Can Singapore survive without migrant workers

A road under trees. In the photos you can see how the light of the sun falls diagonally through the leaves. It will soon be dark on this late Saturday afternoon on the outskirts of the Indian metropolis of Delhi. The pictures show the young Khushwa family. Father mother Child. The young woman is carrying her two-year-old daughter in her arms, the man has a gray backpack with him, nothing else. So they march down the street. They want to go to Jhansi, a city southeast of Delhi, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. A distance of almost 600 kilometers lies ahead of them.

In many places in India, people are now taking to the streets as if there was no corona curfew. Most of them are migrant workers, stranded in the crisis, they just want to go home. They run and run because there have been no buses here for a long time, the Khushwa family also knew that when they hurriedly set off in Delhi on Saturday.

An Indian translator helps to establish contact with this family, foreign journalists can no longer travel to India, the country, like many others, is completely isolated from the outside world. On March 28, the translator sends the first photos of his encounter with the Khushwa family. Both sides keep a few meters away from each other, calling out to each other. It is now possible over the phone to send questions from Singapore and get answers from family on the street. Weird long distance calls are. But there is no other way to trace what India's migrant workers are going through now.

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On foot, 600 kilometers? "We have no choice," says Bijender Khushwa, a thin man with straight black hair. "We hope we catch a bus on the way." His wife Vidhiya, who has thrown a brightly colored scarf around her head, doesn't know how else to look after her two-year-old daughter. The little girl's name is Tejwasi, she is hungry and exhausted, a cup of milk would be good now. But there is neither to eat nor to drink by the wayside. Only people who walk away from Delhi, where there is no longer any work for them. "We hope that we are better off at home in the village, at least that's where we have our relatives," says the mother. Hope drives her, no matter how tired she is now.

They were the cheapest labor. Now they're not even that

Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a three-week curfew across India in the middle of last week to curb the spread of the virus. Except that millions of migrant workers now have great problems complying with the regulation. These people don't have the slightest financial cushion. You stand on the precipice. And that's why they started walking, just like the Khushwa family. It will be a journey full of hardship and without certainty. The risk of getting stranded anywhere is enormous. And yet nobody wants to be left behind in a disused, ghostly metropolis, it is a world where they never really belonged. They only strengthened the army of day laborers from all over India and were the cheapest labor. Now they're not even that.

Bijender Khushwa had found work in construction. Working from morning to evening, as a trained bricklayer, he received 400 rupees a day, the equivalent of four euros and 70 cents. His wife never had the chance to do an apprenticeship, she dragged sand or did whatever hard work came up, for which she received three euros.

On the street all they have with them is a bottle of water and a couple of flatbreads. "The food is enough for two days," says the father restlessly. The Prime Minister of her home state Uttar Pradesh has promised that he will send buses to bring migrant workers home from Delhi. The family has contact back home via their old cell phone, and information is constantly coming from there. Or is it just rumors? In any case, word gets around as to where the buses should leave soon. You're in a hurry, you don't want to miss it.

The head of government in Bihar, for example, does not want to send buses to Delhi, he thinks that is wrong, because then the curfew would have no effect and because it would spread the virus. The provincial princes in India, they disagree now. And the central government is struggling to enforce the curfew anyway.

Bijender received 1000 rupees from his boss when they stopped work, twelve euros, a kind of mini-settlement for the way, since then he has tried to call the boss over and over again to see if he might still have work - without success. So far, the family has always slept in tents on the construction sites, which are now all closed. So you don't even have a roof over your head anymore.

On the street they are now in a small group, two families together, so you can support each other. Lots of people head for the big bus stations where you can usually buy a ride to other states. Video clips from a bridge in Anand Vihar, Delhi, show chaotic conditions. Tens of thousands crowd here in the hope that a bus will come. Pictures like these are the nightmare for India's virologists, but they are part of everyday life at a time when the poor no longer know how to survive.

The government has launched an aid program, through a network of supply camps, the essentials are to come to the needy. The aim is to stop people on the highways, but that hardly seems to work given the crowds on the move.

The family can take a bus a short distance on Saturday, then they have to continue on foot. Exhausted, they finally reach the bus station in Balabgarh, where they spend the night on the ground outdoors. Private helpers distribute lentils and bread there, which saves the Khushwa family's meager provisions, which they still carry in their rucksacks.

Stay away from other people? How is that supposed to happen when so many are hoping for the buses. "We heard the virus is dangerous," says Maurer Khushwa, "but I have other problems." His family covered almost 50 kilometers on Saturday. And still no bus home. They move on on Sunday morning. It is the day Narendra Modi broadcasts his monthly radio address to the nation. This time his tone is very unusual. "I apologize for taking these tough steps that are making life so difficult for you." He asks forgiveness from the poor.

Many try to take the highway, and accidents are increasing

India reacted very cautiously at first, then Modi abruptly ordered the lockdown. The impression that the crisis will now simply overwhelm the country is growing day by day. The number of registered cases recently climbed to over 1,000, but in a state with so many gaps in its health system, the extent is difficult to grasp, especially since tens of thousands of migrant workers have now made their way. Many try to take the highway, accidents are increasing and more than a dozen people have died.

After all, the Khushwa family was very lucky on Sunday. After walking more than 70 kilometers, she manages to catch a bus in Palwal that is heading towards Jhansi. Another phone call in the middle of the night, somewhere on the road in Uttar Pradesh, the father takes the call. A few more hours, he says, then they'll be back home. Don't mishap now, pray where you almost made it.

Attempts to contact the Khushwa family again fail, the phone battery is probably empty now. So the track is lost for the time being. But what will they expect when they get home? "We don't know," Khushwa had said that night. Some villages are already rejecting returnees because they are afraid that the virus will travel across India with the migrant workers.