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COVID Lockdown: How Broken Food Supply Chain Triggered Workers’ Migration

“I bought mustard oil for Rs 150 per litre whereas the price was Rs 100 per litre,” said a migrant worker, highlighting how the short supply of essential goods has led to hoarders profiteering over remaining stocks.
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Mohd. Qayoom is a Raj Mistri (skilled mason) who usually engaged in petty contracts of construction in Mukundpur and other neighbouring areas in North West Delhi. Although he did not get work everyday, he was able to earn enough to support himself and his family. However, the countrywide lockdown to contain COVID-19 pandemic has upended the life of thousands of workers like Qayoom, several of whom have started moving to their native villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand fearing they would not be able to cope with joblessness and hunger.

Qayoom decided to stay but is regretting his decision. Explaining the difficulties he is facing, he told NewsClick, “After the lockdown, the work has vanished. The police officials are advising contractors and house owners to not to engage any worker in construction in this period. Everything is fine except for the fact that we have very little option to feed ourselves. Some police officials are distributing food packets but they are not enough. Similarly, the facilities at the government schools for food and stay is being outnumbered by the sheer number of workers. Sometimes I find food, sometimes I don’t.” 

He added, “I still have some savings but the prices have jumped with meteoric speed. Small ration shops are almost closed. When one ventures out to the big shops, there is always a chance that you would be beaten by police personnel for non-compliance of the orders. I bought mustard oil for Rs 150 per litre whereas the price was Rs 100 per litre. Similarly, the pulses are too costly.” 

Also read: Failed Lockdown: Devastating the Poor, Weakening the Fight Against COVID-19

Qayoom is not alone. Lalit, working as a courier boy, is a resident of Holambi Kalan resettlement camp. Talking about hoarding by shopkeepers, he alleged, “The essential items are available in the shops. But you must be ready to pay more. I do not know how long this situation will remain.” These testimonies of workers reveal that the food supply chain in areas hosting migrant workers have collapsed, prompting hoarders to profiteer over the remaining stocks.

NewsClick talked to a few shopkeepers and distributors to understand how the lockdown has affected them.

Anmol Chaudhry, a kirana (local grocery) shop owner in another migrant workers’ locality in Sonia Vihar maintains that prominent companies like Shakti Bhog Foods Limited as well as local mills have not been accepting any orders for days. He told NewsClick, “There is no food supply from companies and mills. I had ordered 150 bags of flour with a factory based in Bawana a week ago, but have not received it yet. The mill had promised that it will deliver to us but they did not. Now they are saying that they have not received wheat from their suppliers. Similarly, the big companies had suspended their delivery operations almost two weeks ago. Now, the stocks are running out and we will have to close the shop if the situation does not improve.”

Aakash Kumar, another shopkeeper in Mukundpur, said that the suppliers are reluctant to deliver due to the lockdown. He said, “My stocks ran out soon after the lockdown was announced. Now, my supplier who is based in Jahangir Puri is not supplying the materials. The shopkeepers and workers have a take now, pay later relation. However, since our stocks ran out, we could no longer lend them. In this situation, they thought it was better to leave for their homes.”

Also read: The National Coronavirus Lockdown: Where Do We Go From Here?

A major trigger for this sharp rise in prices of essential items came after the transporters found it difficult to ply their trucks on the roads. Talking to NewsClick, Naveen Kumar Gupta, secretary general of All India Motor Transport Congress said, “We are now completely devastated by the lockdown. The economy was already in doldrums but this lockdown has brought us to a full stop. The lockdown was announced all of sudden. So, the trucks could not move further. The order maintained that all eateries including dhabas were closed. So, the truck drivers parked the vehicles and started moving to their villages. Now we do not know where to go from here.”

He added, “The government has amended its rules many times but they are not being followed by the police even after it was issued by Ministry of Home Affairs. The police is now seizing the trucks. Yesterday, they impounded a truck carrying coriander leaves while another was seized for carrying steel. Ministry of Steel, in its order, dated March 26 had clearly stated that the transportation of steel should not be stopped. In short, it’s a chaotic situation and it will take a long time to out of the crisis. Had it been better planned, we could have avoided this situation of anxiety and panic.”

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