NEW DELHI — In one of the biggest migrations in India’s modern history, hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers have begun long journeys on foot to get home, having been rendered homeless and jobless by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
With businesses shut down in cities across the country, vast numbers of migrants — many of whom lived and ate where they worked — were suddenly without food and shelter. Soup kitchens in Delhi, the capital, have been overwhelmed. So far, more than a dozen migrant laborers have lost their lives in different parts of the country as they tried to return to their home, hospital officials said.
Thousands of migrants in Delhi, including whole families, packed their pots, pans and blankets into rucksacks, some balancing children on their shoulders as they walked along interstate highways. Some planned to walk hundreds of miles. But as they reached the Delhi border, many were beaten back by the police.
“You fear the disease, living on the streets. But I fear hunger more, not corona,” said Papu, 32, who came to Delhi three weeks ago for work and was now trying to return to his home in Saharanpur in the state of Uttar Pradesh, 125 miles away.
While dozens of countries across the world are under lockdown to contain the virus’s spread, in crowded and impoverished places like India, many fear that the measures could spark social unrest. Millions of people live in Indian slums, and staying at home for three weeks — as Mr. Modi has ordered — is a daunting prospect in such places, where dozens of family members often share a few rooms.
Migrant laborers have been protesting the lockdown across India. On Saturday, thousands came out to the streets in the southern state of Kerala, saying they had not eaten in days. The authorities urged them to disperse for their own safety, but they ignored the commands.
As of Sunday morning, just one of India’s 36 state and territorial governments, Uttar Pradesh, had made arrangements to bring migrants home, commissioning about 1,000 buses. On Saturday, migrants waited in lines miles long on the outskirts of Delhi to board a few buses, and the overwhelming majority were turned away.
But by Sunday afternoon, the central government had ordered states to reverse course and seal their borders, ordering migrants to stay where they are. The reversal added to the already confused rollout of the lockdown, which has prompted state government actions often at odds with the central government’s orders. The police, often confused, have resorted to violence.
India already had one of the world’s largest homeless populations, and the lockdown has swelled its numbers exponentially, workers for nongovernmental organizations say. A 2011 government census put the number of homeless at 1.7 million, almost certainly a vast underestimate in this country of 1.3 billion, experts say.
Mr. Modi announced the lockdown, which includes a ban on interstate travel, with just four hours’ notice on Tuesday, leaving the enormous migrant population stranded in big cities. Jobs lure at least 45 million people to cities from the countryside every year, according to government estimates.
Many of those migrants are fed and housed at the shops and construction sites where they work, and as businesses closed, hundreds of thousands — if not millions — were suddenly without their homes and a regular source of food.
A group of 13 men walking along a Delhi highway last week, bound for their homes in Uttar Pradesh, said they had not eaten in nearly two days. They had about $3 between them, they said.
“This may have been a good decision for the wealthy, but not those of us with no money,” said Deepak Kumar, a 28-year-old truck driver, referring to the lockdown.
Sirens approached in the distance, and the men ran away, worried it was the police. It turned out to be an ambulance, and the men regrouped and set off again.
Aid workers warn that the situation could deteriorate into violence if the desperation increases and people continue to go without food.
Soup kitchens across Delhi are unable to cope with the demand, which aid workers estimate has tripled. Fights have been breaking out. The government has given the police no explicit policy for dealing with stranded migrants, and many officers have lashed out.
“In the absence of a clear policy, the migrants have been left to the whims of police. And there are instances where the police treat them inhumanely,” said Ashwin Parulkar, a senior researcher for the Center for Policy Research in Delhi who studies India’s homeless population.
Usually, the homeless are fed by India’s array of religious institutions: Hindu temples, Sikh gurdwaras and mosques. But now, everything is closed, and shelters are feeling the strain.
“The pressure has increased drastically. People can’t walk the streets, and if it remains like this, the situation will explode,” said Nishu Tripathi, 29, a supervisor at a soup kitchen opened by Safe Approach, a Delhi-based nongovernmental organization.
“Every time we start distributing food, we are charged by the crowd,” he said.
Safe Approach started an open-air soup kitchen in northeast Delhi last week. It now serves 8,000 people. As people lined up for food there on Thursday, police cars circled, sirens blaring.
“Leave this place! Go inside. Separate! Separate! Maintain distance!” the police yelled through a loudspeaker.
As a group of men and boys, some disabled and hobbling on makeshift crutches, walked along the highway toward the soup kitchen, police officers suddenly began beating them with bamboo sticks. “Maintain social distance!” they yelled.
A boy of about 15 was hit in the mouth, his wails exposing his blood-soaked teeth. An angry crowd formed to console him. “Why would they do that!” screamed a man waiting for food. “He was walking here. Why would they treat us like this!”
Mr. Tripathi, the supervisor, turned to reporters. “Go, we cannot ensure your safety,” he said.
Despite government orders to allow the transportation of essential items like food and medicine during the lockdown, vendors complain their delivery trucks are being harassed by the police and their stores forced to shut.
“I’ve never seen such desperation,” said Ricky Chandael, a supervisor at another shelter. “Before, charitable people would come and donate to our shelter, but they can’t reach us because of the lockdown. And every day, there are at least 100 new people showing up here for food.”
As lunchtime neared and the crowd grew, Mr. Chandael, like Mr. Tripathi, advised reporters to leave for their safety.
On Thursday, the government announced a $22.5 billion relief package to support the millions made unemployed by the lockdown. But it is unclear how much that will help migrants and others in India’s enormous off-the-books work force — believed to make up 80 percent of India’s 470 million workers — who are likely to have trouble getting access to the benefits.
The aid, including cash and food handouts, is tied to registration in national labor databases, which omit many migrant workers, or a home address, which many migrants do not have.
Mr. Modi has said that shutting down for three weeks is India’s only hope to prevent a devastating epidemic. As of Sunday, 980 people in the country had tested positive for the coronavirus, with 24 dead.
Supervisors at a shelter for women and children in Nizamuddin, a neighborhood in Central Delhi, said the government had given them soap for the first time, and that they were under orders to teach those seeking shelter about the coronavirus, and to force them to wash their hands and take showers.
“It’s hard; they aren’t used to washing all the time,” said Rajesh Kumar, the shelter’s supervisor.
The previous night, he said, about 70 women with dozens of children had started banging on the gate to the shelter, begging to be let in, saying they had been beaten by the police for sleeping on the road. But the shelter was full and Mr. Kumar had to turn them away.
Mr. Kumar said most homeless people he encountered had known nothing about the coronavirus, and had awakened one day to find the police shooing them off the streets, ordering them to practice social distancing — a new catchword in India, as in most of the world.
“But where do the homeless go?” he asked.