Pictures and reports in the media of migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Rajasthan and Odisha carrying their children and all their belongings, walking hundreds of kilometres to return to their homes amidst the nationwide lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic are heart-rending.

They are the hardest hit by the unprecedented countrywide closure as in one fell stroke they have lost their livelihood and homes, making them paradoxically more vulnerable to the disease. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of the lockdown effectively gave them four hours to return to their homes, an impossible task.

Shelters for the homeless in Delhi are facing an unprecedented rush throwing all the norms of social distancing to the wind as thousands queue up for free meals. With train and bus services abruptly cancelled, these workers and their families are stranded in Delhi, Mumbai, Gujarat and south India.

This is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions that should be dealt with compassionately. Instead, the UP police have been seen penalising migrants trudging to their homes by making them hop like frogs. The media exposure brought an apology from the police brass but the damage had already been done.

With states sealing borders, the task of returning home is even more difficult. There have been several cases of container trucks crammed with migrant labourers being seized at state borders. The lockdown is a difficult period for all Indians but the hardest hit are the migrant labourers, workers in the unorganised sector and the rural poor.

The homeless and slumdwellers do not have the luxury of practising social distancing as they are have to live cheek-by-jowl in packed shelters for the homeless, one-room tenements or under the elements, where they face the wrath of the men in khaki. The chief ministers of Bengal and Odisha have urged their counterparts in other states to help the stranded workers.

The Bihar chief minister has announced that his government will coordinate with other states to help migrants from the state. The Centre has announced a substantial financial package for the poor and marginalised but the key lies in implementation. Grandiose announcements that nobody will be allowed to go hungry are fine but the government must ensure the seamless delivery of aid to the poorest of poor.

The Kerala example of setting up of community kitchens by local self-government institutions such as corporations, panchayats, wardlevel committees and volunteers to serve hot meals to the needy is something that can be replicated all over the country. The Delhi government too is launching food kitchens.

The Modi government’s decisive moves to contain this global pandemic are welcome indeed as any drastic spread of the disease will be disastrous for India’s 1.3 billion population, given the inadequate healthcare system. But it is also a time for the authorities to loosen their purse strings and offer generous aid to those who need it most.

While all efforts are being made to ensure the return of Indians stranded abroad, those stranded within the country are left to their own devices. Only altruism in the truest sense will save the day.