From Chennai to Gurugram, migrants tell a similar story of poverty, desperation, and a government that left them in the lurch
The one who came back
“My hope is that the government does not impose another lockdown or we will perish,” says an anguished Shakoor Ahmed as he adjusts the mask on his face. He’s trying to hide his expression, but isn’t quick enough.
Shakoor is one of the millions of construction workers in India who moved from towns and villages to cities to find work. When the Covid pandemic hit, they had to make a tough decision: Should they go back to their hometowns, hundreds of kilometres away, or wait for the lockdown to be lifted?
Shakoor came to Gurugram from Katihar in Bihar. Before the lockdown began, he worked at a textile factory in Turkman Gate. “I used to stay with other people from Katihar who were all employed by the same contractor.”
The contractor provided them with accommodation, Shakoor says, so he and his fellow workers never had to worry about rent. “This allowed us to send a large portion of our money home,” he adds. But once the factory closed during the lockdown, their money ran out. “We were not getting paid and had no money even to buy food. Other workers also faced similar issues.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the first 21-day nationwide lockdown on March 22, to limit the spread of Covid-19. The movements of 1.3 billion-odd people were restricted. Workers like Shakoor, already living a hand-to-mouth existence, were caught in the crossfire.
“After the first few days of the lockdown, we were eagerly waiting for March 31 for things to get normal again and work to resume,” he says. “When the lockdown was extended in mid-April till May, most people started getting desperate to go back home. There was no help from either the Delhi government or the central government. The only way we sustained was by helping each other.”
The lockdown in March was sudden; Shakoor and his colleagues were given no time to make arrangements. Transportation across the country was suspended, state borders were closed, and railway stations and airports shut down too.
The images of hundreds of migrant workers walking back home has become emblematic of India’s lockdown. This exodus soon turned into a humanitarian crisis, with migrant workers starving and dying during their efforts to go back home. In April alone, the National Human Rights Commission recorded over 2,582 cases of human rights violation.
One complaint stated:
“Without work, food or shelter most of the migrant worker/labour, weaker and depressed section of our society with their families have headed toward their native place on foot, hence they were dying of starvation.”
In places like Gurugram, the situation very quickly became almost post-apocalyptic.
“Initially, we were afraid to go out even for food due to the fear of being arrested or lathi-charged but after a week of the lockdown, we had run out of food too,” says Shakoor. “At first, we thought the situation would be normal in a week or two so we didn’t store more rations than that. But we ran out. Whenever we heard of food distribution around our area, we would rush but almost always, the food at the distribution centre ran out. Those of us who managed to get it would share with others in the group.”
As their problems escalated, so did their desperation. In Mumbai, a day before the first phase of the lockdown ended, 1,500 workers gathered to protest at the Bandra bus depot, driven by hunger, poverty, poor living conditions and an urgency to go back home. The police used force to disperse the crowd and filed three FIRs in the case, one of them against over 800 unidentified men who had gathered at the depot. At least 11 people were arrested.
Meanwhile in Gurugram, Shakoor and his colleagues pleaded with their contractor to pay them wages in advance so they could buy food. Their efforts were rebuffed. “We requested him to send us back but he didn’t respond positively to that either,” he says.
On May 26, almost nine weeks after the first lockdown was announced, the Supreme Court took suo motu cognisance of the crisis, stating that there have been “inadequacies and certain lapses” on the part of the central and state governments. In response to a formal notice from the court, the central government filed a detailed affidavit on June 6, detailing that whenever necessary, migrant workers were being provided with food, drinking water, clothes, medicine, footwear and other essentials, free of cost.
But all this came too late for Shakoor. He left Gurugram on May 18 after his contractor arranged for buses to send the workers back home.
“We were terrified that we might be stopped by the police and sent back or sent to jail,” he remembers. “Every time the bus stopped, the atmosphere in the bus would get very tense and quiet. I was uncertain we would get home at all. Most of us travelled in a state of hunger and exhaustion.”
