Migrant workers rush to leave Mumbai over rumours of second lockdown

Squatting in a rare piece of shade outside the entrance of the Lokmanya Tilak Terminus, Vakil Ray pulls out a crumpled ticket from his pocket and scans the details.

Mr Ray is one of hundreds of migrant workers waiting outside one of Mumbai’s busiest railway stations, hoping to return to his home state of Bihar, in the north of India.

“Last year when the lockdown happened, I spent all my savings on food. I would be sitting by the side of the road and just eating from my pocket,” says Mr Ray.

“I am worried there is going to be another full lockdown and at least I will get fed in my home village as we have a small farm holding.”

Anxiety among Mumbai’s three million migrant workers has skyrocketed since the city was placed under a night-time curfew on Sunday, after it reported a 400 per cent increase in new infections from February, with further restrictions expected on Friday across the state of Maharashtra.

Vakil Ray (centre) waits outside the railway tation in Mumbai


Vakil Ray (centre) waits outside the railway tation in Mumbai


Credit: Joe Wallen

Typically employed informally, India’s 100 million migrant workers live hand-to-mouth and are dependent on daily cash payments.

They do not receive any compensation if they are off work due to sickness – even in the event of a global pandemic.

During India’s sudden nationwide two-month lockdown last year, which ended on June 1, approximately 400 million Indians were pushed further into poverty as they were unable to work – street stalls were shut, factories closed their doors and work paused on construction sites.

And, in the scorching heat outside Lokmanya Tilak Terminus, it looks like there might be a repeat of last year’s crisis. A drop in consumer spending has meant Mumbai’s tailors have closed their shops, fishermen have defaulted on rent payments on their flats and hospitality staff have been laid off due to a lack of tourists.

For Mr Ray, his monthly income as a taxi driver in Mumbai has already plummeted below half of the 25,000 rupees (£247) he was earning before Covid-19, with residents fearful of contracting the virus if they leave their homes.

“Many drivers could only afford to survive on packets of biscuits when business totally stopped over the weekend because of Holi [a Hindu festival]. But, there has been no money or food coming our way for some time,” said Mr Ray, who, like many, was unable to receive government food aid because he is registered with the authorities in Bihar.

“In Maharashtra, most migrants are very, very insecure at this point in time as the majority are daily wage labourers so they have to go into work to get paid,” said Rudrali Patil from the She and India Foundation, which has provided support to over 40,000 stranded migrant workers since March 2020.

“There is a sense of security back home as they will be with family and friends within familiar close-knit communities.”

The crowds outside Lokmanya Tilak Terminus do not yet match those seen in India’s cities last spring where thousands of migrants returned to their home villages.

But station workers say the numbers travelling to the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh – the biggest source of migrant workers in Mumbai – havw gradually increased since Sunday’s night curfew was announced.

Bookings on trains to some towns in Uttar Pradesh are full until April 8, according to reports in the Indian media, although the Station Manager at Lokmanya Tilak Terminus denies this. Many who spoke to the Telegraph said they were leaving Mumbai because they were worried about another lockdown. 

“A lot are worried about the added costs of going and how the journey is mentally antagonizing after last time. Lots haven’t gone yet but everyone is talking about it,” said Ms Patil.

Mr Ray is eager to travel early as last year he had to walk more than 100km to get home, hitching rides with sympathetic truck drivers along the way, only reaching home after six exhausting days.

The Indian government eventually put on special “Shramik” trains to transport stranded migrant workers home.  But they became contagion zones, with workers unwittingly transporting Covid-19 from India’s densely-populated cities to its largely unaffected periphery.

Now, there is rising concern among public health experts that India’s second wave will again spread from its cities to the villages. Like the majority of migrants at the Lokmanya Tilak Terminus, Mr Ray did not got tested before his journey.

“This is a disease that has been brought into India from an international level and it will likewise spread here from cities to rural areas. There is no other strategy than testing and tracing,” said Dr Jyoti Joshi, from the Center of Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy.

“It’s difficult to bring in mass testing at the last minute but this is something we can use strategically in a smarter manner. It would be prudent to have random testing with rapid tests at these mass exit points for a city like Mumbai and the destination states for migrants to narrow the spread.”

The Telegraph contacted the Maharashtra government about the situation faced by migrant workers but it did not respond. 

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