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Migrant Workers In India Desperate After National Shutdown Leaves Them Stranded


The world's biggest democracy - that would be India - is under the world's biggest coronavirus lockdown. All of India's 1.3 billion people have been instructed to stay indoors even as the number of reported cases there remains low. Factories, most businesses, public transit - they are all shut down. That has left poor migrant workers desperate, without income and often without shelter. NPR's India correspondent Lauren Frayer sent us this report.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Well-off Indians isolate indoors, working from home, getting groceries delivered. But outside, it's a different story. An activist recorded video of poor people amassing in the street below her window.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: They yell up to her. There are 400 of us here without food. We need help, they say. There are lots of children. India's coronavirus lockdown has left tens of millions of poor laborers out of work. Most have no savings. Many lived in factory dormitories - now shut - and got stuck there when the government cut bus and train service.

ANJALI BHARDWAJ: There needed to be much better planning for this kind of a lockdown.

FRAYER: Activist Anjali Bhardwaj has been sharing these clips on social media.

BHARDWAJ: Heart-wrenching videos and pictures of people carrying their little ones on their backs and walking hundreds of miles to go back to their villages from cities like Delhi.

FRAYER: Highways are empty of vehicles but crowded with pedestrians carrying all their worldly belongings in bundles on top of their heads.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Hindi).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: I just want to go home, one man sobs on Indian TV as he tries to walk from the capital, New Delhi, to the eastern state of Bihar 600 miles away.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: If we stay here, one woman asks, what will we eat? Last week India announced more than $22 billion in coronavirus relief money, but economist Jayati Ghosh says that's not nearly enough.

JAYATI GHOSH: We need a much, much larger stimulus - at least two or three times that amount. And we need some clear indications that the government is worried about supply chains and how to maintain them.

FRAYER: Any disruption in food supplies could be especially deadly for the poor. Already, dozens have been killed in road accidents as they try to walk home. Ghosh says the government response has been geared more toward elites.

GHOSH: There's been a lot of fanfare about bringing back India to a standard abroad, a few relatively well-off people. But these migrant workers, they have to go very, very long distances. They're not just vulnerable to hunger.

FRAYER: They're also vulnerable to the coronavirus. Over the weekend, authorities dispatched a thousand buses to ferry migrant workers home, and within hours, hundreds of thousands of people packed into one of Delhi's bus stations, where police beat them with batons trying to keep order.


FRAYER: There was no social distancing. The fear is that these migrants could spread the coronavirus to rural areas where there are not enough hospitals. In his weekly radio address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi apologized particularly to the poor.



FRAYER: I made some decisions that caused you suffering, my poor brothers and sisters, Modi said. But for a nation like India, this was necessary, he said.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASPIAN'S "RIOSECO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.