The poor in India are in a fix. They don't know which is a bigger killer: the novel coronavirus or hunger which has been thrust upon them due to an unprecedented crisis.
A group of 25 to 26 men, aged between 35 and 50, wait near a makeshift shanty that they have erected near the railway crossing near Idgah Chowk in Meerut's Sakhoti Tanda in Uttar Pradesh. Some are pacing restlessly, the reporter is told.
"We had no idea all this would unfold so fast," said Ajay Prasad, 38-year-old migrant labourer who works for a private construction company, along with others, on a contract basis. Ajay and the 24 others hail from Jharkhand's Latehar district.
They were working on a project commissioned by the Indian Railways when the "Janta curfew" " the trial lockdown " was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at 8 pm on 21 March. "Sochein ek din ka bandi hai, nikal jayenge kal parso tak," said Ajay when asked why he didn't leave after the lockdown was announced.
According to social activists " who are working to rescue migrant workers stranded in other states " workers from Jharkhand and Bihar are stuck in Maharashtra, Gujarat, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Karnataka.
Ramdeo Vishwabandhu, a social activist based in Jharkhand's Giridih, explains that several were unaware of Modi's second address to the nation where he announced the 21-days lockdown.
Migrant workers in Mumbai's Chembur without accommodation. Image procured by author.
"Governments are doing everything they can, but daily wage labourers are not watching news like us. They had no idea. When they found out and decided to leave it was too late. Some couldn't leave, others who managed to leave were stopped around border areas and were told to go back where they came from. Now, the plan is to ensure they have food. That is the biggest problem."
According to Ajay and the others stuck in Uttar Pradesh, their maalik did not tell them about the 21-day lockdown. "Pata hi nahi chala, jab tak sochein niklenge, saari gaadiyan cancel ho gayin (It all happened too fast. By the time we decided to leave, all the trains had been cancelled)," said one of the 25 workers. For now, the men are just about surviving, eating and sleeping in that congested shanty area.
When asked about their living arrangement, they described it thus. "We don't have a rented place here. So, we erected this tarpaulin shed and now, we stay and cook here," said Ajay. "But, we have six beds, not too wide. So four men have to sleep on one bed. And the cook sleeps on the floor," he said, but quickly adds, "Lekin sab saaf suthra hai."
Almost as if predicting the next question, another labourer chimed in "Bol rahein hain ki Corona sankraman se phailta hai. Hum safai maante hain (They are saying corona is infectious and is spreading fast. We follow good hygiene because of that.)"
The plight of stranded migrant labourers across the country in states including Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana has been splashed all over newsprint and TV screens, as social media was simultaneously exploding with maudlin testimonies of daily wage labourers who have travelled thousands of kilometres to find work and are now stuck without food or shelter.
Help, however, was given almost immediately. Small village communities, district authorities, private volunteers and good Samaritans wasted no time in reaching out to those in need and provided them with food supplies and basic amenities.
"They gave us 6 kg aata, 7 kg rice, half kg dal, a packet of spices and salt. The police and the district authorities have been very helpful. We don't have to worry about food, for sure," said Teknarayan Oraon, one of the 25 men living with Ajay. "But it still doesn't help us completely, you know," he added, with some palpable guilt.
Apart from their own condition, the workers are worried about their own families back home.
"I have an old mother, two little children and a wife. We live in a small village in Latehar. I don't know what they will do. I don't even know when I will go back home," Ajay said. His wife Babita is equally scared of the uncertainties that the situation has thrown up.
"My mother-in-law is 85 years old and asthmatic. They are saying senior citizens should be more careful. Ration at home will get over in a couple of days. Usually, when my husband visits every month or so, he does the shopping. They have even shut all the shops due to this lockdown."
The worry is not just about what they will eat, but also how they will buy. What has most of these stranded labourers worried is the uncertainty that looms large over the near future. "There is no work now. There will not be any work till the lockdown is over. They have said 21 days, but we still don't know what will happen. I don't have money to survive all these days and feed my family," said Teknarayan, who has a family of six, including a wife, four children and his mother, back in Latehar.
