Delhi CM Kejriwal announces week-long curfew, triggering an exodus of panic-stricken migrant workers

This morning, the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal announced a week-long curfew in the capital starting tonight at 10 pm and going up to 5 am on Monday, April 26. This has caused panic among the city’s migrant labourforce, which is leaving the city in droves.

Amit Pandey
| Updated: April 19th, 2021

Arvind Kejriwal announced a week-long curfew in Delhi starting tonight at 10 pm and going up to 5 am on Monday, April 26. Pic: Amit Pandey/GC

Anand Vihar, New Delhi

People clambered over railings to get into the Anand Vihar bus station in New Delhi today. The overbridge across the main road jostled with people, many of them migrant workers, desperate to get to the bus station. There was a traffic jam outside as two-wheelers, autorickshaws and city buses offloaded more and more men, women and children, clutching bedrolls, food, and essential belongings. An endless stream of humanity swarmed in, with cloth bags and backpacks and milled about.  While some ran towards the few buses in their bays, others stood around lost as they tried to take stock and make sense of the chaos.

These aren’t the visuals of last year’s lockdown when a sudden announcement of nationwide lockdown caused panic among the migrant workforce of Delhi, and the country. This was the scene unfolding at a bus station today.

Anand Vihar, New Delhi. Pic: Amit Pandey/GC

This morning, Delhi’s Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, announced imposing a week-long curfew starting tonight at 10 pm and going up to 5 am on Monday, April 26. This caused panic among the city’s migrant labourforce. After all, it was just over a year ago that migrant labourers across the country were forced to head back to their villages as they had no money to survive in the cities. 

Also read: Amid rising COVID19 cases, migrant workers in rural UP anxious about another lockdown

The crowds and the cacophony at the Anand Vihar bus station in New Delhi resembled a fish market with the throngs waiting to get back home to their towns and villages, no matter what. They are not willing to take any chances this time around.

Migrant workers and their children are heading back home. Pic: Amit Pandey/GC

Delhi is in the grip of a massive fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic with the  national capital reporting 25,462 fresh COVID-19 cases yesterday, the highest since the beginning of the pandemic. Kejriwal has been repeatedly pointing out the shortage of hospital beds, medical oxygen and drugs like Remdesivir. But he assured the people of the city that this week-long curfew was but a short lockdown and requested them not to leave Delhi.

But this has not had the desired effect. “The announcement of the lockdown is only for a week, now. But what if it is extended,” Chandrabhan, who waited at Anand Vihar to board a bus to Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh, some 700 kilometres away from Delhi, asked Gaon Connection. He was hoping that along with his wife and brother he would get to his village safe. 

“There is no question of us staying back,” he said. “What will happen in the future? What will happen if the lockdown is extended to two, three, four months? Where will we stay, what will we eat,” he asked, clearly worried. 

Delhi’s migrant labourforce is leaving the city in droves. Pic: Amit Pandey/GC

The sense of panic was tangible as it was just over a year ago that the country had faced a never-before-seen lockdown. The mass migrations, hunger, thirst and misery is obviously still fresh in everyone’s minds. Last year, amid the lockdown, more than 10 million (10,466,152 to be exact) workers returned to their hometowns, as informed by Santosh Kumar Gangwar, Minister of State for Labour and Employment, in a written reply to parliament last September. 

Also Read: Almost every fourth migrant worker returned home on foot during the lockdown

Meanwhile, last summer, Gaon Connection conducted a first-of-its-kind nationwide survey which found that every fourth migrant worker had to walk back home during the last year’s lockdown (Read the full survey report here). The survey showed that 23 per cent of migrant workers walked home during the lockdown, 18 per cent returned home by bus, and 12 per cent by train. While on their way home, 12 per cent of migrant workers were reportedly beaten by the police. About 40 per cent of this workforce faced food scarcity during its journey back home.  

Packed buses as migrant workers from Delhi head back home. Pic: Amit Pandey/GC

Over a week ago, Gaon Connection had reported how the fear of another lockdown was making migrant workers apprehensive. 

Darr hai ki iss baar bhi wahi haal hoga, bahut dukh jhela hai humne [I fear the same scenario will repeat, we have already suffered a lot],” Mani Ram had told Gaon Connection on April 9. A native of Uttar Pradesh’s Sant Kabir Nagar who worked at a factory in Delhi’s Mayapuri Industrial area, Ram accumulated a debt of Rs 15,000, which he had just managed to pay off. “If there’s a lockdown again, I will have to borrow money to survive, and then spend all of next year paying it off. I can’t keep doing this, and so I am planning to go back home,” he said.

Also Read: The trauma of last lockdown still fresh, migrant workers make a beeline for home

The same day, on April 9, Gaon Connection met 28-year-old Bhaskar Pandey at the Anand Vihar ISBT (Inter-state bus terminal). He was en route to his home in Almora,Uttarakhand. “I have good reason to be afraid. Last year, when the lockdown was implemented, I was in Pune, and it took me forty days to get back home. I spent fifteen thousand rupees on the journey, and was made to quarantine twice for fourteen days each —  once in UP [Uttar Pradesh] and then in Uttarakhand. It was harrowing,” he said.

In his press conference today, Kejriwal made no bones of the seriousness of the situation. He said he was putting the facts before the people in order to keep them in the picture. Referring to the huge surge in the cases, Kejriwal assured the people that all efforts would be taken to deal with the situation, but also said it was not possible without their cooperation.  

Despite assurance from the Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, migrant workers are heading back home. Pic: Amit Pandey/GC

On an average, in the last three or four days more than 20, 000 daily fresh cases have been reported and no administration in the world could cope with this kind of onslaught, the chief minister said. He mentioned the shortage of hospital beds, full ICUs, and shortage of oxygen, and admitted that the health system in Delhi was under tremendous stress. While he acknowledged that the situation was severe, he was careful to point out that the health system had not collapsed, and the lockdown was a means of easing the strain on the medical resources of the capital. 

The chief minister had initially declared that they had no intention of imposing a lockdown, but had to reconsider the decision with the spiralling cases. It came after much thought and after no other alternative presented itself to deal with the situation, Kejriwal said.

A week-long curfew comes into force in Delhi from tonight. Pic: Amit Pandey/GC

He acknowledged the impact that this would have on daily wagers who depended on their earnings to live day to day. He mentioned the exodus of migrant labourers when the pandemic first hit. But he assured them this was a lockdown for only six days, not like last year’s. 

But obviously, people are not convinced. Not if the scenes being played out at the Anand Vihar bus stand are anything to go by.

Also Read: Migrant Workers: The Indian government does not know their numbers, dead or alive