‘Hunger Can Kill More:’ Social Workers Raise Concerns as COVID-19 Shutdown Causes Massive Exodus in India’s Capital

A week after India imposed a three-week nationwide lockdown to control the CCP virus outbreak, community workers are worried about the labor migrant class stranded on the capital’s border, saying that hunger and chaos may kill more people than the infection.

The second most populous country of 1.3 billion people has 979 confirmed cases of infection and 25 fatal cases, as of Sunday.

On Tuesday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended a lockdown that was supposed to end on March 31 to April 14 to help the country prepare for the pandemic.

On Saturday, Indian media reports said thousands of migrant workers who lost their means of living because of the lockdown gathered at New Delhi’s Anand Vihar Bus terminal to board buses arranged by the Delhi and neighboring Uttar Pradesh State governments to go back home.

While the number couldn’t be confirmed by The Epoch Times, some of the non-profits shared on social media that this number could be in the hundreds of thousands.

An Indian health worker sprays disinfectant on the luggage of migrant workers and laborers along with their families stuck in the national capital, as they wait to board buses to return to their native villages in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts New Delhi, at border with Uttar Pradesh state on March 29, 2020. (Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)

Modi sought forgiveness from his countrymen for their woes on Sunday. “I would firstly like to seek forgiveness from all my countrymen,” Modi said in a nationwide radio address.

The poor “would definitely be thinking what kind of prime minister is this, who has put us into so much trouble,” he said, urging people to understand there was no other option.

According to government statistics, every year more than 9 million migrant workers move from India’s rural areas to large population centers to find work at construction sites or factories, sending money back to their home towns and villages.

Sunil Kumar Aledia, who has been working with the homeless population of Delhi for two decades, said he has not seen anything like the exodus he has witnessed since the lockdown.

“They forgot the marginalized class. India is no longer an agricultural nation. We are now a land of laborers,” Aledia, the Executive Director at the Centre for Holistic Development, told The Epoch Times over the phone.

Aledia has a special permit issued by the authorities that allows him to go to work during the lockdown, and every day, on his way back home, he picks up bananas from a food bank to distribute to migrant workers he finds walking the long distance home.

Migrant workers and their family members walk to catch a bus as they leave India’s capital for their homes during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in New Delhi on March 29, 2020. (Sajjad Hussain/AFP)

The chaos on the roads has been an emotional experience for Aledia, who said he is haunted by the scene of a migrant family walking on the road and a small child begging his father to carry him as he is tired and can no longer walk.

Over the past week, Aledia has seen people walking and carrying things on their four-wheeled carts that were used to sell vegetables and wares on Delhi streets before the lockdown and also families on three-wheeled rickshaws.

Every day he has been visiting 2,500 migrant workers who are building a flyover behind the CNG gas station at Sarai Kale Khan locality. He said they didn’t have enough to eat.

“I called on the Delhi government’s helpline number for food and instead of food for 2500 people, they sent food for only 200,” said Aledia, adding that 1,800 of them were still lodged in the building on Sunday.

This week, the Indian government pledged $22.6 billion to support the migrant workers who are stranded without work and far from their homes, including providing community kitchens and food deliveries.

“We have installed more than 12 thousand vehicles in the state to transport vegetables, milk, medicines and food grains from door to door,” Uttar Pradesh chief minister (elected head) Yogi Adityanath said on his official Twitter Wednesday night.

“No person at night shelters, bus and railway stations … will stay hungry or thirsty,” he said.

But for Aledia, this reverse exodus from the national capital to villages is extremely difficult to manage because of its scale and he fears more people may die due to hunger than due to COVID-19.

“As per the action plan all shelters for homeless should have been locked down and sanitized but this didn’t happen. Instead the Chief Minister of Delhi asked anyone hungry to go there for food,” Aledia described how lockdown that was enforced for quarantine became impossible for the migrant class because of hunger and government announcements that he alleges to be “politically motivated.”

The capital of India has 234 shelters for homeless, according to Aledia. On March 21, the administration of Delhi state announced that free food will be served to the homeless and all others stranded due to the lockdown.

When asked if these crowds gathering for food at the homeless shelters are getting tested for coronavirus, Aledia said, “Health is a privilege for these people. Their concern is food.”

Like Aledia, Manjeet Singh works with homeless people in New Delhi. He had gone home 323 miles away in Pathankot city in the Punjab state when the lockdown was announced.

Singh said he had to secure a special permit by the district magistrate of his city to travel. He biked for nine hours on Saturday to reach Delhi.

Singh found all markets closed on the way and was stopped at about 10 police checkpoints installed on the national highway to control the influx of people during the lockdown.

“At many places I saw people walking on foot. Some migrant laborers from Uttar Pradesh were ferried in trucks and left on the inter-state border,” said Singh who supervises six shelters for the homeless at the Cannaught place locality.

At some places, Singh witnessed many acts of kindness where locals had gathered to offer rice and water to the stranded migrant laborers on road.

When asked why he didn’t stay back at home during the lockdown and why he’s risking his life, Singh repeated many times: “I’m responsible for the shelters here.”

Singh resonated what many religious Indians believe about life and death. “Whenever death has to come, it’ll come. I’ll face it,” he said.

CNN News Wire and Reuters contributed to this report.

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Author: Venus Upadhayaya

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