Jobless, without money to pay rent or for food, thousands of migrant workers flooded the interstate Anand Vihar bus terminal on Saturday to board buses back home from across the border in Kaushambi, Uttar Pradesh — posing just the kind of risk India was trying to avoid with a 21-day lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (Covid-19).
Government and police officers on the ground estimated the gathering to be more than 100,000.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi called up Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on Saturday to discuss measures to clear the UP-Delhi border. The chief minister is learnt to have said the Delhi government had left no stone unturned in convincing people to stay back and adhere to the lockdown.
“Shelters have been provided and adequate food has been arranged. However, a large number of people refused, especially after the Uttar Pradesh government started providing buses. In Delhi, the deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia himself went to the city border to convince groups and partially succeeded. All MLAs were asked to step up relief operations for the poor. The CM informed the PM about all these steps,” said a senior officer in the chief minister’s office.
After the PM raised concern over the issue, the states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Bihar and Delhi stepped up their coordination and arrangements to ferry migrant workers to their hometowns.
“To decongest the Anand Vihar-Ghaziabad border, the UP, Haryana and Bihar governments are now planning to deploy around 2,000 buses tonight. The aim is to clear most of the people waiting at Anand Vihar overnight,” a senior official in the Delhi government said.
Carrying merely a few sets of clothes in their bags, and with leftover cash, covering their mouths with handkerchiefs, migrant workers from across the city walked on the roads of east Delhi with their families and associates to join the 2km long queue at the Delhi-UP border to board buses back home.
Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath said in a statement that he has issued orders to district magistrates to ensure that the around 100,000 people who have crossed into the state be home quarantined.
The workers who stood in the queue on the road to cross the border had something in common: they had all lost their jobs.
Until last week, they lived in the factories or shops where they worked but all had been shut in the wake of the nationwide lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday evening as one of the measures to control the spread of the Sars-CoV-2 virus. Their employers had asked them to return home.
The Delhi government pressed 570 buses into service to ferry such migrant workers from across the city to the borders but most officers on the ground said it wasn’t enough. Right across the road at the Kaushambi bus terminus, the Uttar Pradesh government provided 500 buses to drop them to their villages in UP.
During the day, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal appealed to the people to “stay back”, assuring them of shelter and regular meals, even as he said that such an exodus potentially increases the risk of spread.
“The lockdown imposed by the Prime Minister was a necessary step to stop the spread of coronavirus. We must understand that if we violate the lockdown, we may end up risking ourselves like many other countries across the world where the virus has claimed thousands of lives. I can understand how people are anxious and why they insist on heading back home. They fear that it [the lockdown] may last longer. But it is my appeal to them to stay back for their own safety. Such an exodus increases the risk of spread,” said Kejriwal.
But the numbers continued to swell till late on Saturday night. From different parts of the city, workers continued to walk to the border. The Delhi government’s buses were full.
Radha Yadav,43, who worked at a factory in Nangloi, was among the many walking towards the border. He said he had heard the government’s appeal but would continue to walk. “I don’t have a job or a home here. If I have to die, I will die in my village.”
Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar, expressed his reservations about the UP government’s decision to run special buses to ferry migrants from Ghaziabad-Noida. “It’s a wrong step. This is will help further in the spread of the virus, which will be difficult to contain. This will defeat the entire purpose of the lockdown. Arrangements should be made at that very place where the person is staying,” he said on Saturday.
He suggested that camps should be made at the local level with provisions for accommodation and food.
The Union home ministry on Saturday issued an order asking all states to use the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) to provide temporary accommodation, food, clothing and medical care to the migrants in relief camps and other places.
The funding directive comes a day after the ministry asked the states to make arrangements for the food and basic amenities for such people.
Two airlines, SpiceJet and GoAir, offered the government their fleets to transport those migrating across states. As of Saturday, no government agency appeared to have responded to the offer.
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