Migrant workers from across Delhi-NCR queue up to board buses at Anand Vihar on Saturday in a desperate attempt to go home — the destination in most cases being Uttar Pradesh. (Photo: Gulam Jeelani/Pankaj Nangia/India Today)
On Saturday afternoon, on the fourth day of the lockdown to prevent the spread of the novel Coronavirus, tens of thousands of migrant workers from Delhi-NCR assembled outside the Anand Vihar Bus Terminal elbowing each other to board the first available bus that would take them to their hometown or village.
This mass exodus was witnessed hours after the Delhi, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh governments announced the availability of hundreds of buses for those trying to leave Delhi and lining up the highways of the National Capital Region.
Mandatory social distancing norms were thrown to the wind as thousands of desperate workers converged at bus terminals, posing a massive health risk.
The absence of social distancing can trigger community transmission of the virus, which the government says has not yet happened in the country. Experts said that the government should have been better prepared since "more than 45% of the working force in India is daily wagers."
Doctors pointed out that thousands of people walking together defeat the very purpose of isolation and breaking the 'viral' chain.
"There is a risk that people who are in these clusters can spread infection amongst themselves and multiply it as they travel from one of part of the country to the other," said Dr Manoj Goel, Director, Pulmonology, Fortis Memorial Research Institute in Gurgugram.
Dr Arun Lakhanpal, Senior Pulmonologist, Yatharth Superspecialty Hospital, concurs.
"All migrant workers must wear a mask. While walking as a group or in a bus, they must maintain a safe distance from others. They must avoid travelling with those with fever or cough," he said, asserting that even if one infected person goes in the crowd of thousands, the results will be devastating.
The pandemic can reach the small villages where these labourers are headed and then spread like wildfire. While the UP-bound workers travelled eastwards towards Anand Vihar, those headed to Rajasthan and other states were seen heading south, towards the districts of Haryana.
"I worked at a construction site in Gurugram. My landlord said I should vacate the room. There is no work either. What does a poor man like me do in this situation?" asks Brajesh, 40, who was seen walking towards the UP-Delhi border in Ghazipur to catch a bus to Bahraich in Uttar Pradesh.
The sight of migrants' workers walking hundreds of kilometres is not only heartbreaking but alarming from a healthcare point of view, said Jugal Kishore, Director at the Vardhman Mahavir Medical College and Safdarjung Hospital.
"Epidemiologically, reverse migration is dangerous because if any one of them is infected with Coronavirus, then the deadly disease is going to reach our villages where healthcare infrastructure is extremely poor," added Kishore.
Most of those like Brajesh who were headed home said they had been asked by landlords to vacate their rooms.
By Friday, people from nearby districts in West UP such as Meerut and Moradabad were seen walking on the road. The number of travellers increased exponentially, especially to faraway areas, on Saturday after the state governments announced buses will facilitate travel to the bordering states of Delhi.
The number of Coronavirus infected cases in India crossed the 900 mark on Saturday with 19 deaths. In Delhi, the cases rose to 49 with nine fresh confirmed cases on Saturday.
"The purpose of this lockdown is to stop human-to-human transmission by isolating people in their homes. It is very important to break the chain of infection. What we see in Delhi today is dangerous. It is like a ticking bomb of super-spreaders," said Dr Subhank Singh, who recently retired from Medanta Hospital in Gurugram.
While politicians arranged buses for the migrants, at the same time they urged people to follow social distancing norms.
"The Delhi government arranged 100 buses and UP government arranged buses too. But I urge people to follow social distancing norms," said Delhi's deputy CM Manish Sisodia, who visited several neighbourhoods inhabited by migrant workers on Saturday.
Other politicians said they were arranging food for the migrants. In Noida, Thakur Dhirendra Singh, MLA from Jewar Assembly constituency, said the UP government is providing all possible help to the needy. Ration and food packets are being distributed to stop daily wagers from rushing back to their homes.
"We have distributed tonnes of ration and food packets at the construction sites where labourers are residing in shanties. We are ensuring that these labourers don't leave during the lockdown. We are doing everything possible to feed them," said Singh.
"The crowd is so huge that it is impossible to control them. So we are trying to send them away in buses," said a policeman stationed at Kaushambi, where passengers had filled the kilometre-long road near the Anand Vihar bus terminal. Many passengers said they had no choice but to leave.
"We know the disease is spreading. But the government should have made arrangements for us before announcing the bandh (lockdown)," said Raj Kumar, who had walked 200 km from Panipat to Delhi's Kashmiri Gate Inter-State Bus Terminal (ISBT) on way his home in UP's Farrukhabad - along with 20 other labourers in a group that included women and children.
Congress leader Ajay Maken urged the UP government to help people reach home safely.
"The UP Chief Minister has announced arrangements of some buses. Well, our request to the chief minister is: Please don't put them in jail. Please ensure that all of them are sent to their homes, with their respective families and the villages," he said.
People who keep a watch on Delhi's migration patterns say the government should have known better and made prior arrangements with the huge daily wage working class in mind. Sanjay Kumar from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies said 40% of Delhi's population comprises migrants.
Amongst the migrants, 48% are from UP, 18% from Bihar and a large proportion of these are daily wage earners.
"Leaving such a population without an arrangement was risky. They are without work and hence wanting to go home. They do not have a choice," he said.