Since the COVID-19 outbreak and the subsequent lockdown, urban informal sector workers in India have been forced into dangerous circumstances in a mass exodus back to their home villages and towns outside of the urban centres they work in. These workers typically have temporary living situations while working in cities, and the pandemic lockdowns triggered a mass layoff, forcing them to return to their homes. That can often be a distance of dozens or even hundreds of kilometres away, and many have made that journey on foot since March 2020, as public transportation (particularly long-distance buses and train services) was suspended amid concerns over transmission of the coronavirus. There were numerous deaths during these long and treacherous journeys (induced by accidents and hunger), often made along highways not meant for pedestrians.

There have also been 97 deaths on the special trains that were arranged later by the Indian government for ferrying these migrant workers home and preventing more on-foot migrations. The economic and social implications of this mass movement are significant, and a reminder of the widespread effects of the pandemic on different sectors and populations, notably the millions of informal workers. 

The migration started in March when the government imposed the lockdown. It is important to note that India houses about 139 million internal migrants, as noted by the World Economic Forum. These migrants, often coming from rural parts of the country, choose to migrate to cities and towns in search of work. The migrant workers mostly perform daily-wage labour jobs that make up the majority of the unorganized sector of the job market.  

With no job security and mass shutdowns of businesses and factories came sudden mass employment with millions facing evictions. The central and state governments pledged to arrange quick transportation and payment of these workers’ rents but to minimal avail.

Many workers still left against the will of the government, which sought to prevent thousands of people getting exposed in the cities and possibly bringing the virus back to their respective hometowns, and making the spread of the virus significantly more difficult to control in the country. Evidently, some people’s rents were paid, and landlords were barred from evicting workers unable to pay, and university students similarly pleaded the government for rent delays. How many labourers were spared from eviction is unclear, however, as evictions have continued to occur in major Indian cities during the pandemic.

In May, a huge number of migrants continued to return to their home villages after phases of the shutdown were extended and changed, necessitating a government plan to safely transport people and prevent unsafe migration on-foot. However, misguided planning and a lack of effective communication between the centre and state created a logistical nightmare wherein thousands of people returning home were forced to wait for hours in containment zones to be processed by the government. The crowding, along with intense heat, inefficient distribution of food, misuse and even disuse of transportation networks created a huge humanitarian crisis. The quick imposition of the shutdown by the government prevented people from having adequate time to make plans to get home safely and, according to a BBC report, “turned (people) into refugees overnight.” The BBC also pointed out the high number of people seeking to return home even still in May made practices of social distancing difficult, and in some cases created a public frenzy to secure train tickets. The BBC further noted that tickets were often very costly and only available for purchase with a smartphone, which many informal sector workers did not have access to, making it an example of classist disorganization in the priorities and logistics of it all. 

The Shramik Express trains that were started due to immense backlash from workers and the Indian media, extend across much of the country and are not free from problems. Numerous issues arose with the trains, including the railways wanting to charge passengers who were merely following government protocols. The central government refused to take responsibility for the lack of clarity regarding cost-sharing of these tickets, indicating it would pay 85% of the costs with state governments paying the remaining 15%, but then reneging on that promising and debating the economics of running a train line. This was settled in a Supreme Court case where it was determined that the states, and not the federal government, would bear most of these costs. 

More disturbing however are the circumstances around the approximately 97 people who died from a number of different causes while travelling on these trains. Some of the details of these deaths are still unknown. The central government also made an apparent effort to cover up and mislead the public about the casualty figures, claiming the deaths were not caused by the railways, but because “deceased persons were either suffering from pre-existing medical conditions or had recently undergone treatment.” A number of these instances involved children. The family members of the deceased contested the government’s claim, claiming the victims as being relatively healthy individuals, stating that the conditions were too severe to survive through.

The Modi government has been on the defensive and seems to have prioritized protecting its own image rather than focusing on correcting its course. Such steps have only prolonged the crisis. The Central Ministry of Labour and Employment continues to maintain that it has no data available on migrant deaths that occurred during the lockdown. Furthermore, while it is inarguably expensive to transport thousands of people, the prioritization of those in the government and in the railways over the economics and how tickets would be paid for is reminiscent of the reactions of the US government during the pandemic. The emphasis placed on the “cost” of helping those in need not only prolonged the immediate crisis but also ignores the long term economic implications of poverty and displacement. Informal sector workers are widely regarded as being the backbone of the Indian economy, and leaving these workers without a social safety net even in the times of crises is best understood as a violation of their human dignity and rights. With the migrant exodus, the continued lack of sufficient remedial schemes, systemic discrimination against the country’s minorities and the recent farmer protests, it remains unclear who the Modi government chooses to work for, as it is certainly not the common masses.

By Troy Van Buskirk Barter

Troy Van Buskirk Barter is a recent graduate of Occidental College in Los Angeles. He is very passionate about global issues of human rights, social movements, and politics. His experience includes field research done in Buenos Aires interviewing butcher shop owners about how their businesses had been affected by the Paris Climate Agreement, in an effort to better understand the effects of international agreements on micro-level economies.

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