- Rahul Gandhi was seen wearing a face mask and sitting on the pavement
- Congress said cops tried to detain migrants after Mr Gandhi's interaction
- Mr Gandhi earlier urged Centre to give cash to migrants and poor farmers
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi took to the streets of Delhi on Saturday evening to meet migrant workers camped out near the Sukhdev Vihar flyover in city's southeast.
This was hours after he urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to "reconsider" the government's Rs 20 lakh crore coronavirus package in favour of direct cash transfers to stranded labourers and poor farmers. Failure to do so - to immediately provide the poorest sections of the society - with money in their bank accounts could lead to a "catastrophic problem", Mr Gandhi said.
In photos circulated on social media, Mr Gandhi can be seen wearing a face mask and sitting on the pavement as he talks to a small group of migrant labourers, some of whom were walking back to Uttar Pradesh and others to Madhya Pradesh. They had already walked 130 km from Ambala in Haryana.
"Rahul Gandhiji came to speak with us. He wanted to know the difficulties we are facing. We told him we're dying of starvation here... there is no work anywhere. It has been 50 days like this," Mahesh Kumar, one of the migrants, said.
He also said that it had been at least four days since the group he was travelling with - which consists of 12 adults and one child - had left their homes.
"How much can we earn in four days, in five days? Whatever money we have is spent on food," he said, adding that he was thankful that Mr Gandhi had stopped to listen to their troubles.
"At least someone is listening to us. He said he would try to help," Mahesh Kumar added.
Devendra, another member of the migrant group, told ANI that Mr Gandhi had given them food, water and face masks for protection from the COVID-19 virus. He also said Mr Gandhi had arranged transportation for them, in cars, to their hometowns and villages.
Sources said Mr Gandhi was also trying to understand why so many thousands were still trying to walk hundreds of kilometres home despite the centre having arranged "shramik (worker)" trains.
After Mr Gandhi's interaction, Congress workers alleged Delhi Police tried to detain the migrants on orders from above. The cops, however, denied the claim; police sources told news agency ANI that the migrants had only been stopped from violating social distancing rules.
Distressing visuals have emerged in the days and weeks since the lockdown to break the coronavirus chain of transmission was enforced in March.
The lockdown, which brought almost the entire economy to a standstill, left lakhs of migrants and daily wagers without jobs, money, food or shelter. And, with public transport shut during the lockdown, they had little choice but to walk hundreds of kilometres home.
Several have died in desperate attempts to reach home; this morning 30 were killed and dozens injured in two separate road accidents - one each in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh - involving migrants and the trucks in which they were travelling.
Last week at least 16 were run over by a goods train in Maharashtra; they'd fallen asleep on the rail tracks exhausted by walking all day.
Mr Gandhi has been vocal about this crisis, urging the government to do more to ensure their safety.
Earlier today he spoke to media via a Zoom video call and asked the Prime Minister to "think about direct cash transfer, 200 working days under MNREGA because they are the future of India".
"The migrant labourer walking on the street needs money, not debt. The farmer who is suffering needs money, not debt," Mr Gandhi said, adding, "If we do not, this will become a catastrophic problem".
Today, the Madras High Court also took notice of the migrant crisis, hauling up both the Tamil Nadu government and the centre for failing to "care for their (the migrants) safety and well-being".
The "pathetic condition of migrant labourers...is nothing but a human tragedy", the court said, giving the state and centre till May 22 to answer a searching list of questions about its handling of the crisis.
With input from ANI