As the fear of the lockdown lurks, migrant labourers are scrambling home to Bihar. They claim the relief schemes announced a year ago did not help them much in the last lockdown, and have little hope they will this year either.
Migrant workers at Mithapur bus stand, Bihar. (Photo: Umesh Kumar Ray)
Nandlal Pandit picked up his only possession, a torn bag, headed to the Anand Vihar bus stand in Delhi, and after being jostled and pushed around by a crowd of other migrant workers there, managed to board a private bus to Patna on April 19.
Memories of last year’s COVID-19 lockdown were still fresh in his mind and Pandit was determined he would not go through the trauma of again being stranded in a city without food, shelter or money. He boarded the bus and travelled standing all the way to Patna, a distance of 1,100 kilometres (kms).
“The bus fare from Delhi to Patna is eleven hundred rupees. But I had to pay sixteen hundred rupees just for standing space,” he told Gaon Connection, when he reached Patna station on April 20.
Pandit is one of the thousands of migrant workers who packed their meager belongings in a hurry and left the national capital on April 19 when Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced a week-long lockdown, which has now been extended by another week. The capital city is registering a very high case load of COVID-19 daily, as patients and their families struggle for hospital beds, medical oxygen and essential drugs.
Meanwhile, the lockdown has triggered panic among the migrant workers who are leaving the cities in droves.
As he waited at the Patna railway station to board another train to Bhagalpur, an exhausted Pandit, pointing to his swollen feet said, “I have travelled from Delhi to Patna, standing for twenty one hours. I have another twelve hours to travel.” The train would take seven hours to reach him to Bhagalpur from where he would board another bus and travel 70 kms to Belhar, his village in Banka district, Bihar.
Pandit, who worked at a construction site in Delhi at Rs 400 a day, would have spent at least Rs 2,500 in all by the time he reached home.
Last year, the country witnessed a mass reverse exodus of migrant labourers from the cities as they clambered onto buses, trains and even walked thousands of kilometres back home, penniless, braving heat, hunger, thirst and disease. In his written reply to the parliament last September, Santosh Kumar Gangwar, Minister of State for Labour and Employment, had said that amid the lockdown, more than 10 million (10,466,152 to be exact) workers returned to their hometowns.
Nothing seems different this year, and the daily wage earners are scrambling back home as fast as they can. They already know what life can be like if they remain behind in the big cities.
“Last year, during the lockdown we had to stay in a rented room without food for a month. I ate if someone was kind enough to give us food. Otherwise I went to bed hungry,” Pandit recalled. He had to borrow money from a friend in order to board the Shramik Special train last May to return home. “The Bihar government had announced we would be reimbursed the train fare, but I have not received the ticket money till date,” he said.
During last year’s lockdown, 1,500,612 migrant labourers returned to Bihar, according to central government data. At that time, the Nitish Kumar government had said that skill mapping of migrant labourers would be done and they would be given employment. According to the state labour department, 950,000 people were skill-mapped and of these, 350,000 people got employment (approximately 37 per cent).
Similar announcements are being made this year as state after state announces COVID-19 restrictions and mini-lockdowns.
“On the basis of skill mapping, labourers returning to Bihar from other states will be given a loan of up to ten lakh rupees,” Jeevesh Kumar, labour minister, said in a press conference on April 15.
Whereas the state government claims it is taking care of the concerns of migrant workers, many of them have slipped through the cracks. And who knows it better than Kailash Ravidas, who is physically challenged and is a native of Nawakadih village in Jamui district.
A year ago, Ravidas worked in Kolkata, West Bengal, where he repaired shoes and slippers. When the lockdown was imposed, he managed to return to Bihar in May end. He said he paid Rs 1,800 for his bus fare which should have cost him no more than Rs 250.
When he was at the quarantine center, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, after speaking to him via video conference, had assured him employment. “I waited till December, but no officials came to meet me nor did I get any job offer,” he said. He worked as a daily wage labourer for a while and had to take loans to survive in his village.
But, with no steady income back home, Ravidas was forced to return to Kolkata in December for his livelihood, where he still is now. He is worried about impending lockdowns. “We are already having night curfews. I hope total lockdown is not imposed and our work can continue,” he said.
Muhammad Samirul of Madhubani district, who had returned home from Delhi during last year’s lockdown in a thela or pushcart, could not continue staying in his village as he could not find a job there, and was forced to go back to Delhi.
“I worked in the village as a mason but the work was not regular, so I returned to Delhi,” he told Gaon Connection. But he has not ruled out making the long journey back home.
“Food items have become expensive after the announcement of the lockdown. We are waiting for some decision by the government in the next couple of days. If the lockdown is extended, then I will go back home,” he said, worriedly.
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Even though Pandit returned to Bihar recently on April 20, he is not very hopeful of finding employment in the village. “I returned home in May last year. I would get work for three to four days a week – sometimes in the agricultural field and sometimes at a construction site. But after Durga Puja, I went back to Delhi,” said Pandit.
Now, a fresh round of lockdown in the capital has him return home within five months. “But what would I do even if I stayed back in Delhi,” he asked. He said he would remain in his village till he absolutely could and survive on some work on the agricultural fields. “I have decided not to go back to Delhi till things became normal,” he told Gaon Connection.
On the one hand, people have been unable to find work in the villages, on the other hand, money sanctioned to provide employment to villagers has remained unspent.
In June 2020, the central government started the Gareeb Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan in the states where the reverse migration was huge. The government sanctioned Rs 50,000 crores to provide labourers 125 days of employment in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Odisha and Jharkhand. Bihar got Rs17,000 crores.
However, according to the PIB release issued on 8th February 2021, Bihar had spent only Rs 10,992 (roughly 64.6 per cent) crores of what it had been sanctioned under the relief scheme. And of the total allocation of Rs 50,000 crores, the states had only spent Rs 39,293 crores (roughly 78.6 per cent of total allocation).
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which guarantees at least 100 days of wage employment a year, did provide some relief. So far, over two million MGNREGA job cards have been issued in Bihar. Of these, 1,176,084 MGNREGA job cards were created between April and September last year.
According to the PIB press release, the number of rural households in Bihar that got work under MGNREGA during the pandemic has increased. In May 2020, the number was 1,783,198 households, which was 779,378 more than May 2019. Similarly in June last year, 2,144,286 households were employed, which was 1,091,664 more than June, 2019.
While the number of households getting employment under MGNREGA was more in 2020 than it was in 2019, there was a gradual decline in the months of July and August last year. In July 2020, the number of rural households in Bihar that got work was 1,059,316, and in August, 647,987 households got work.
A report of the ‘Standing Committee on Rural Development’, presented to Lok Sabha on March 9 this year, states that till January 28, this year, in Bihar, Rs 37.81 billion were deposited into the MGNREGA workers’ account through the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT), but, Rs 791.17 million were yet to be deposited.
Meanwhile, Bittu Raj, who worked in a mobile company in Delhi for the last eight months, is back home in Bhojpur.
“I flew back,” he told Gaon Connection. “I will wait for a few days. If there is no employment, I will do farming. I have no faith in the Nitish government to help me find a job,” the 22-year-old said.