Covid-19 Lockdown: Migrant workers begin to leave city in a painfully long walk home

They have lost jobs, homes in the city, and there are no interstate busses or trains to take them back to their villages

Migrant Labours

They are walking, in ones and twos, following each other with more than adequate distance between them. Carrying only the essentials, perhaps just their clothes, some food, and the last of the money or important papers, maybe even a  doctor’s prescription, that they have managed to fold and fit into a small bag or bundle. The luggage has to be small, and light enough to be carried on their backs or on their heads. 

The young men prefer to carry backpacks they must have saved up to take on  their next trip home, some wear shoes, many others are wearing slippers. The women are carrying sling bags and/ or cloth bundles that they balance on their heads, like they have done with the loads of construction material, or vegetables at their workplaces.

Travelling light is essential for these travelers. They are not on a holiday. They are escaping the city, to save their lives, while they still have the energy to walk. Often categorised as the ‘floating population’ they are skilled migrant  workers, and unskilled labourers, the road ahead for them is the toughest. It doesn’t matter that this stretch is actually the fancy new world class expressway that connects Delhi to Uttar Pradesh, the first stretch of which was inaugurated by Prime minister Narendra Modi on May 27, 2018.

The migrants walking home have come from across the city and were noticed when they reached what will soon be one of the biggest, most modern highways, with 14 lanes, four flyovers, and three underpasses, at its widest stretch on the 96 km long road that will connect Delhi to Meerut in Uttar Pradesh via that marks the two state’s border. On normal days all kinds of vehicular traffic buzzes fast and furious on this road, the cost of which is said to be as much as Rs 10,000 crores.

Today, under the nationwide lockdown, the road looks even wider and barren, as only private, or police vehicles, or ambulances zip by. The desolation of this road has also made visible this procession of never seen before in the city. Scores of men, women, and children have begun walking eastwards on this highway. They are all going back to their villages, because the city they have helped build does not want to feed and shelter them anymore. 

The COVID-19 lockdown has meant the building sites, factories, farms, offices, shops and other places they once worked at  have closed down for now. They are without work, and therefore without their daily wages these workers have no shelter or food. The Union Government has also shut down all public transport, including interstate buses and trains, depriving them of their usual mode of travel, often during a festival or weddings only. 

Forced to flee Delhi, rather than stay here and face starvation they have begun the long march home. This long march is not the beginning of a citizen revolution, it is a shameful symbol of governmental apathy towards the poorest citizens who are the backbone of any metropolis. All of them have come to the city to earn for their survival and that of the families they have left behind back home in the village. They must now return to the families as possible burdens instead of the breadwinners they once were.

Journalists have begun reporting this reverse migration but the authorities are yet to respond with a plan of action. According to a social media post by Telegraph India’s Furquan Ameen, He met many who were now walking back to their  villages in Bareilly, Agra, Aligarh, Badaun, Farrukhabad, Auraiya, Kanpur and many other places across Uttar Pradesh. 



That it is a very long walk home for these citizens,  is something that needs to be repeated ad nauseam till the authorities take notice and step in by providing safe transport to them. Else they will have to cover by foot, hundreds of kilometers into the interiors of various districts in Uttar Pradesh. The journey is even longer and treacherous for those who hail from Bihar and beyond. Of course there are no provisions for shelter, food and water along the way. All roadside eateries have shut down as have kiosks at railway stations and bus shelters which themselves are deserted.

“Could Yogi not have arranged even a bus for us. Is it because we are poor,” a young migrant worker identified as Rajneesh told journalist Barkha Dutt. According to the report, he will have to walk 247  kilometers to reach his home in UP’s Bareilly district.



Most of the labourers who do not even have the option, or the energy to walk home have begun collecting night shelters run by the Delhi government. So far thousands have been fed at least one hot meal by the Delhi government and citizen groups who have volunteered help. That the crowds are growing at these shelters is a cause of worry too.

Then there are others who stay in rented accommodation, five to ten in one room sometimes who are running out of food stocks fast, and no longer have wages to buy any more.  It is not known if any of them has been exposed to Coronavirus as they work across the city in various circumstances and spaces. “Test us and then drop us home,” pleaded a worker on journalist Ravish Kumar’s news show on NDTV.

The only other time this highway sees such a march is when pilgrims undertake the Kanwariya yatra, carrying holy water from the Ganga in the hills back to their homes across Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Bihar etc. However, during those yatras elaborate arrangements are made by Uttar Pradesh, and Delhi governments, and scores of volunteer groups are also on grounds setting up rest stops which provide food, shelter, and medical assistance every few kilometers. Of course the state authorities and other organisers of those camps have months,  and lots of funds to prepare for the yatra, and this march has only just begun, that too suddenly. 

Surely, the migrant workers, nor walking in the reverse direction,  are still hoping that someone takes notice and steps in soon. After all, the journey is as important as the destination. And this one is a matter of survival.

The same is the situation of workers from Rajasthan who are working in different parts of Gujarat. While the fear of carrying the infection from urban to rural areas remains, migrant labourers feel compelled to leave anyway given their dwindling resources amidst the lockdown. The absence of wages translates into the inability to pay rent or even for food. When one can’t keep a roof over their head or put food on the table, going back home appears to be the only option. They walk at night, because they possibly wouldn’t be able to sustain themselves without food and water if they walk in the day’s scorching heat.

Speaking to the Economic Times, Gujarat Migrant Workers’ Congress President, Ashok Punjabi said that there were 50,000 workers in Ahmedabad alone who left on foot to their hometowns. After walking for many kilometers without food or water, some of them were fortunate enough to be helped by the police and local administration.

Amrit Patel, Bicchiwara Tehsildar told the Indian Express that the administration had arranged three Rajasthan State Road Transport Corporation buses and 15 – 20 mini buses and vehicles for around 2,000 stranded people. They were placed in the buses keeping in mind that social distancing was maintained.

In Gujarat’s Mehsana district too, the police provided food packets and water to workers who were moving to Rajasthan. IG, Gandhnagar Range, Mayanksinh Chavda said that the police was also taking action against the factory owners who haven’t done enough to keep the workers there.



With input from Priyanka Kavish



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