Snapshot of suffering

- May 14, 2020
| By : Basant Kumar |

In the Haryana town Murthal, famous for its highway eateries — dhaba owners, vendors and farmers are all struggling. But migrant workers are hurting the most During these troubled days, the entrance to RK Colony, Murthal, is blocked by a bamboo barricade and two elderly men armed with sticks and a large bottle of sanitiser […]

In the Haryana town Murthal, famous for its highway eateries — dhaba owners, vendors and farmers are all struggling. But migrant workers are hurting the most

During these troubled days, the entrance to RK Colony, Murthal, is blocked by a bamboo barricade and two elderly men armed with sticks and a large bottle of sanitiser stand guard. They stop all visitors, enquire why they are in the area, and sanitise their hands before letting them in. The practice isn’t unique to Murthal. Villages across Haryana are employing such practices for protection against Coronavirus, with residents taking turns to stand guard.

In the last two decades, Murthal, set along the highway connecting Delhi with Haryana, Punjab and beyond, has emerged as a favourite food haunt for travellers and truckers, always alive and buzzing. On any given day, its hundreds of dhabas, or eateries, would feed thousands of people. Now, under lockdown, it’s a desolate town.

All the eateries are shut, their owners are racking up losses and, in a tragic irony, the workers that would feed and clean after thousands of people are facing hunger and destitution. The majority of them are migrants from Bihar, Jharkhand, and Uttar Pradesh, and they want to go home. For now, though, without a means of transport, they are forced to stay put in RK Colony.

As we reached RK Colony, one of the elderly guards asked our reason for being there. Satisfied by our reply, he sanitised our hands and directed us towards a small building nearby. It was a bright, scorching afternoon on April 14, but the building was dark inside. It housed around 70 dhaba workers, most of them from Madhubani district in Bihar. Pankaj Kumar Singh, though, was from Supaul, Bihar.

He works at Gulshan DhabaAfter Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly declared a nationwide lockdown on March 24, he was left with no food or money. For three days, he survived on water alone. But, Pankaj said, he did not share his situation with fellow workers out of a sense of shame. It was only when his health deteriorated that they realised he was starving.

The day we met him, he stood in a corner, wearing a t-shirt that looked oversized for his lanky frame, and covering his face with a handkerchief. “I have no money. Whatever I got from my employer was spent on rations,” he said.

It was obvious that Pankaj was still far from well. He began panting as he spoke with us. As he narrated how his friends were helping him, a fellow worker interjected, “Sir, how would others help when they don’t have anything themselves.”

Mounting losses

Modi initially imposed the nationwide lockdown for 21 days until April 14 before extending it to May 3, making it among the longest and harshest such measures in the world.

In Murthal, it meant the eateries were suddenly deserted, leaving the migrant workers stranded and without income.

Sukhdev Dhaba used to serve around 10,000 people on an average day. Today, there is only one guard outside it. The owners had sent all their workers on leave even before the lockdown began.

Sukhdev is reportedly the largest dhaba in Murthal. It also doubles up as a roadside motel and a venue for weddings.

“From the Kundli border to Murthal, there are five big dhabas on the highway that do a daily business of about Rs 5 lakh each,” the chairman of Murthal Dhaba Association, Manjit Singh, said. “There are 18 dhabas with daily sales of 2.5-3 lakh each. There are also 60 small places where most of the trucks and other vehicles stop. These places average 30,000 a day in sales.”

Manjit, who owns Jhilmil Dhaba in Murthal, added that all the eateries, big and small, have suffered crushing losses because of the lockdown. “Even if the lockdown ends on May 3, it would have ended up causing losses of Rs 30-40 crore to dhaba owners,” he estimated. “Besides dhaba owners, there are milk vendors, vegetable vendors, and labourers who are bearing the brunt of this lockdown.”

Pahalwan Dhaba is one of the Murthal’s “big” eateries, and among the most famous. Its owner, Dayanand Sindhu, said, “We did sales of around Rs 4 lakh every day, but that’s all over now. Let’s see how the cookie crumbles. Priority, for now, is to save people’s lives. Yes, we are incurring losses, but we made profits in the past. We closed our dhaba before the lockdown started. We host people from all over, so there was a greater chance of spreading the infection.”

