Kirtiraj Rana grew up in Rajamunda, a village of fewer than a thousand people in the northeastern Indian state of Odisha, which faces the Bay of Bengal. A migrant worker, he dropped out of school when he was in tenth grade to help support his family—his parents, a brother who also dropped out, and a sister who received only a fifth-grade education. Odisha’s farming revolves around its brief rainy season. Unable to find work in the off months, Rana travelled with his brother to Mumbai in December of 2019. They were hired as construction workers. After buying food and clothes, they managed to send half of their wages—about five hundred rupees a day, or seven U.S. dollars, each—back home.
Rana first heard that the coronavirus was spreading in India in early March. “We didn’t know what it was, how it looked,” he said. “We just knew that people were dying in Mumbai. We were very scared.” A few days later, Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, announced one of the world’s largest and strictest lockdowns. Modi delivered his speech at 8 p.m. on March 24th; restrictions started at midnight. Millions of migrant workers were stranded without wages, food, or shelter. All forms of public transportation—by air, rail, and road—were suspended. Police arrested, and sometimes beat, people who remained out for nonessential activities. The lockdown, initially scheduled to last three weeks, was extended again, and again, and again, through the end of May.
The contractor whom Rana worked for offered migrants a month of rations. After that, Rana and his brother were on their own. They tried to wait it out. “We thought it had to end at some point,” Rana said. They asked their father to send money, but in early May, after they’d exhausted their savings, the brothers bought bicycles and, along with several friends, set out for Odisha—some fourteen hundred kilometres from Mumbai. They began their journey at 2 a.m., carrying rice, utensils, medications, pots, and pans; in ninety-degree weather, they cycled to Nashik, a town in northern Maharashtra, the Indian state with the highest number of covid cases, where they were forced to spend twenty-four hours at a quarantine center, along with some three hundred people. The next day, petrified of catching the virus while detained, Rana pleaded with the police to let them go.
It took Rana and his brother seven days and nights to get to Odisha on their bicycles. When they arrived, they were quarantined near their village for a month before being allowed back home. Since then, Rana has had trouble finding work, both because of pandemic-related restrictions and because of the stigma attached to those returning from Maharashtra. When we spoke, five months after his return home, none of the men with whom he’d made his journey had managed to find work in the village.
Rana is one of roughly a hundred million migrant workers in India. The sudden lockdown, by forcing their reverse migration from urban centers to rural areas, almost certainly contributed to the spread of the coronavirus; it also created a humanitarian crisis, reminiscent of Partition, in 1947, when the subcontinent was divided into India and Pakistan and millions were forced to trek on foot from one to the other. Five weeks after Modi’s first announcement, the Indian government began operating Shramik Specials—“labor trains”—to transport migrants to their home states. Crowds gathered in congested stations, and packed trains ran with little regard for social distancing; still, millions of migrants remain stranded, and since March hundreds have died of starvation, exhaustion, suicide, and accidents. In one video, a toddler on a train platform tries to wake his dead mother, tugging at the cloth covering her lifeless body.
Many migrant homecomings have been sullied by prejudice against those seen as carrying the virus from one place to another. At times, this stigma has been applied to physicians; some doctors, particularly women, have suffered physical and verbal abuse. According to the World Health Organization, India has only eight doctors for every ten thousand people. (The U.S. has twenty-six, and Germany forty-two.) Even before the pandemic, India had fewer than twenty per cent of the critical-care doctors required for its ordinary needs. The situation is worse in rural areas, where sixty-five per cent of the population lives but only twenty per cent of the country’s doctors work. For much of September, India recorded more than ninety thousand covid-19 cases a day; while daily cases have since decreased, the country still ranks third, behind the U.S. and Brazil, for most covid deaths in the world. Many believe that, because of its poor testing-and-reporting infrastructure, the deaths are significantly undercounted. Tested or not, the virus continues to spread: according to some reports, more than half of those in Mumbai’s slums and a third of the people in Delhi have been infected. [Continue reading…]