Maharashtra, one of India’s most industrial states, survives on the hard work of labourers. What would happen if they turn their back to work, even if they had it? It has started happening in Maharashtra at the moment, and labourers want to return home at any cost.
The Maharashtra government had decided to ease the lockdown to aid industries in rural and semi-urban areas. It has asked industrial houses and establishments to register for passes for workers during the lockdown and close to 44,474 manufacturing units across the state have applied for the same.
As per estimates by the companies, about 9.6 lakh labourers were needed by them, but it has turned out that only 21,600 companies could manage to begin work because of the lack of labour force. Only about 5.2 lakh workers have made it to work as yet, with around four lakh labourers not coming forward despite work being available.
"There are two reasons behind the exodus of labourers. Firstly, they are getting calls from families in native places to return as the number of COVID-19 patients are increasing in Mumbai. The other reason is that they do not have faith in the authorities regarding the supply of food and security," said labour unionist Milind Ranade.
Prashant Patil, a contractor in Thane district, co-ordinates with workers for jobs related to plumbing, floor polishing, and electricity related work in the real estate sector. He is struggling to get back workers who are leaving the city. "They are saying that they will return once COVID-19 is over. They are stressed at the moment, and more than the stress, the uncertainty surrounding work is a serious concern for them. Who knows when the government would change its mind and ask to shutdown all work? It could leave them jobless and starving again," said Prashant.
Mumbai and its suburban areas have been India's largest real estate cluster for many years. As of now, however, this sector is also fearing losing labourers, and the situation could persist for the next six months. "In our experience, the labourers generally return to their work between six to eight months after they leave because they have their families back in their native villages. If this happens then the entire year will be washed out. It will have a big impact on our business," said Prithviraj Hajare, manager of Mauli construction in Vikhroli. Work on three sites of his has stopped since March 19.
As per initial reports from the Urban Development department, there was ongoing work at nine hundred sites in Mumbai, Thane and Palghar districts. Sources within the department sources said that there was work happening in around 500 sites in the Mumbai and Thane area.
Sonu Pasi and his three roommates have been walking from Taloja in Navi Mumbai. They were told that they could get a train from Kalyan station for Begusarai in Bihar. The distance between Taloja and Kalyan is 26 kilometers. They mention that they could not get a pass for the train from the police so they have begun walking to Kalyan in the hope of catching a train from there.
Sonu is employed in a garage in Taloja and work has completely stopped since April. "There is no work. Our seth gave us half of April’s salary and there is no sign of work resuming. So, we have decided to leave Mumbai now," he said.
On being asked what the group would do if they could not get a train from Kalyan, they had a straight answer. "We will walk. There are so many people walking home. We will keep trying to reach the next station so that we could board a train from somewhere," said Sonu. "Can’t you seeing thousands of people walking on the roadside? We will also do the same," he added.
As per primary estimates by the state government, there are almost 12 lakh labourers from other states in Maharashtra, and many want to return to their native places. As of now, almost 32 trains have been departed from different cities in Maharashtra to various states. Labourers from Odisha are stuck because of the High Court order preventing them from returning to the state. "But states like Karnataka and Gujarat have refused to take back labourers from their states. The procedure put in place by the Tamil Nadu government is complicated and time consuming. So, these issues need to be sorted out fast," said Maharashtra revenue minister Balasaheb Thorat.