Manoj Kumar, owner of Gulshan Dhaba, said, “We served 500 to 1,000 customers every day. We made 1.5 to 2 lakh per day. It’s difficult to assess the losses accurately but we are incurring losses every day. The workers who are stuck here are also being fed. Under these circumstances, the scale and magnitude of losses would be clear only after the market reopens.”

Given the mounting losses, are the dhaba owners seeking any help from the government? “I don’t think the government will help,” said Manoj Kumar of Gulshan Dhabachuckling. “They have not said anything yet. Who knows what’ll happen next.”

Manjit Singh said: “We have helped the government earlier. So, if the situation of the dhaba owners gets worse and we need the government’s help, I hope they will help us.”

Dire situation

Most of the dhaba owners Newslaundry spoke with claimed that they were taking care of their workers. “We ensure our workers get meals before we do,” said Manjit Singh. “For the workers here, food is cooked daily. For workers stuck outside the dhabawe give them ration and supplies.”

Dayanand Sindhu of Pahalwan Dhaba claimed as much. “We had about 120 workers, 40-50 of whom went home because they feared catching the infection here. We managed to run the place with those who stayed. We informed everyone that it was their choice whether they wanted to live inside the dhaba or not,” he said.

While we were at Pahalwan DhabaSantosh Prasad, 30, a worker from Ballia in Uttar Pradesh, arrived to get some rations. He confirmed what Dayanand had said. “I’ve been working here for four years. Most of the people who work here have left. I couldn’t leave because I live with my family. I was strapped for cash, so I called my employer. He asked me to come and take rations for a reduced amount, so I’ve come to collect 25 kg of flour and rice. Some dhaba owners are helping their workers while some have abandoned them.

In RK Colony, many workers live with their families, including women, children, and the elderly. In the dimly lit building, we tried speaking with a woman. She got upset and said, “I don’t want to register my name, people just note down our names but don’t provide any rations.”

There is palpable resentment among the workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Haryana government hasn’t provided them any help.

Several migrant families we spoke with were desperate to go home in Bihar. “The dhaba owners didn’t pay us for the 21 days we worked in March,” said Sanjeev Kumar from Madhubani. “Some got Rs 1,000, some 1,500. We have somehow survived on that until now. We ask the government to test us and send us home. That’s the only option left for us.”

Dharmendra Mondol, 50, lives with his wife and children in the colony. He said, “People talk about walking home, but how can I? My wife has a heart condition. What if something happens during the journey? Somehow, we’ll try and survive here, I’ll try to borrow some money and break out the savings. We’re facing a lot of problems but what else can we do?”

In all, over 4,000 migrant workers are estimated to be stranded in Murthal, mostly dhaba workers, but some dailywage labourers as well. A room in the building we visited in RK Colony costs Rs 2,000 a month and is shared by four-five people. The landlord hasn’t come to collect the rent so far but the workers dread the day he would.

‘We feel helpless’

Most of Murthal’s eateries source their vegetables from Delhi’s Azadpur Mandi but buy the dairy products locally. Pahalwan Dhaba alone used to buy several thousand litres of milk a day from nearby villages.

Now that the dhabas are shut, the farmers who supplied them are suffering. In Pipli Khera village near Murthal, dairy farmers said the lockdown has “broken their backs”. So dire is the situation that whatever milk they can’t sell, at discounted rates, is mixed with fodder for the cattle.

Mangat Ram’s is a prominent family of dairy farmers in Pipli Khera: “We have 60 cows and buffaloes. We used to sell 200 litres of milk every day at Rs 55 a litre. Today, we are unable to sell all of our yield even at Rs 20-25 per litre, so we give it to our neighbours,” said Mangat Ram’s son, Praveen Solanki. “But people don’t drink cow milk here so we are forced to feed it to our cattle.”

The Coronavirus outbreak and the lockdown imposed by India to contain it have thrown Murthal’s dhabas, and the economic activity they generated in the region, completely off the rails. The network of interdependence, connecting dhaba owners, migrant workers, vegetable vendors, dairy farmers is broken. What it will take to mend it, and how long, remains to be seen.