Reaching home filled Shakoor with relief, but things soon went downhill. He’s the only earning member of a family of six; his family sustained themselves on the money he would send from Gurugram. “Every day, I would look at my old parents, my sisters, my wife, and get very upset that I was not able to provide for them. I knew I had to get work, any work, as soon as I could.”
He began telephoning his contractor, calling him incessantly for the next month and a half, asking if there was any work for him and whether he should return to Delhi. He got the phone call in the beginning of July: there was work in Gurugram and he needed to return.
The contractor arranged buses for Shakoor and others, and that’s how he’s wound up back at a construction site. They arrived on July 6 and began work at once. Now, all he can do is hope that there aren’t any more lockdowns.
The one who didn’t return
“The distance from Chennai to Bakawand is around 924 km. I covered it in six days on my bicycle. I thought it would be tiring and hectic but I enjoyed my ride. I also found it quite liberating.”
Manish Pujari, 30, sounds surprisingly cheerful for someone whose entire life was uprooted. Manish’s home is in Bakawand in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district. Before the lockdown, he worked at a canteen in a prestigious college in Chennai.
“After the lockdown was announced in March, our manager told us that he would not pay us after the month ends,” Manish says. “So, we were on our own for the whole month of April. We survived on our savings.”
Manish stayed in a room, given to him by his manager, with two friends. It was more of an unfurnished storeroom, he says, completely empty except for ceiling fans. He and his friends decided to stay put, assuming that the lockdown would end after 21 days.
Meanwhile, students vacated the college by March 20. Manish was increasingly fearful about the climbing Covid cases in Chennai. “Previously, we used to go to the college campus to have our food. But now, since we lived outside, and the fear of the virus had swamped over, we were not allowed to enter the college premises.”
His fears weren’t unfounded. In the first week of July, Chennai reported the highest Covid cases compared to other cities. On June 30, it registered the highest number of cases in the world after Los Angeles.
When the 21-day lockdown was extended, things took a bad turn.
“We did not have any option but to stay in that room. However, slowly we faced a shortage of food. There were some days when we survived on sandwiches. My family was very worried about me and my mother insisted on me coming back,” Manish said.
After two months of this, he packed his bags. It was May, and Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel had written a letter to railway minister Piyush Goyal four days before, asking that 28 trains be organised across the country so migrant workers could go back home.
These Shramik Special trains were launched by the Railways six weeks after the first lockdown was imposed. Between May 1 and May 30, 52 lakh people were ferried back home in 3,840 special trains. This mammoth undertaking was marred by controversy: at least 71 of these trains got “lost”, though the Railways claimed that 1.85 percent of the trains were diverted due to “route congestion”.
Manish first heard about these trains around May 5. “I quickly grabbed my things and went to the police station to register myself for it. We were told that the special train registration and booking could only be done by state government officials.”
At this time, Chhattisgarh had confirmed four Shramik Special trains. The Chhattisgarh government’s press release on the special trains stated that people wanted to board the trains “will have to apply in the application established by the state government”.
Manish couldn’t get on any of these four trains, he says, because the police were not very helpful. “They shooed us away saying you can register yourselves through an app.”
Like other migrant workers looking to return to Chhattisgarh, Manish had to register on a state government website. According to reports, around 22,000 migrant workers had returned to Chhattisgarh by May 18 through 15 Shramik Special trains. But about 2,73,935 had registered on the state’s online platform. Roughly calculated, this required 187 special trains, and only 45 trains were heading to Chhattisgarh.
Manish wasn’t able to get on a train at all. On June 7, he decided to take an extreme decision.
“My family was worried and scared of the worsening situation,” he says. “I had saved some money so I bought a bicycle for Rs 6,500 from my friend. I decided to ride it to Bakawand, to my home. The cost didn’t matter as it would unite me with my family.”
