford to stay back encouraged them to return to their homes, but the government stopped all means of transport. So thousands took to the roads and walked hundreds of kilometres.