Delhi faces yet another migrant labour crisis, repeating last year’s horror

With Covid-19 cases reaching its all time high in India, labourers and blue collar workers in Delhi are going back home, again

It’s April 2021, but nothing much has changed. With Covid cases surging, migrant labourers are vulnerable, facing the horrors of last year yet again — apprehensions about another lockdown is forcing them to return to their hometowns. 

Much to the migrant labourers’ dismay,  Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on Monday announced a week-long curfew in the Capital city — resulting in a huge number of people flocking at Anand Vihar to board buses to return home.

The uptick in labourers going home has been observed since the last few weeks. Railway stations, especially Anand Vihar, in Delhi from where most of the trains going to Bihar, UP and some eastern states connect, are the prime witness of this. 

At around 1 P.M, Munna, a frail looking young man in his late 20s with his friend Amit was waiting for a train to go to his village in Katihar district of Bihar. Duo had at least an assurance that they had a confirmed ticket to go home unlike 60-70 odd people deboarded from trains by officials for travelling without a ticket. 

Munna and Amit are construction workers; they were employed in Ladakh for the last two months. As cases started to rise they decided to go back home. “Work stopped there. That’s why we are going,” Munna said. They booked an expensive flight to come to Delhi. And now, they waited for their train.

Credit: Mayank Jain

The scenes at Anand Vihar railway station were grim. Large number of people were sitting inside the station premises, even when the railway isn’t allowing people without platform tickets to enter to stop congestion. Still, it seemed a huge uptick in the number of people going home. However, people had many different reasons to go home, not just a Covid scare.

 Hari Lal, an old man from Bihar had another reason to go home. “We are going home because the harvesting season has started,” he said, denying fear of Covid as a reason to head back.

The number of officials checking tickets were increased. A TTE told us that, “we are working in tough situations. Some passengers tell personal stories like  one of them told me that his father had died, and they are waiting for him  to come before they cremate him, so he begged me to help him go back.”

“Although nobody without a ticket is allowed, some are coming by walking on tracks, what can we do? We have to abide by rules. At this time any laxity from our side can cost our job,” another TTE said. On the question of what those found without a ticket would do, he said, “We have told them to go from here, people are offering to pay fine, only thing they want is tickets to travel back home.”

In March, Patriot reported how a rising number of Covid cases are creating a fear among merchants and labourers of the possibility of another lockdown. A labourer contractor Dhanka then told us, “The situation is worst for labourers, to say the least. Those labourers earning Rs 300 -350 a day are not even getting Rs 100 since the last 15-20 days, as merchants are not willing to come to Delhi.”

We contacted Dhanka again, he told us that labourers working for him are going home. Only 4-5 are here in Delhi. He himself has gone back to his village in Rajasthan.

Credit: Mayank Jain

Delhi is now the worst affected city by Covid in India. Capital registered 19,486 new cases on April 17. And since March, the speculations about another lockdown have been deep in people’s minds. Almost every other labourer we spoke talked about this to us in March.

Interestingly, people in general are not travelling that much. For instance, trains connecting to South Indian states, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra are not seeing much rush. While trains going to Bihar, Jharkhand are seeing a rush, which is reflected in large numbers of people at railway stations in Delhi.

The Delhi government recently announced a weekend curfew.  To contain the spread of the virus in the state which includes closure of shopping malls, gyms, spas and auditoriums. All non- essential movement of people will be stopped during this period including domestic help. “The curfew passes to be issued to those rendering essential services. The cinemas halls will operate at 30% capacity only. People will not be allowed to dine-in restaurants, only home deliveries permitted,” Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal said. 

Activists claim that another attempt of any kind of lockdown would create fear psychosis among labourers. “Night curfew are already affecting auto rickshaw drivers, sex workers, among others. Now weekend curfew would affect construction workers and other laborers. Who will pay them?” questions activist Nirmal Gorana.

(Cover: Migrant labourers at Anand Vihar railway station heading back home / Credit: Mayank Jain)

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