Amy Kazmin in New Delhi
Indian police have arrested 17 people after discovering a smuggling operation of migrant workers stranded in their rural hometowns in ambulances, the workers being disguised as sick hospital patients and their relatives.
Police in Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi, discovered the operation after arresting two ambulances, each carrying five people – one with an IV drip apparently attached to his arm and another lying on a stretcher. Others pretended to be relatives of sick “patients”. The occupants were carrying documents and references, apparently from a hospital.
However, police discovered that the hospital on the letterhead of the documents was not operational and that the “patients” and their relatives were migrants who worked as tailors in export-oriented garment factories .
Each migrant worker had agreed to pay 9,000 rupees ($ 117) for a return trip to his villages in Bihar, more than 1,200 km from Delhi.
The mastermind of the operation, police said, was a former hospital director who had teamed up with ambulance owners to start the business of transporting stranded migrants.
Those arrested included 10 migrants, four ambulance drivers and two contractors. All were imprisoned for 14 days.
The arrests highlight the desperation of Indian migrant workers, such as those depicted walking home from Delhi, who were caught up in the surprise lockdown.
Millions have been trapped for weeks without income, dependent on food for survival and desperate to return home.
Indian authorities have estimated that 10 million migrant workers are stranded in cities and are now fed by a combination of government cuisines, charity groups and other donors.
Organizations monitoring the plight of migrants say the food aid provided is far from sufficient for the number of people in need and that hunger is widespread.