In a bid to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, the Modi government announced an extension to the lockdown, which will now continue till May 3. In his speech on April 14 however, the Prime Minister did not mention any relief package for migrant workers.
Following the speech, scenes of discontent and resistance were witnessed in Mumbai and Surat as distressed workers took to the streets to plead that they wanted to go home.
Thousands of migrant workers remain stranded in makeshift centers across India. In one such local college in Jharkhand's Dhanbad, 300 stranded workers have been living together. Speaking to NewsClick, one such worker, Mazed Hossain, said that they had been there for seventeen days. “I was trying to get back home to Murshidabad when I was brought here. We were not given food for the entire day. We have just got some cooked rice now, and there was no water either. I do not know when I will eat my next meal, so I have to run and eat this one,” he added.
“We are trying to help the workers but distressing instances such as this one keep coming to light. The lockdown did not take the lives of the poor into account,” said Sangram Chakroborty, who is coordinating relief efforts in Dhanbad.
The workers living in this makeshift camp said that they had one hand pump to fetch water from and were not sure if they would be given water. “When this issue was raised with the police they told us that they will shoot us. I have been fearing for my life since then,” said Mazed.
The workers have been requesting to be sent by home, where they can quarantine themselves, as they have lived there for over 17 days and not showed any symptoms of the virus.
Thousands of workers across India are stranded like Hossain – unmapped and ignored by the state, they are desperately trying to break free and go back to their families.
Efforts by civil society organisations are trying to assess the number of those stranded, in order to ensure their survival. Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), one such group, reached out to workers across India. For their report, the group had reached out to over 12,000 workers across the country. Their report has highlighted some glaring statistics.
SWAN’s report says that 50% of the workers had rations left for less than one day. About 96% had not received rations from the government and 70% had not received any cooked food, and were on the brink of starvation. Additionally, the police refused to help and asked them to contact their own states for assistance, with them not having access to rations and their cash reserves depleting.
The workers trapped in the makeshift camps do not have their wages to survive on either as 89% have not been paid by their employers during the lockdown, the report said. This, despite the Ministry of Home Affairs issuing an order on March 29, saying that employers should pay full wages to workers and home owners should not charge rent from stranded workers.
The report shows that the rate of hunger is exceeding the rate of relief, and termed the lockdown “unplanned” and “unilaterally” made, without any consultation with state governments. It demanded urgent rations for all, a cash provision of Rs 7,000 per stranded worker for at least two months, and an increase in the number of feeding centres, among several other immediate measures.
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