Manish set off that very day, accompanied by three of his friends on a 924-km journey. By car, this trip takes about 18 hours. It took Manish and his friends six days; they would set off at 4.30 pm and cycle till 10 am.
“We made certain halts, and slept in temples and bus stands,” Manish says. “There were charging points at bus stands so I used the map on my mobile phone to navigate. We used to cycle only at night and rest during the day because it was scorching hot.” And he isn’t exaggerating; the temperature in Chennai in June hovers at 35-36 degrees Celsius.
Multiple NGOs helped Manish during his journey, he says, handing out parcels of rice, dal and other food to travelers. “I almost faced no issues throughout my journey.”
Roadside aid was a common feature during the migrant exodus. In Andhra Pradesh, for instance, chief minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy directed officials to provide food, water and transport to migrant workers on the road. Workers were also to be counselled at district and state border checkposts, and those on a long journey were taken to nearby relief centres and given food and drink. Those heading to hometowns within the state were sent home on buses, and the state government set up counters, 50 km apart, on the highways to provide food and water.
This came in handy for Manish, whose route took him through Andhra Pradesh as well.
He reached Bakawand on June 13 and finally reunited with his family. Will he return to Chennai once the Covid situation improves?
“No,” he says emphatically. “I do not plan to go back to Chennai, considering the problems I faced during the pandemic. It’s better to stay safe at home. I will look for a job once this pandemic ends. Yes, there would be difficulties to survive, especially with no job, but I will find a way out.”
The one who never left
“My husband has been taking his autorickshaw out for a month now but comes home on most days without money. Yesterday also he roamed the roads and came back with no fare.”
Rahina Bibi laughs as she says this. Rahina is a domestic worker in Gurugram, working in two houses near Chakkarpur. She moved to the city in 2008 from Buniadpur in West Bengal with her husband, who works as an autorickshaw driver.
“I have three daughters, two of whom are married,” Rahina says when asked about her family. “My oldest, Reshma, is married and lives in a village near Malda. My middle one is married here in Gurugram but is staying with me right now. She has a temper, you see. My youngest, Mehak, is almost 12 and studies in Class 6.”
The family lives in a small two-room flat in Gurugram, in a building with 82 similar flats. Many flats are now vacant: out of 22 rooms on Rahina’s floor, five are empty.
Housing societies like the one Rahina lives in are prone to the faster spread of coronavirus, due to the proximity of living conditions. When the lockdown was imposed, state and district authorities classified districts into red, orange and green zones on the basis of Covid caseloads. Town and city officials then demarcated containment zones, where areas are sealed and barricaded to prevent the spread of the virus.
In Gurugram, a containment zone is designated if five positive cases emerge within a one kilometre radius.
The pandemic has seen multiple instances of domestic workers like Rahina being mistreated. Residents’ welfare associations have restricted their return to work even after the government gave the go-ahead. Not all workers have received their salaries for lockdown months when they couldn’t go into work, and in Delhi’s Defence Colony, a domestic worker was found weeping on the road when the family that employed her asked her to leave when she tested positive. Three members of the family had tested positive for Covid a month before.
Rahina has worked at the same two houses for the last 12 years. “Ever since the lockdown began, I’ve been sitting idle at home,” she says. “If it weren’t for the two didis I work with, I don’t know what we would have done. The didis have been sending me money every month. I’m very fortunate that way.”
Yet Rahina has seen the mistreatment first-hand: a number of domestic workers she knows have not been given any aid or salaries from their employers. She currently runs her house on the basis of the payments from her employers. “My husband’s income is zero now,” she points out. “Most families in our complex that had a single male earner have left for their hometowns.”
None of those who left have returned, she says. “We decided not to go back because we didn’t have anything to go back to. My husband has no land in our village so what would we have done, going back?”
But she’s not sure how long they can stay put since their landlord has made no concessions when it comes to rent. “The rent has to be paid on the 10th of every month or you have to vacate,” she explains. “If the situation doesn’t improve soon, we might have to return to Buniadpur.”