The Indian Railways has operated more than 1,600 Shramik Special trains to carry over 21.5 lakh migrant workers home since the nationwide coronavirus lockdown. Yet, this endeavour seems like a drop in the ocean when compared to the scale of the crisis: India has over 120 million migrant labourers.
It is no surprise, then, that homecoming has been thwarted for a vast number of India’s most vulnerable. Their families and loved ones are distraught. They wait listlessly, running from pillar to post and jumping through the bureaucratic hoops.
Ujyari, speaking through tears, said, “My son is away and he is unable to come home. I’m worried as he’s unwell, and there’s nothing I can do… There are no means for him to come back, so how can he?”
Pyarelal, a farmer in Mahoba, added, “My son has been away for about three months. We have been trying to call him, but he can’t come back. He said, “Koi saadhan hi nahi chal raha hai (there is no means of public transport available). He has a lot of troubles there, issues with rent, food and water.” Asked why his son chose to leave home, Pyarelal explained, “I’m just a farmer, and we had to earn our livelihood. So there was no choice, but leave the village.”
Pyarelal’s son is just one of the countless migrant labourers who left home in order to look for a higher paying job. Such migrant labourers comprise around 20 percent of India’s workforce. However, this crisis has demonstrated the precarious of their position in society.
Over two-thirds of them have lost their jobs and are now stranded in cities with no food, water, or roof above their heads. In some cases, state governments are actively hampering their efforts to get home, holding them hostage for when the lockdown eases and business as usual can resume.
However, faced with the threatening prospect of contracting the virus in India’s densely packed urban areas and the looming spectre of starvation, migrant labourers are hoping to head back home to weather the storm alongside their loved ones.
But given the rampant miscommunication and inadequate measures that accompany government efforts to take them home, several migrant labourers are left with no choice but to become ‘aatmanirbhar’.
Mahboob Shaikh is a mechanic making the long road trip from Mumbai to Lucknow: “We were not getting any food or water there [in Mumbai]. So we were compelled to leave. We had to help each other, and so we banded together and left. After a month and twenty days of lockdown, we had enough. There was no work, no room or rent, we were kicked out. Phir koi khaane ka thikaana nahi tha, toh hum road par aa gaye (we couldn’t count on there being food, and we ended up on the street). Then we found the people in charge of this truck who stays near us, and they said they were going to Uttar Pradesh. So we asked them to drop us off.”
Migrant labourers have increasingly been taking matters into their own hands, even opting to make the journey home on foot, braving the scorching summer, hunger, tiredness, police brutality, and the distance.
Mahboob and his band of around 100 labourers are derisive about government efforts to take them home: “They never clear your paperwork. First they say, get your medical test done, then do this, then that. We filled out more than three forms. Someone says do this, someone else says, fill out a police report, then file it.”
Mahboob and his companions are not the only ones caught up in the laborious bureaucratic apparatus of the State. Reports reveal that while transporting migrant labourers home has become a bone of contention between different state governments and the Centre, on-ground implementation of welfare and ration schemes like MNREGA, which are designed to provide for the most vulnerable, has been woefully inadequate.
We spoke to some women in the village whose husbands were away, jobless and stuck in Delhi and Mumbai. One bought rations on the basis of her job card, but because not all of her children had been added to her household, she couldn’t what she needed to feed everyone.
Another was told that her ration card had been cut from the list and couldn’t afford to buy what she needed on the basis of her job card. The lekhpal, Sushil Kumar Sharma, was harried: “We are making a report of names that are not on the list today,” he told us. “They will be added at the district level as soon as possible.”
Further, the provisions and funds promised in the whopping Rs 20 lakh crore government bailout for the crumbling Indian economy are yet to find their way to the poor.
Kuresha, Yasmin and Champa were standing in line, having exhausted their options and their food reserves. They had set off from Hadaha village, over eight kilometres away, at 6 am, in order to reach the Public Distribution System by 9 am.
They’d heard they would get free grain and Rs 500, perhaps referring to the announced installments in women’s Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojna accounts. Yasmin said she had a ration card, but hadn’t got her quota for the past two months. Some of her family hadn’t been able to get Aadhaar numbers.
“They are saying your name has been removed,” she said. “We’ve tried to get Aadhaar, but they don’t get made. Meanwhile, Champa was told she would not get the ration because she was not on the “active” MNREGA rolls.
The systematic hollowing-out and undermining of such welfare schemes has led to a collapse of our distribution mechanisms. In times of crisis, we simply do not know how to reach those who need aid the most. And if on the off-chance that the people seeking help manage to reach the authorities, they are bamboozled by the never-ending paperwork and deflection of their queries.
Jamuna Kushvaha puts it thus: “…we went to the SP, but we couldn’t even understand their requirements… they don’t listen to us, and don’t offer us any help.”
Jamuna reminds us what he is fighting for: “If they [about his family] have trouble with getting food or whatever, they’re worried, then even we lose sleep worrying about them. Unki chinta mein, hum log bhi bahut pareshan hai. If your children don’t get food, then of course a father will worry.” His fears are not unfounded. The Mehta family in Banda had their worst fears realised when they got news that their son Manoj, a worker in Gujarat, committed suicide because of his abject circumstances.
Gauri, his mother stated, “He didn’t have any food or water, nothing was arranged for him.” Manoj is far from the only one who has done so; Odisha, Gujarat, Kerala, and Haryana have reported cases of migrant workers taking their own lives when stranded in cities minus support networks that provide them with food and shelter.
While various states are already planning to reopen their economies, it is at the cost of their workforce. Several states, including Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Gujarat, have relaxed their labour laws in preparation for the resumption of production.
However, states must prepare themselves for an acute labour shortage, given that lakhs of migrant labourers have made it home and have no intention of returning to the cities, and to the state,that failed them.
Co-published with Firstpost
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