Migrant workers put out of work by the Covid-19 pandemic board a truck on the outskirts of Hyderabad to return to their hometowns in May 2020. Photo: AFP

The rapid rise in new cases of Covid-19 in India has sparked fears of fresh lockdowns in commercial hubs and triggered a new wave of reverse migration with workers returning to their home towns.

Maharashtra state has imposed night curfew and weekend lockdown in view of the rising numbers of coronavirus cases in the capital, Mumbai, and other districts. Maharashtra on Saturday recorded 55,411 fresh Covid-19 cases with 9,330 reported in Mumbai. There are media reports that the state may impose a lockdown of up to 15 days.

The traffic volumes on National Highway 3, which links Mumbai with Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states, have risen substantially in the past few days, Press Trust of India reports. Trains originating from Mumbai to these states are also running full.

Many of the returning workers fear that the Covid-19 curbs will lead to closure of business establishments and job losses. Last year this route witnessed heavy traffic after a countrywide lockdown was imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Karnataka state and its capital Bangalore is also witnessing an exodus of workers, Times of India reports. The construction industry, small and medium enterprises may soon face labor shortages if the reverse migration continues.

The state has also imposed night curfew for 11 days starting from Saturday as cases continue to rise. The curfew will be effective from 10 pm to 5 am. Karnataka had reported nearly 8,000 cases on Friday and the state government wants privately-run hospitals to reserve 50% beds for Covid-19 patients.

Industrialists in Tamil Nadu state also fear an exodus of migrant workers, as the second wave of Covid-19 has tightened its grip across the state and its capital, Chennai. Industrial hubs such as Coimbatore and Tirupur also employ a large number of migrant workers.

Tamil Nadu recorded nearly 6,000 fresh cases on Saturday and the state government has ordered that beaches in Chennai, Chengalpattu and Thiruvallur districts will remain closed for the public over the weekends and on government holidays.

Second wave

India is currently going through a second wave of Covid-19 infections and it is more rapid than the first one witnessed last year. On April 10, the number of new cases crossed 150,000 and this is much higher than last year’s peak of 97,000. The total caseload since the outbreak began March, 2020 has crossed 133 million and death toll is over 169,000.

According to the health ministry, five states – Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala – cumulatively account for 70% of India’s total active cases. Maharashtra alone accounts for 48.57% of the total active caseload of the country.

Though the country has launched an immunization drive for those above the age of 45 years, many parts of the country are witnessing shortages. Many states claim they have only a few days supply left.

2020 exodus

According to official data, more than 10 million people moved to their hometowns after the nationwide lockdown was imposed last year, but experts and civil society groups claim the actual number was much higher. Though initially it was meant for only 21 days, it was extended twice and lasted for two months.

Once the lockdown came into force on March 25, 2020, daily-wage workers in major cities were badly hit as their employers abandoned them, their landlords told them to vacate their dwellings and their labor contractors vanished.

Penniless and dependent on charitable organizations, the workers walked, cycled and hitchhiked on trucks to reach their homes hundreds of kilometers from their workplaces.