Indian labourers stuck in pandemic camps long to go home

India’s estimated 45m migrant workers have not been a priority in the rush to halt the spread of Covid-19

NEW DELHI • Tens of thousands of stranded labourers have been herded into camps and shelters across India like the Yamuna sports complex in Delhi where their suffering has been forgotten amid the world’s biggest coronavirus lockdown.

Once used for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the air is now rank with urine in the stadium halls that house 900 men and women rounded up after the government ordered everyone off the streets on March 24.

India’s estimated 45 million migrant workers, existing on a paltry and precarious daily wage, have not been a priority in the rush to halt the spread of Covid-19.

Millions of migrants lost their jobs overnight in big cities like Delhi and Mumbai. Many walked hundreds of km to reach their home villages and at least 12 died on the way, according to media reports.

The downbeat, fearful faces of Yamuna residents highlight how unhappy they are with their treatment. And the government has said the lockdown will go on until at least May 3.

Picked up on the streets or at bus stations, they now sleep on thin mats in the halls, are banned from leaving the complex, and life in the stifling heat is strictly regimented.

Three meals a day are prepared in open kitchens, with flies hovering around. And each day, hundreds of men are forced into physical exercise led by an instructor dressed in ninja-style black overalls and a bandana.

“Keep straight or I will hit hard,” barked the man while rolling a baton in his hands, as neat rows of dishevelled labourers nervously performed star jumps. Migrants in Mumbai and other cities have staged demonstrations demanding to go home. That was also the desperate wish of many in the Delhi stadium.

One woman sat with a half-naked sick infant in her lap as she gestured wildly at passing police and said she wanted to be with her husband at another shelter.

Ramesh Lal, an HIV-positive patient with prescriptions and other documents to prove it, said he was scooped up when he went out to get a blood test.

He said it was “challenging” looking after the migrants, but insisted most were “happy” because they were fed. He also justified the mandatory daily exercise.

“They are so used to hard manual labour that if we don’t make them do some rigorous exercise, they are unable to sleep at night,” he said.— AFP