India's poor pushed to live in trees for isolation


The crowds kept fleeing on Sunday (March 29) as thousands of migrant workers tried to escape from India's capital New Delhi to their native villages, after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced a 21-day nationwide lockdown to stem the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Desperate workers clambered on top of buses, while others resigned to the heaving mobs, turned to leave on foot.

The overwhelming numbers of people migrating threatens to spread the disease further into the hinterland - the exact opposite of the government's aim for social distancing.

And Modi's decision to lockdown the country, has especially stung the 120 million migrant labourers, leaving them without a way to earn wages, afford rent or even food, like worker Lalli Devi:

(SOUNDBITE) (Hindi) MIGRANT WORKER FROM RAJASTHAN, LALLI DEVI, SAYING:

"It's been three days, we have been walking with children…we are seven in total. We are in a lot of trouble. Why are you (the government) stopping us? We want to go to our village."

The chaos prompted Modi to ask the nation's poor for "forgiveness" in a nationwide radio address."

But criticism has erupted, with the hashtag #ModiMadeDisaster trending on twitter, questioning Modi's lack of a contingency plan.

The government announced a nearly $23 billion stimulus plan to provide direct cash transfers and food handouts. But international and local economists say this isn't enough.

People have gathered in public squares demanding transport to their hometowns.

But when many arrive to their village they face another challenge: overcrowded family homes, pushing some to climb trees and create a makeshift bed so they can isolate for 14 days.

(SOUNDBITE) (Approximate Bengali translation) VILLAGER, BIJOY SING LAYA, SAYING:

"Doctors directed us to stay at home and practice social distancing. We don't have personal rooms in our houses. It was decided in the village that we should be isolated, so we are living in trees."

Meanwhile back in the city some railway coaches are being turned into isolation wards for patients with the virus.