Lucknow: Ram Achal Prasad, a factory worker who had been working in Mumbai, had left the city on bicycle with his wife and two children, promising never to return. However, with the situation worsening at home, the 50-year-old from Uttar Pradesh had no option but to return.
“I left for my village in April and braved many setbacks. We almost lost our lives while going home," said Prasad. “However, I could not find any work that suited my skill-set in Bahraich district, and I could not keep sitting at home waiting for things to get back to normal. I had no money left and had to decide to return to Mumbai. But with the news of COVID-19 cases rising every day, I decided to leave my wife and two daughters behind," he said.
Munna Kumar, another migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh who hails from Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's hometown of Gorakhpur, echoed similar sentiments, saying that there were no jobs for them.
"Kisko shauk laga hai pariwar chhod kar pardesh jane ka, agar hame yahan naukri ka avsar milta to hum kabhi bhi palayan nahi karte (Who is interested to go outside for employment leaving behind their family members? Had we got an employment opportunity here, we would never have migrated to any other place)," said Amresh Ojha. He used to work at a factory in Delhi, and was boarding a bus from Chinhat bus stop in Lucknow to New Delhi today.
NewsClick spoke to some migrant workers, many of whom blame the CM for failing to create jobs and forcing them to look elsewhere.
Rajeev Yadav, a social activist who works for migrant workers in Azamgarh, said that the BJP government has bombarded the airwaves with announcements for migrant workers. However, he said that policies have not been implemented on the ground and they are being forced to leave their respective villages amid the pandemic.
"The state government first said that migrant workers who do not have a ration card will be given a monthly ration. CM Adityanath said Rs 1,000 will be credited to the bank accounts of millions of migrant workers who have recently returned to the state, but it was merely lip service. In my district, a very small number of people have availed of such facilities by the government. The government was setting up a migration commission to provide jobs to migrant workers/labourers yet they are migrating again in search of jobs," said Yadav, adding that migrants have been demanding the resumption of train services from Azamgarh to metropolitan cities so that they could return to work.
Accusing the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government of ''ignoring the plight of the migrant workers'', Sandeep Pandey, Magsaysay Award winner and social activist said: “I had gone for a survey in a village in Unnao district and found that out of 89 people, only one person received one thousand rupees and three persons got a ration kit,” said Pandey, calling it the government’s failure. “The government has failed at every stage, whether it was arranging buses for migrants, the pathetic condition of quarantine centres or creating jobs for them here. The BJP government at the Centre and the state have proved to be a failure,” he added.
The Uttar Pradesh government is looking to address the unemployment among migrant returnees by ramping up construction work in rural areas. It is looking to provide more people with job cards under MGNREGA and help them to “update their skills”. The state government has claimed that 51 lakh workers were given new jobs under MNREGA and that job cards have been issued, but many, including Prasad and Kumar, said that they were told that even existing card holders were struggling to find jobs.
Migrant workers have been running from pillar to post in search work in the bigger cities, but little is coming their way. Prasad and Kumar are among thousands who left Mumbai vouching never to return, but eventually felt forced to make the reverse journey to the city. However, most are going back alone, not ready to risk their families to the COVID-19 threat.
Among those that have returned is Abhinandan Maurya, who used to work at a construction site in Goregaon and had left for his home in Deoria district. He returned after he did not find work under MGNREGA. He said that if there were employment opportunities in Uttar Pradesh, “I would have never returned to Mumbai despite knowing of the high risk of infections.”
The company Maurya used to work for has not resumed operations but he is looking for whatever he can find. “It is better that I die rather than my children die of coronavirus," Maurya told NewsClick adding that feeding his family in the village had become the biggest hurdle. "Had we stayed back for a few more days, we would have died of starvation,” said Maurya.
Sandeep Pandey said that despite the significant increase in the demand for MGNREGA work, the central government is not increasing the annual guarantee of work from 100 days per household. “One should get work under MGNREGA for a minimum of 100 days and if he needs work more then the goverment should provide them with it. But, unfortunately, after 100 days, there is no guarantee," said Pandey, adding that the migrants who had left for their home states are facing an acute shortage of work.
According to the Maharashtra government, so far, 1.91 lakh migrants have returned to Mumbai from Uttar Pradesh by trains and buses after the states gradually lifted travel restrictions.