India’s Poor Flee Cities in Mass Exodus During Coronavirus Lockdown

In small groups and large crowds, through inner-city lanes and down interstate highways, hundreds of thousands of India’s poorest are slowly making a desperate journey on foot back to their villages in a mass exodus unseen since the days immediately after India’s independence in 1947.

For many, it’s a matter of life and death. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s order last Tuesday to lock down the country for 21 days to prevent the spread of Covid-19 has dried up work in urban areas, leaving many rural migrants who keep the city moving while making less than $2 a day — construction workers, handymen, food sellers, truck drivers and household help — suddenly wondering how they’ll pay rent or buy food.

“We have to go to our village — we will starve here,” said Rekha Devi as she walked with her husband and two young children down a highway outside of Delhi, heading to see her family some 370 kilometers (270 miles) away. The couple lived on the construction site where they worked, but the job stopped suddenly more than a week ago.

“We haven’t eaten for two days,” Devi said, noting that the little money they had saved quickly ran out. “We are scared of this disease but I think hunger will kill us. We will stay hungry, but how can we watch our children starve?”

The family on Sunday walked with hundreds of others down a highway normally clogged with vehicles, their mouths and noses covered with scarves or handkerchiefs or masks. They clasped their children and belongings — tattered duffel bags stuffed with clothes, buckets filled with cooking utensils, blankets and sheets.

The grim scenes playing out across the nation of 1.3 billion people are some of the worst across the world since the virus crisis shut down much of the global economy. In India, it’s brought back memories of the mass migration sparked by deadly religious riots when the subcontinent was split up after the British left in 1947. These days, however, the divide is largely between those in India with money and those who live month by month, or even day by day.

What’s worse, the mass movement of people risks speeding the spread of the coronavirus across the country — undermining the goal of the 21-day lockdown. Right now, it’s nearly impossible to tell what will happen because India lacks testing data to determine what stage the pandemic has reached, according to Gagandeep Kang, an infectious disease expert and head of India’s Translational Health Science and Technology Institute outside of Delhi.

“Because we are not testing enough, we don’t know what this means in terms of disease spread,” Kang said. “If very few people are infected today, then they’re going home and if they reach home safely then that might be the best thing for them,” she added, while saying cases will emerge throughout the country in two to four weeks if many migrants already have Covid-19.

Modi last week announced the nationwide lockdown in a prime-time television address, prompting middle-class Indian families to rush to the nearest supermarket to buy food. Panic had been spreading among migrant workers even before Modi shuttered India’s massive railway network and grounded all domestic and international flights: Smaller, state-wide lockdowns had already hit daily wage earners, prompting hundreds of thousands to cram into trains and buses to reach the safety of their villages.

Modi’s government on Sunday asked states to quarantine migrant workers for 14 days and prevent them from traveling elsewhere in the country as the official case toll rose to more than 1,000, including 25 deaths. In a radio address, Modi apologized to the nation while urging them to understand he had no other option. His government earlier approved a 1.7 trillion rupee ($23 billion) stimulus package targeted at the poor.

“I had to take certain decisions which have put you in lots of difficulty, especially when I look at my poor brothers and sisters,” Modi said in a nationwide radio on Sunday. “They must be thinking what kind of prime minister is this who placed us in this difficulty. I seek their forgiveness.”

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