Meanwhile, a group of 20 young men, aged between 18 and 25, stuck in Hyderabad's Siddik Nagar, have been trying to get in touch with people who can help them get back to their village in Bihar's Bhagalpur. "We are 10 boys in one house. The adjacent room has the other 10. We are all from Naugachhia in Bhagalpur. Our ration will get over in the next two days or so. Please ask someone if they can deliver some food," says one of the boys who identified himself as Rajiv Kumar. Twenty-year-old Rajiv finished his higher secondary and with the others came to Hyderabad 10 days ago to look for a job.
"My parents and seven brothers are back in the village. Everyone leaves home to look for jobs, but now we are stuck," said Rajiv. When asked what he knows about the coronavirus, he said, "Baahar nahi nikal sakte, bol rahein hain. Sankramit rog hain (We should not go outside. It's an infectious disease)."
Interestingly, most of the migrant workers, when asked what they know about coronavirus, parroted the "can't-go-outside" line. When asked what they gleaned from the prime minister's message (two so far), 18-year-old Gulshan, who came with Rajiv and the others, said, "Bolein hain isolation karne ke liye, par dus log ek kamre mein kaise rakhenge distance. Jaane bhi nahi de rahein hai (He said we must isolate ourselves, but how will 10 people in a room find distance? They are not even letting us leave)."
The quandary is real.
There are upwards of 60 million migrant workers in Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bengaluru and Delhi, according to the 2011 Indian Census. Some 33 percent of these migrants hail from Uttar Pradesh, 15 percent from Bihar and 6 percent from Rajasthan, followed by Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and National Capital Territory of Delhi at 5 percent each, according to the India Migration Now website.
Speaking to Firstpost, chief public relation officer of Ranchi rail division Niraj Kumar said that in the days leading up to the 24 March lockdown, approximately 4,000 people returned to the state by train. "Some special trains were arranged. Like the one which arrived today (24 March) from Pune. It will go all the way to Guwahati," he said.
During the same period, Mumbai's train stations witnessed a surge of migrants attempting to return home. Central Railway Services added 17 special trains to the 47 already scheduled, The Wire reported.
This reporter spoke to at least 15 migrant workers who are currently stuck in cities including Hyderabad, Mumbai, Surat and Meerut. A few of them, like the ones in Meerut are stranded with no shelter. Their crisis is more immediate because given the nature of the virus, distancing is one of the key methods employed to contain the spread of the disease. Authorities are trying to find shelter where they can be accommodated.
Ajay Kumar Sahni, SSP of Meerut, told Firstpost, "We can't allow movement at this point of time. But I have already spoken to the district officials and police in the area; help will reach them soon." And it did, the labourers confirmed.
It is important to note the sheer geographical expanse of the country and the kilometres that the workers are willing to walk in the middle of this lockdown. Consider this: the distance between Telangana/Andhra Pradesh and Bihar is 1,516.8 km. It will take approximately 30 hours for someone who is travelling in a four-wheeler. If someone walks, it will take them over 10 days.
The distance between Noida and Latehar in Jharkhand, via Agra-Lucknow expressway, is 1,114.3 km and can be covered in 20 hours in a four-wheeler. It will take close to eight days by foot. Similarly, from Mumbai to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Jharkhand, it will take approximately 10 to 12 days on foot.
None of these are feasible solutions at this point of time. But the frustrated migrants are ready to try even this. "We aren't allowed to step out. There are people keeping watch outside. The minute we step out, we get beaten. We have no escape," said Gulshan.
There is, however, another set of migrant workers in a somewhat different conundrum. They are not stranded, but stuck. While they have secured accommodation, they are still part of that populace of urban poor who are living a hand-to-mouth existence.
Fifty-year-old Alamgir, who hails from Uttar Pradesh's Gorakhpur, is anxious to go back to his hometown. When explained (in lay terms) how the coronavirus spreads, he seemed dejected. "With no work, we don't have the luxury to sit here for 21 days," said Alamgir. "Who will send money home? How will we pay our rent here? How will we buy food? The money I have will run out in a few days." Alamgir earns Rs 8,000 to 10,000 a month working as a railway construction labourer.
