Ram Prakash, who used to work as a loader in Khari Baoli in Delhi, started walking the 900 kilometres to his village in Chhapra tehsil of Saran district in Bihar when the first lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 24 March. Prakash is happy to be home, but his relief is tinged with sorrow. “I don’t know how to make ends meet. We migrant labourers are entitled to Rs.1,000 from the state government, which a local organisation is helping me get,” he says.
Some 1,000 km from Saran, in Gafed village of Rudraprayag district in Uttarakhand seven workers are presently quarantined at a school. They have volunteered to refurbish the premises, where 100 students attend school. These hotel workers reached their village from Chandigarh and so they know how to cook their supplies, which they are getting from the district authorities.
In a third instance, Vijendra Dhangwal, who returned to Bagyan village in Tehri district, was not allowed to enter his village, where the people feared he would infect them with the Novel Coronavirus. Dhangwal had returned to perform the last rites of his father, but could not even attend the funeral.
These are just three vignettes of the different fates befalling the country’s workers these days. These workers have hit the highways and by-lanes to make their way back to their villages, expecting relative safety from the Covid-19 pandemic, and to escape starvation after the sudden lockdown deprived them of their means of livelihood.
If during their long march they faced trauma unlike ever before, with hundreds dying en route, the return home has made these desperate workers confront a fresh set of problems. There feel relieved to be home, but there is no or little work available in villages. The families of most workers were living on close to subsistence incomes anyway.
Women and young children who trudged home under a hot May sun are also not finding it easy to adjust to their new circumstances, of living with their in-laws in their village homes. Enakshi Ganguly, who heads HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, an NGO, has been in touch with such migrant women and their children. She says, “Women living in urban centres had an income, even if it was very little. In villages their situation is precarious because there is little work.” And for children, things are worse. Ganguly expects the school drop-out ratio to worsen. Plus, the young ones are no longer getting their mid-day meals. “I expect malnutrition levels to rise alarmingly as schools are closed. A majority of workers do not have smart phones, so online learning is out of question,” she says. In addition, pregnant women need special diets, as do lactating mothers.
Migrant workers say that they could complete their journeys home only because volunteer groups helped them. Rajendran N, who teaches at the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, and is a member of SWAN, a network to assist stranded workers, says, “We started on 27 March with two people and now we are a 100-volunteer team that contacts organisations which can supply rations or try to ensure government help to the workers.” So far SWAN has assisted around 20,000 people.
Such networks have sprung up across the country, and they often find workers in such dire circumstances as to need small cash transfers, of Rs 1,500 or so, just to tide over some immediate crisis, like a health emergency or lack of food. Seema, another SWAN volunteer, also a teacher at Azim Premji University, says, “The first wave of workers who reached Bihar in mid-April are now telling us that their families need food, money for gas connections and basic medical care.”
Even though SWAN does not help workers once they reach their villages, they are making exceptions for medical emergencies; for instance a worker in Bihar who needs Rs 4,500 every fortnight for a medical procedure. Over 400 workers died of exhaustion and starvation while walking home, the RoadScholarz network of volunteers have estimated.
Grassroots activists are trying to get the Public Distribution System to work for these migrants while trying to get them the money being promised by state governments. The Jharkhand government has assured Rs 1,000 to every migrant worker and the Bihar government Rs 2,000.
The problem is that workers must have smart phones to download the App that leads to this money. And they need a bank account in their own state, other than a password and a good enough internet connectivity. In reality, the situation is different: for instance, SWAN has been contacted by 1,100 women workers who have young children. Of them, only 20 held Jan Dhan accounts in which the government has credited Rs 500.
Workers in West Bengal, Odisha and Assam face a different set of problems. Siddhartha, a volunteer overseeing the migrants returning to these states, is also a member of the Safai Karamchari Monitoring Committee to End Scavenging. He says that West Bengal and Assam are experiencing two simultaneous migrations—thousands are leaving and thousands coming back.
Both these states have industrial clusters which have shut, and for two months workers have not been paid by the contractors who put them to work. “Unable to pay rent and with no food, they turned to us for help,” Siddhartha says. Similarly, West Bengal’s industrial clusters employ people from Jharkhand and Bihar, who now want to return home. “We cannot assist such large numbers so we contact state helplines for migrant workers. Unfortunately, in West Bengal none of them work,” he says.
Jadavpur University has formed an informal group to supply rations, which is helping out. “But ultimately, we have to fall back on governments. As the government machinery in West Bengal is not working, we approach MLAs directly, and if even that does not work, we resort to social media. We asked the chief minister of Jharkhand and West Bengal for help on Twitter,” says Siddhartha.
Besides, attempt to catch a special “workers’ train” has taken a toll on migrants. Seema cites the Karnataka government’s flip-flop. First the state decided to run trains, then it decided to stop running them. As a result, some two hundred construction workers stranded at the Bengaluru railway station decided they would walk home to villages in Bihar. They were stopped on the outskirts of the city by police and sent to a tented facility. “There at least the local authorities are giving them food,” Seema says.
Workers have to register on the railway website before they are given a ticket but the Railway’s website does not provide train departure schedule. It is state governments that are putting up separate websites with those details. Only Madhya Pradesh and Bihar have, so far, consented to accept migrants back. The others are dragging their feet.
Their next dilemma is that a phased withdrawal of the lockdown seems on the horizon which raises the possibility of finding work. This has convinced some, though they are near-starvation, to not leave the cities. Mumbai-based Navmee Goregaonkar, a student of St Xavier’s College, says, “Some workers from Haryana and the NCR region who work here were given part-payments by their employers, who do not want them to leave.” She has been trying to arrange food coupons for these workers, but many have been put, rather shockingly, on a “waiting list”.
“Unfortunately, the site [to apply for coupons] keeps crashing,” Goregaonkar says. The Delhi government has appointed nine nodal officers, but their phones, she finds, are “switched off”. “Over 400 workers from the NCR have sought financial help. Wherever required, we provide Rs 1,500,” she says. Among the women workers from NCR and Haryana who reached out, 50 are pregnant.
Sharanya Das, who works with St Judas Child Care Centre in Mumbai also interacts with migrant labourers from north India. She says, “Ninety per cent of those who contact us have run out of ration. Many do not have Aadhaar cards or other requirements and we are helping facilitate this,” she says.
The pressure to find work is intense among the labouring sections of Indian society. Many are realising that they soon will be forced to return to the cities they had fled because of the Covid-19 “mahamari” or epidemic. Many are also swearing never to return, considering the bleak future they confront if they do...
Hopefully, whenever the workers return, the Centre and states will ensure proper transport facilities and financial support for those who make up the backbone of the country. The plight of Indian workers really shows the paralysis of its politics. It shows the vulnerability of this vast class who received little support from the government.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.