How India Failed Its Coronavirus Test

Anup Srivastav waited on a text message for ninety-six hours, before his phone stopped working.  That message was supposed to tell him where and when a train would arrive to take him back to his village. But now he was stranded, broke, and 932 miles from home.

Srivastav, a thirty-two-year-old powerloom operator in the textile hub of Ichalkaranji, had migrated from the Allahabad district of Uttar Pradesh—India’s most populous state. He’s one of the 100 million migrant laborers who, each year, travel hundreds of miles from villages or small towns to work in industrial centers and metropolises like Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata.

To contain the spread of COVID-19, the far-right Indian Government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, declared a ten-week-long lockdown on March 24. Modi’s order came hastily, leaving the country with just four hours to prepare for the imminent crisis.

To contain the spread of COVID-19, the far-right Indian Government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, declared a ten-week-long lockdown on March 24. Modi’s order came hastily, leaving the country with just four hours to prepare for the imminent crisis. The closures brought several economic activities to a halt—for migrant workers like Anup, who are daily wage earners, this meant losing a season’s worth of work. 

With government aid inaccessible, thousands of stranded workers began to reverse migrate back to villages across India. Some hitchhiked or bicycled; others tried sneaking in the back of a cement truck. Many died from starvation during their journey. 

On May 1, thirty-six days after the lockdown had begun, India’s central government initiated a new policy of chartering trains—called Shramik Specials—to transport migrant workers. As of June 15, 4,450 of these trains have carried six million workers throughout the country.     

While the Shramik Specials often lacked adequate food and water, the mass displacement caused by the lockdown has also led to at least 170 workers being killed in road or train accidents. On May 8, for example, a freight train travelling through Central India crushed sixteen migrant workers who—after being laid off from a steel factory—had fallen asleep on the tracks.   


Anup Srivastav, who worked at the textile factory for four years, earned an average of $158 per month. When he became unemployed, he had already exhausted all of his savings to pay rent and buy food, so he had no other option than to try to board a Shramik Special train. 

Before workers can qualify to board, however, there are a few prerequisites. First, they need a medical certificate that states the applicant has no COVID-19 symptoms. They must also sign a waiver promising to quarantine for fourteen days after arrival at their destination. 

The workers are then issued a token, which is meant to be a guarantee that someone from the local police station will call or text to notify them of their travel date. 

Like millions of other stranded workers, Srivastav wasn’t equipped to deal with the confusion and mismanagement of the lockdown order. When his phone broke, he had to convince a shop owner to lower the price on a new one—from $11 to $9—to be able to afford it.

Srivastav finished filling out his forms on May 8, after waiting in line on three separate occasions—with 5,000 other workers—in temperatures that exceeded 107 degrees Fahrenheit. 

When I met Srivastav two weeks later in Ichalkaranji, he had been sleeping on the ground at the site of a weekly vegetable market. “I vacated my home after getting the token because I was told that the train will run the next day,” he says.

Like millions of other stranded workers, Srivastav wasn’t equipped to deal with the confusion and mismanagement of the lockdown order. When his phone broke, he had to convince a shop owner to lower the price on a new one—from $11 to $9—to be able to afford it. But even after he scrounged for the phone, there was another problem: He didn’t have anywhere to charge it. 

As the battery died, his fears escalated. A dead phone meant losing out on the vital information of the scheduled train. One of his friend’s managed to find an electrical outlet, but Srivastav remembered, “None of the shops in the nearby areas were even letting us charge it. For every recharge, they asked at least twenty-six cents. From where will we bring the money?”

But Srivastav never received a call or text to notify him of which train he should take. It was only after days of showing up to his local registration office, pleading with officials for an update, that Srivastav was able to get an answer. Finally, on May 22, he boarded the long-awaited train that would take him home. 


 As of July 1, India reported 603,990 coronavirus cases, the fourth-highest in the world. Though the country is currently experiencing a new spike in cases, Modi has said that the government will not implement a second nationwide lockdown. 

In a country wracked by massive wealth inequality and governmental mismanagement, Mishra echoes the condition of India’s migrant community at large: “We just want to go home.” 

Politicians from the Indian National Congress, the main opposition party to the current government, have claimed that the spread of COVID-19 in the Indian state of Gujarat can be traced to U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit in February. Trump’s rally in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s capital city, was held just days after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global health emergency. And though a probe is still underway, as of June 21, Ahmedabad reported nearly 19,000 coronavirus cases, as well as the highest coronavirus-related mortality rate in India.  

For Parvesh Mishra—who, like Srivastav, was a powerloom operator in Kolhapur—the spread of COVID-19 outside of Gujarat, along with the government’s disarrayed response, resulted in his being thrown into destitution. Out of a job due to the lockdown, Mishra exhausted his savings in two months. Soon, after trying and failing to receive passage back to his home village in Uttar Pradesh on a Shramik Special, he became homeless. 

At first, Mishra appealed to his landlord to allow him to stay in the house, as he and his family, including young children, had nowhere else to go. But the next day, the landlord denied him entry, saying, “You come in contact with thousands of other people every day. What if you’ve caught the virus?” 

Mishra applied to board a Shramik Special train on May 4 and until May 20, but he never received a response from local officials. To add to his plight, he was informed that he still had to pay rent ($27 each month), even after he had left Kolhapur. When I asked him if he will ever return to Maharashtra for work, he said, “We are not coming here again to die.”

According to the Railway Protection Force, eighty deaths have occurred on Shramik Special trains so far. For those who never managed to secure a ticket, the situation can be just as harrowing. In one case, a twelve-year-old girl named Jamlo died after walking sixty-two miles from the chili fields, where she worked as an agricultural laborer, to her home in another state. 

In a country wracked by massive wealth inequality and governmental mismanagement, Mishra echoes the condition of India’s migrant community at large: “We just want to go home.” 

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Sanket Jain | Radio Free (2021-04-14T14:35:02+00:00) » How India Failed Its Coronavirus Test. Retrieved from https://www.radiofree.org/2020/07/01/how-india-failed-its-coronavirus-test/.
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» How India Failed Its Coronavirus Test | Sanket Jain | Radio Free | https://www.radiofree.org/2020/07/01/how-india-failed-its-coronavirus-test/ | 2021-04-14T14:35:02+00:00
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