Kavita and her two-year-old son are walking along a national highway from the suburbs of New Delhi to their home in Kannauj in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, some 450 km away.
She is not alone. Thousands of other migrant laborers have also embarked on long journeys to return to their hometowns across India.
“Our sustenance was dependent on the daily wages me and my husband were earning. Once the factory shut down after the announcement of the lockdown, there was no other option but to head home,” said the 30-year-old who was employed at a shoe manufacture in Noida, on the outskirts of the capital.
The unprecedented migration follows Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus, which came into effect on March 25, rendering many daily-wage workers jobless and homeless as businesses shut down.
“The government announced the lockdown suddenly and did not plan how poor people like us would survive such an extreme measure without any support,” Kavita told Arab News.
Most of them have no other option but to travel on foot. While some buses are still operating, very few are lucky to get a seat. The railways have been suspended until at least April 14.
Ranveer Singh, who was walking home from Delhi to Morena in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, died of exhaustion on Friday, 100 km from his destination.
The 38-year-old father of three worked as a delivery boy in Delhi and he was left on his own when the lockdown started.
“My father was desperate to return. Circumstances were such that he could not stay in Delhi,” Singh’s 13-year-old daughter Pinky told Arab News.
According to media reports, at least 22 workers have already died while trying to make their way back home.
“The Modi regime is responsible and culpable for this. This is not incompetence, this is criminal neglect,” Delhi-based lawyer and activist, Vrinda Grover, said.
According to government data, at least 40 million people have been working away from their hometowns in different places across India. Most of them come from the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
To stop the current exodus, the central government on Sunday asked state administrations to seal their borders and provide food and shelter to make migrant workers stay where they are. Those who return to their homes should be quarantined for 14 days.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi justified the tough decision and apologized for “the hardship faced by people.”
“But looking at the world, this looks like the only option,” he said on Sunday.
According to Dr. Arvind Kumar, of Delhi-based Sir Gangaram Hospital, the lockdown is “an emergency measure and it should be followed strictly. Mixing of the population raises the fear of the escalation of virus.”
But how the measures have been introduced has attracted criticism.
“The way things have been managed, with thousands of migrant workers allowed to migrate to their areas, defeats the whole purpose of the lockdown,” social activist, Harsh Mander, told Arab News.
Meanwhile, Home Affairs Ministry Joint Secretary Punya Salila Srivastava told reporters on Monday that the situation of migrant laborers was “under control.”
“We are working on providing all the facilities to the workers at a war-footing level,” she said.
Many argue, however, that neither control nor clear policy have been in place.
According to Prof. Apoorvanand, of the University of Delhi, the government’s planning and the prime minister’s recent speeches are “aimed at assuaging the sentiments of the middle class.”
“It demonstrates the policy mindset and the conscience of the government, which does not count the marginalized sections of the society even at the time of national crisis,” he said.
“This also shows sheer incompetence and lack of foresight and policy on the part of the government before announcing the lockdown.”