New Covid-19 wave sparks fresh worker exodus from India's cities

The exodus from New Delhi and other Indian cities comprises migrants from villages and small towns.
The exodus from New Delhi and other Indian cities comprises migrants from villages and small towns.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - India's surging epidemic has forced both its financial and political capitals into lockdown, spurring a fresh exodus of migrant labourers fleeing the cities and fearing vanishing jobs as panic rises over the ferocity of the country's second Covid-19 wave.

The nation now has the world's fastest-growing Covid-19 caseload, adding 259,170 new infections and 1,761 deaths on Tuesday (April 20), leaving it behind only the US in total numbers. As virus numbers have soared, more state governments have announced localised shutdowns to try and clamp down on the surge.

On Monday capital New Delhi announced a six-day curfew after reporting more than 24,000 daily infections.

The city is out of hospital beds, medical oxygen and drugs being used to treat the most critically ill patients. Hours after the announcement, reports began emerging of thousands of the city's poorest workers converging at the main interstate bus terminals.

The images were reminiscent of India's first strict lockdown in late March last year, when hundreds of thousands of workers fled cities as their daily wages dried up with just a few hours of notice.

Many of these people have only just returned to the cities as the economy slowly began to pick up, only to be crushed again by this second wave.

'Don't leave Delhi'

The exodus from the cities comprises migrants from villages and small towns who keep urban India moving while making less than US$2 (S$2.65) a day - construction workers, handymen, food sellers, truck drivers and household help.

"Last year, when there was a lockdown, we saw migrant labour leaving the city," said Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

"I want to especially appeal to them with folded hands - this is a small lockdown. Only six days. Don't leave Delhi. I want to reassure you the government will take care of you."

Maharashtra, India's wealthiest and most industrialised state, has seen migrant labourers leave the city since authorities issued work-from-home orders early this month. This is despite the government saying it will spend 54 billion rupees (S$994 million) to support its vulnerable citizens.

Mumbai alone has more than eight million migrants from other areas of the country, according to the 2011 census, most of whom work in the informal sector as rickshaw drivers or food-cart vendors and an enforced lockdown risks robbing them of weeks of pay.

"I can't protect your livelihoods right now but I will ensure you won't be hungry," Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray said in a televised address.

"We are focused on saving lives. That's my most important goal."

While the labour migration this time around may not be as bad as last year, when the entire country was under strict lockdown "the vulnerability in (the) labour market still persists", said Professor N.R. Bhanumurthy, vice-chancellor of Bengaluru Dr. B.R. Ambedkar School of Economics University.

"Because of (a) lack of robust recovery from last year's slowdown, (the) ultimate effect is felt on (the) labour market. Public policy needs to refocus on that."

As more cities and states have issued stay-at-home orders or other movement restrictions, job losses in India have begun to tick up. Urban unemployment jumped to 10.72 per cent for the week ended April 18 from 7.21 per cent two weeks ago, according to data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, under fire for continuing to hold mass election rallies while the country's hospitals were sounding the alarm over severe shortages of beds and oxygen, met government officials on Monday to discuss the growing health crisis. His administration later announced that it would expand its vaccination campaign to all citizens above 18 years old, and relax the rules for the procurement of inoculations.

"The government has been working hard from over a year to ensure that maximum numbers of Indians are able to get the vaccine in the shortest possible of time," Mr Modi said on Monday, noting that manufacturers had been provided with incentives to further scale up production.