These informal workers are the backbone of the big city economy, constructing houses, cooking food, serving in eateries, delivering takeaways, cutting hair in salons, making automobiles, plumbing toilets and delivering newspapers, among other things. Escaping poverty in their villages, most of the estimated 100 million of them live in squalid housing in congested urban ghettos and aspire for upward mobility.
Last week’s lockdown turned them into refugees overnight. Their workplaces were shut, and most employees and contractors who paid them vanished.
Sprawled together, men, women and children began their journeys at all hours of the day last week. They carried their paltry belongings – usually food, water and clothes – in cheap rexine and cloth bags. The young men carried tatty backpacks. When the children were too tired to walk, their parents carried them on their shoulders.
They walked under the sun and they walked under the stars. Most said they had run out of money and were afraid they would starve. “India is walking home,” headlined The Indian Express newspaper.
The staggering exodus was reminiscent of the flight of refugees during the bloody partition in 1947. Millions of bedraggled refugees had then trekked to east and west Pakistan, in a migration that displaced 15 million people.