Police fired tear gas to disperse a stone-pelting crowd of migrant workers defying a three-week lockdown against the coronavirus that has left hundreds of thousands of poor without jobs and hungry, authorities said yesterday.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered the country’s 1.3bn people to remain indoors until April 15, declaring such self-isolation was the only hope to stop the viral pandemic.
But the vast shutdown has triggered a humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands of poor migrant labourers employed in big cities such as Delhi and Mumbai seeking to head to their homes in the countryside on foot after losing their jobs.
Many have been walking for days, some with families including small children, on deserted highways with little access to food or water.
Yesterday, about 500 workers clashed with police in the Gujarat city of Surat demanding they be allowed to go home to other parts of the country because they had no jobs left.
“The police tried to convince them that it is not possible since buses or trains are not available...However, the workers refused to budge, and started pelting stones at police,” Surat Deputy Commissioner of Police Vidhi Chaudhari said.
She said the workers, most of them employed in the shuttered textile industry in Surat, were driven indoors by tear gas volleys and 93 of them were detained for violating lockdown orders.
India has registered 1,071 cases of the coronavirus, of whom 29 have died, the health ministry said yesterday.
Yesterday, hundreds of people from the Nizamuddin West area of New Delhi were taken away to be quarantined in the latest sign that the virus has begun to spread locally in India.
Officials said attendees of a training course at the Banglewali Mosque had transmitted the virus to several other regions in India, including Kashmir where a man connected with the event died on March 26.
“The (mosque) area has already been locked down and it will be disinfected,” said Rajendra Prasad Meena, a senior police officer overseeing the quarantine operation.
A health official said the large-scale movement of people into the countryside risked spreading the coronavirus widely, compounding the challenge of containing the outbreak in the world’s second most populous country.
“It’s an evolving situation with daily new challenges coming up, like having migratory populations moving from one place to another. Like non-affected states adjoining affected states,” said Dr S K Singh, director of the National Centre for Disease Control, which investigates and recommends control measures for outbreaks of illness.
At the weekend in Delhi, migrant workers and their families fought and shoved their way onto buses organised by Uttar Pradesh government.
“I couldn’t afford the room we had so there was no choice, we had to leave,” said Ranjit Kumar, who walked with his wife and two-year-old son for two days to get from Haryana state to the bus terminal.
Around 90,000 people were transported in buses on Sunday from Ghaziabad outside Delhi, the Times of India reported.
Late on Sunday the federal government ordered all district and state borders closed in a bid to stop the exodus, and directed local authorities to organise temporary shelters.
Yesterday the crowds had disappeared on the outskirts of Delhi.
The city government said it was now feeding 400,000 people, with more than 550 schools providing shelter.
Maharashtra, another big magnet for migrant labourers, has set up 262 relief camps and was providing shelter to 70,399 people, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray tweeted.
Authorities ordered a racetrack outside Delhi that hosted a Formula One race in 2011 be used to house 5,000 migrant workers, the Times of India reported.
Uttar Pradesh has announced aid and set up 600 shelter homes that will act as quarantine centres, local official Alok Kumar said.
He was unable to say how many people were still on the road.
Former federal health secretary Sujatha Rao said it was not known if the virus had spread from the urban travelling middle class to rural migrants, but if it had, such large congregations of people would be a worry.
“If any one of them has indeed got the infection, it certainly can spread very rapidly as the poor in urban metros live in very crowded accommodation.
Social distancing is not an option for them,” Rao said.
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