NEW DELHI — As dawn broke over Mumbai, India, on Wednesday, Kaleem Ansari sat among a crowd of thousands outside the central rail station waiting for his train to pull in. Ansari, a factory worker, carried old clothes in his backpack and 200 rupees — not quite $3 — in his pocket.
His factory, which makes sandals, had just closed. Mumbai was locking down as a second wave of the coronavirus rippled through India. Ansari, originally from a small village nearly 1,000 miles away, had been in Mumbai a year ago when it first went into lockdown, and he had vowed not to suffer through another one.
“I remember what happened last time,” he said. “I just have to get out of here.”
Cities in India are once again locking down to fight COVID-19 — and workers are once again pouring out and heading back home to rural areas, which health experts fear could accelerate the spread of the virus and devastate poorly equipped villages, as it did last time. Thousands are fleeing hot spots in cities as India hits another record, with more than 184,000 daily new infections reported Wednesday. Bus stations are packed. Crowds are growing at railway stations.
And in at least some of their destinations, according to local officials and migrants who have already made the journey, they are arriving in places hardly ready to test arrivals and quarantine the sick.
“We are less prepared,” said K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India and part of the national COVID-19 task force. “The speed and scale is catching us off-balance.”
India risks repeating the traumatic mass movement that occurred last year after it enforced one of the world’s toughest national lockdowns, eliminating millions of jobs virtually overnight. That lockdown fueled the most disruptive migration across the Indian subcontinent since it was split in two between India and Pakistan in 1947. Tens of millions of lowly paid migrant workers and their families fled cities by train, bus, cargo truck, bicycle, even by blistered feet to reach home villages hundreds of miles away, where the cost of living was cheaper and they could help and be helped by loved ones.
Hundreds died on the sweltering highways. Even more died back home. The migration also played a significant role in spreading the virus, as local officials in remote districts reported that they were swamped with the sick.
This time, the Indian government has not locked down the whole country. But India’s cities are increasingly enforcing lockdown-like restrictions, meaning the tide of migrant workers leaving will most likely get worse. The authorities are reluctant to use the word lockdown — like shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater — but they are tightening up.
On Tuesday night, for example, the state government of Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai, banned public gatherings and ordered most businesses to close for the next 2 1/2 weeks.
The authorities had little choice, health experts say. New daily infections are exceeding the heights of the first wave. Testing per capita is far behind that in the United States or other Western countries, so the true number of new infections is likely to be many times higher.
The official death rate, while still low compared with the United States and elsewhere, is rising. In the city of Surat, on the west coast, cremation grounds have been so relentlessly busy in recent days that some of the iron frames on which the bodies are placed have melted. In Chhattisgarh, a rural state in central India, morgues have overflowed with decomposing corpses.
With the virus closing in, many people have decided to flee.
“I didn’t want to get sick all alone,” said Ajay Kumar, a vendor of mobile phone covers, who left Bangalore this past weekend for a village in Jharkhand state. “In Bangalore, the cases are increasing. And my wife said, ‘Business is not so good. Why don’t you come back?’”
“At least we are together,” Kumar said.
The full scope of India’s ability to monitor the migration is not clear. But in some places, the sudden rush of migrants appears to be taking local officials by surprise. The lack of preparations seems to mirror the larger sense that this country, whether because of fatigue or familiarity, has been more nonchalant during this second wave than it was during the first one.
Last year, officials in the large eastern state of Bihar, which supplies millions of laborers to other parts of India, intercepted migrants when they arrived at train stations. They were screened for the virus and sent to mandatory two-week quarantine whether they had symptoms or not to keep them from mixing with uninfected villagers.
This time, the migrants from cities like Mumbai — where the COVID-19 positivity rate recently hit 30% — are simply stepping off trains or buses and walking into their communities, said Nafees Ahmad Sheikh, a cafe worker who left Mumbai last week, and two other recent arrivals.
Sheikh left after rumors of an impending lockdown began spreading. He said that the train he took had been packed with migrant workers and with people traveling for a short festival period. Some migrant workers had locked themselves in the train’s bathroom to avoid paying for the tickets because they had run out of money.
“The rich can deal with another lockdown, but what will the poor do?” Sheikh said. He said he would rather die in his home village than in a city “that treats us like disposable items.”
Some officials said that migrants arriving at railway stations were subjected to temperature checks and that those who were symptomatic were sent for further testing or to quarantine centers. But one official said that few of the centers were actually functioning because many of the contractors who set them up last year still have not been paid and did not want to get involved again.
Chanchal Kumar, an official in the office of Bihar’s chief minister, said that infections “started increasing after workers started coming back.”“Each passing day, we are trying to minimize the damage,” he said.
India’s central government is sending mixed messages. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has an enormous bully pulpit, last year asked Indians to stay indoors. The roads cleared and a stunning hush descended over the nation of 1.4 billion. When Modi asked people to stand on their porches and bang pots and pans in solidarity with health care workers, they did that as well.
This time, even as he asks people to be careful and maintain social distancing, Modi is holding huge political rallies in states where his party is competing in elections. His party is asking people to gather by the thousands.
India’s inoculation drive is progressing slowly. So far, only about 8% have been vaccinated. Only this week did the government authorize the use of imported shots. Until then, the government had been relying on two domestically produced vaccines in rapidly dwindling supply.
Few of the migrants are talking about vaccines. They just want to get home.
At Mumbai’s central train station Wednesday morning, Ansari waited anxiously for his train. This time, the city had not yet shut off public transportation.
Last time it did. Ansari said that he had run out of money and had been constantly beaten by the police when he ventured out to look for food. He went down to eating one small bowl of rice a day, he said, and feared that he would starve.
“I don’t even like talking about what happened last time,” he said. “Nobody cares about us, either here or there.”