Migrant labourers in Maharashtra are caught between a rock and a hard place as they watch a replay of last year’s COVID-19 induced lockdown. Amid the ongoing mini-lockdown in the state, they are once again stranded in the city without job, shelter and sufficient food.
For those migrant labourers who are trapped in cities, life has become a struggle. All photos: Kavitha Iyer
His crutches balanced against the tree, Sanjay Sharma sat under its shade in peak April heat, waiting hopelessly to board a train that would take him home. His home, in his village in Jaunpur district of Uttar Pradesh, about 1,500 kilometres from Lokmanya Tilak Terminus in Mumbai, where he was stranded, as Maharashtra is under a mini-lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19.
“I came here to see what are the chances of getting on a train,” he told Gaon Connection with despair writ large over his tired, sweaty face.
“I lost my job of packing and sealing masalas in plastic bags since the factory closed down,” Sharma said. He was earning Rs 6,000 a month which was the only income for himself, his wife and two school-going daughters back home. Predictably, Sharma was in a quandary. “I don’t have money to buy a train ticket,” he said. “I’ll have to borrow to get home, or I can stay if some work becomes available. I don’t know what’s better,” he worried, unable to think straight.
Migrant workers and labourers working in Mumbai, far away from their villages, are once again in the grip of familiar dread and uncertainty of last year’s lockdown. The city’s railway stations are seeing unprecedented rush ever since the Maharashtra government imposed strict curbs — a mini-lockdown — from April 14 to May 1. There is a possibility of the state being put under a complete lockdown, as is being discussed by the state government.
With no work and no shelter, migrant workers are anxious to return home. They fear the train services could be suspended like they were last year. The Railways have added more trains to the already existing 74 ‘summer specials’ to the north and east with an additional 154 trains between Mumbai/Pune and the northern and eastern states until the first week of May.
But clearly, that is not enough.
“I have not seen a worse year than this one,” Ghanshyam Yadav told Gaon Connection. The 65-year-old has been unemployed in Mumbai for five months now, and the strain is beginning to tell on him. “There are no confirmed tickets available to go back to the village either,” Yadav said, standing outside his tiny foot home in the Lal Mitti slum located at Bandra in suburban Mumbai.
Yadav was an armed guard outside a bank for five years when the pandemic struck last year and he decided to leave Mumbai to go to his village, Gamhira, in Pratapgarh district in Uttar Pradesh. He only returned when the Mumbai monsoon receded last October and COVID-19 no longer appeared to be a major threat.
But, by then his old job at the security services company was taken. “They had hired somebody else,” he said. Since then, Yadav has been trying to find work. And under the present circumstances of a mini-lockdown, which may convert into a complete lockdown, he has little hope. It bothered him that his family had to depend entirely on the earnings of his son, a vegetable vendor. Back home in Pratapgarh, the Yadav family owns two acres of land, but its yield is too meagre to survive on.
“It is deeply disappointing that migrant workers are facing a second round of wage loss,” Chandan Kumar of the Angmehanati Kashtakari Sangharsh Samiti, told Gaon Connection. The samiti works with the labour force from various states living in the Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad industrial hub in Maharashtra. “This time the only difference is that the trains are running, and there is chaos outside the railway stations as people try to return to their villages,” he said.
While announcing a mini-lockdown in the state on April 13, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray rolled out a Rs 5,476-crore relief package. It includes financial assistance to various categories of beneficiaries, such as women, senior citizens, widows, the disabled, autorickshaw drivers and tribal communities.
As per this package, about 70 million beneficiaries are to receive 3 kilogrammes (kg) of wheat and 2 kg of rice free of cost for one month. Additionally, 200,000 meals under the state government’s ‘Shiv Bhojan Thali’ will be available free of cost every day; and 3.5 million beneficiaries of the Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Yojana, Shravanbal scheme and the centrally sponsored Indira Gandhi National Old Age Retirement Scheme, Indira Gandhi National Widow Retirement Scheme, Indira Gandhi National Disability Retirement Scheme will receive Rs 1,000 from their entitlement in advance.
Also, 1.2 million registered construction workers will receive Rs 1,500 from the Maharashtra Building and Other Workers Welfare Board. Thackeray announced aid for registered domestic workers, autorickshaw drivers and hawkers too.
Commenting on the assistance package of the chief minister, Chandan Kumar said that the rations were only for registered workers. What about all those who were not registered? “Despite our repeated pleas to register migrant workers in Maharashtra, this was not done. So the workers are once again without work and without wages,” he regretted. All that was required was an announcement from the government that no migrant worker needed to leave, and that every single one of them would receive rations, he said.
Last year in April, the state had set up shelters for stranded migrant workers. By April 30, more than 750,000 people gathered in 4,871 such shelters. Activists are asking that these shelters be re-started as an increasing number of workers are running out of money to pay rent.
Meanwhile, in Kalwa in Thane district, Aslam Ansari, a tailor in his thirties, is going from pillar to post to activists and organisations asking for groceries, to help him and his family of six survive a couple of weeks until he can get a ticket back home to Giridih in Jharkhand, over 1,800 kms from Mumbai. The garments manufacturing unit where he tailored children’s garments has been shut for nearly two weeks now, and he has not been paid ever since.
“I have four children, it’s a worrying time,” he said. Finding money to buy six train tickets was going to be difficult, but Ansari said if he did not find an alternative, he would go back home.
Desamma T was lucky that she and her husband could find their way back home to Khammam in Telangana. Her husband worked as a construction labourer in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, but they managed to get away. “We had some savings, so we took a train and came home immediately. We did not want to risk another few months of being stranded without work or income,” she told Gaon Connection.
For those migrant labourers who are trapped in cities, life has become a struggle. “Those who work in essential service-related sectors are finding it difficult to buy food because shops are being shut down at 1 pm,” Gajanan Khandare, a factory employee and union member in Aurangabad, told Gaon Connection. “I met a group that left for Bihar today. There are practical problems that migrant workers are facing when they choose to stay back,” he added.
Activists and trade unionists warn of a deepening crisis in Maharashtra as it becomes clear that existing assistance- packages offered by the state government are woefully inadequate. The pandemic, loss of livelihood, uncertainty and fear has swamped the people, more so those far away from home and their loved ones.
As Yadav wonders if he will ever see his village Gamhira again, he reiterated: “I lost a son in an accident, but have never before felt such helplessness and desperation.”