As nationwide lockdown to fight coronavirus or COVID-19 enters fifth day, hundreds of migrants took to streets this morning in Kerala's Kottayam - about 140 km from state capital Thiruvananthapuram - seeking transport services to go to their hometowns.
Policemen were seen trying to control crowds in clips recorded on mobile phones as hundreds gathered on roads and chaos unfolded on streets amid scare over COVID-19 that spreads fast in crowded places.
As migrants started gathering around 11:30 am, policemen were seen showing restraint, and along with health officials, they appealed to the migrants to "go back".
"Please go back. It's not safe to be out together like this. We will make arrangements for you. I give you assurance... even if it's your north Indian style of food, we will make arrangements. I am giving you my word. But we cannot send you back," Kottayam police chief Jaidev G told them in Hindi as he addressed the migrants.
The migrants dispersed about two hours later after repeated appeals.
"Their primary demand was that they wanted to return to their homes after they saw buses were being arranged in other states. But that's not possible. Whatever else they require, we shall provide. We have identified places where they can stay," Kottayam Collector PK Sudheer Babu told reporters.
The Pinarayi Vijayan government has assured accommodation and food to the migrant workers till the 21-day lockdown, which began on Wednesday, is over, which includes meals in the community kitchens.
"If a special train is arranged for their travel, we will facilitate their travel," Kerala Tourism Minister Kadakampally Surendran was quoted as saying by news agency PTI.
The protest comes at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been repeatedly urging people to stay indoors and ensure social distancing to avoid contracting the infection. Lakhs of migrants across the country were left stranded after a 21-day lockdown was announced on Tuesday. Many of them - desperate to reach homes - decided to cover hundreds of kilometres on foot as transport services - including interstate buses and trains - remain shut.
In an advisory, the central government today directed the states that movement is restricted across borders. "There has been movement of migrant workers in some parts of the country. Directions were issued that district and state borders should be effectively sealed. States were directed to ensure there is no movement of people across cities or on highways. Only movement of goods should be allowed. DMs and SPs should be made personally responsible for implementation of these directions which have been issued under the DM Act," the advisory read.
"It has been advised that adequate arrangements for food and shelter of poor and needy people including migrant laborers be made at the place of their work. Centre had yesterday issued orders for use of SDRF funds for this purpose. Sufficient funds are available with States in this head," it added.
In Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, special buses have been arranged for these labourers. Those returning to their native villages have been asked to stay at state-run camps for a 14-day mandatory quarantine.
India has reported over 970 COVID-19 cases so far, including 25 deaths. Of these, 174 cases have been reported in Kerala, the second highest in the country. The southern state reported its first death yesterday.