Patna: Amid the fast-rising COVID-19 cases across the country, fear and rumours of a likely lockdown are growing and spreading once again in rural Bihar. Dayamuni Devi, a frail middle-aged woman, is anxious about her son, a migrant worker in a plastic factory in Maharashtra, losing her job due to another lockdown. She is apprehensive as she saw how thousands of migrant workers returned to their home state Bihar during the second wave in April-May 2021 and the first wave in March-April 2020.
So far, there are no reports of migrant workers returning and the state government has not officially confirmed any such thing either. But the Nitish Kumar-led government claimed that it was alert about dealing with any eventuality in the coming days. The labour department has planned to issue a new toll-free number soon to provide help to migrant workers in view of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Officials at the Bihar state disaster management department also said that to date, there was no information about migrant workers returning. The officials admitted to the growing fear and rumours of lockdown among migrant workers.
“Some co-villagers, as well as relatives, informed me that the COVID-19 situation is alarming and the country is heading for a lockdown like the past two years. A lockdown will force my son to lose his job and return to the village. He will be rendered unemployed again. It will be another challenge for the poor like us,” said Dayamuni, a resident of Rampur village in Arwal district of Bihar.
Till last month, Dayamuni was happy and has planned to start searching for a groom for her youngest daughter for marriage during ‘lagan’ (traditional marriage season during summer) this year. “Due to the likely lockdown, we will have to struggle for livelihood. Everything will come back to square one,” she said.
Dayamuni said her son, like thousands of migrant workers in Mumbai, was also restless and fearing the lockdown. “He told me that in view of night curfew and the fear of a lockdown being imposed at any time in Mumbai, migrant workers are fearful. My son frankly said he will not return until the lockdown is imposed. But hundreds of migrant workers had already left Mumbai for Bihar in the last two days,” she said.
She said that her son returned to work in August after spending months in the village without work because of the lockdown back then.
She has highlighted the pain of the impact of lockdown on migrant workers’ households as there was no source of income after the labourers were rendered jobless in big cities and industrial towns.
Dayamuni is not alone in her apprehensions. She is one of the thousands of women, mainly mothers, wives and young daughters of migrant workers, who are afraid of a likely lockdown and its impact on their lives. They have been expressing their concern and discomfort about it as well.
“Last two years proved bad for us due to lockdown as my husband, a migrant worker, was forced to sit at home without earning. We had struggled to manage a family of six members. Our source of livelihood is his income. He works as a skilled worker at a factory in Kutch in Gujarat,” said Aarti Devi, wife of a migrant worker and resident of Tekari in Gaya district. “If lockdown is imposed this time, we will face immense difficulty in running the family. Already we are facing hardship due to price rise (inflation),” she added.
Similarly, Shahnaz Bano, whose husband works as a mason in Delhi, is worried since the TV news channels have repeatedly claimed another lockdown was on its way in view of the surging COVID cases. “My two minor daughters are in school and a toddler son has been ailing for months. We all depend on my husband earning in Delhi. Any further lockdown will create problems for us. It is poor folks like us who are affected by lockdowns,” she rued.
It was widely reported in 2020 that thousands of frightened migrant workers returned to the state by special trains from Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, Surat, and Cochin and other places across the country after a sudden lockdown was announced. Most of the migrant workers who returned were either daily-wage construction workers, security guards, cooks or they worked in industry and factories and were compelled to return home after being rendered jobless, particularly in Maharashtra, Delhi and other states.
After the sudden lockdown in 2020, millions of skilled and unskilled workers, drivers, and vendors were either rendered jobless or did not find any work, as per official figures. Last year also, thousands of migrant workers returned to their native villages after lockdown.
In Bihar, joblessness after the lockdown poses a great challenge with more than 21 lakh migrant workers returning to the state, as per official data. Initially, thousands of them walked hundreds of kilometres on roads and along railway tracks to reach home as there was no arrangement for transport. Later, the railways had operated Shramik special trains between May and July for ferrying migrant workers.
However, most migrant workers who returned home last year spent months without work as the state government failed to provide jobs to them, contrary to publicised claims.
Experts say that thousands of migrant workers, who work across the country and used to visit their homes in Bihar only to celebrate different festivals or during the marriage season, have been forced to return amid the outbreak of COVID-19.
Most of the Bihari labourers are concentrated in Punjab, Delhi, Haryana, Assam, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Cities such as Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata and Pune also have a sizeable number of people from Bihar.
Interestingly, the state government has no official data of how many workers from Bihar are employed outside the state.