Daulat Vishwakarma, a bag maker who hails from a village in Giridih's Rajdhanwar, is stuck in Ulhasnagar near Kalyan in Maharashtra's Thane district. Daulat said he found out about the lockdown when it was too late.
"I couldn't leave Mumbai. They cancelled the trains and the police was not even allowing me out of the house. Thankfully, my sister stays here. So, I come here for food." When asked what he plans to do, Daulat said he is clueless unless the lockdown is lifted and they are allowed back home.
Six days since the "Janta curfew" was imposed on 22 March, one of the biggest challenges for the Centre and state governments has been to find a solution to the migrant population which is, in fact, returning to their states. Panicking at the thought of a sudden and unprecedented lockdown, several hundreds in various cities, " especially in Noida and Delhi, " started walking back to their respective villages.
Anand Vihar bus station in New Delhi right now. Thousands of migrants have lined up to catch buses back home. Story out soon on @bsindia: #Covid19India #CoronaLockdown #MigrantsOnTheRoad pic.twitter.com/JisGSqdQQo
" Somesh Jha (@someshjha7) March 28, 2020
State govts that could get message across to migrant workers not to head back to native villages will b able to restart supply chains & manufacturing in public & pvt enterprise in 2 weeks. They moved quickly, food & help immediately. UP bearing brunt of the panic in other states pic.twitter.com/GkcxwUxZey " Smita Prakash (@smitaprakash) March 28, 2020
Minutes before it began to rain, the migrant labourers were on the road, marching their way home.
" Marya Shakil (@maryashakil) March 27, 2020
The internet is full of such harrowing examples. Most of them are likely ignorant of the dangers they are subjecting themselves to. But what is the solution?
While a few state governments, including Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, are making efforts to get some of the workers back to their home states, authorities and many activists are strongly discouraging workers from going back.
Union minister Nitin Gadkari, in fact, tweeted on Saturday: "I have advised Chairman NHAI and Highway Concessioners/ Toll Operators to consider providing food, water or any kind of support to migrant workers/citizens who are trying to reach to their respective native places."
"Wherever they are stranded, they should remain there. Walking doesn't make sense from a public health point of view. At this point, people should have food and shelter," said Benoy Peter, executive director, Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID).
CMID, which has been working with migrant workers stuck in Kerala, is of a strong opinion that lockdown and restricting movement is the only way to contain the spread of the coronavirus, which according to health experts, is extremely contagious.
"It is not a pleasant situation, but a necessary one," said Benoy. It's easy to criticise the Centre for everything, he said, "but the state governments, who are claiming to get their people back, are going to trigger a rural epidemic by being populist and emotional right now."
Benoy and his team, along with health officials are ensuring that the migrants who are stuck in Kerala are getting food and basic amenities. "If they are allowed to travel now, they will bridge the gap between rural and urban as far as COVID-19 positive cases are concerned. "It will spiral a rural epidemic and rural India is not equipped to even handle the crisis with their crumbling healthcare. The only way is to stay put where you are," said Benoy.
Reports, in fact, have noted that migrant workers who returned faced discrimination and were viewed with suspicion by locals and a few authorities. "Hundreds of kilometres away in the western Odisha district of Kalahandi, 12 migrant workers who returned from Kerala had to stay under polythene sheet for several days before being allowed in their village," The Hindu reported.
Pooja Yadav, a social activist with Mumbai-based Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action or YUVA, said that there is extreme confusion and anxiety among those stuck in Mumbai and Pune. "The government has extended help and they are honestly doing what they can. But the unregistered workers, which form a major chunk of the migrant population in Maharashtra, have been left in the lurch. So, we are trying to reach out to them as soon as we get information."
According to a rough estimate by YUVA, at least 600 migrant workers, hailing from states including West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, are stuck in the Thane district of Maharashtra alone.
Madhukant Pathariya, president of Nirman Mazdoor Sanghatna based in Maharashtra, said that the station in Kalyan was jam-packed the day the Centre announced the second lockdown. "They were not leaving from Mumbai. These were migrant workers from Pune and other districts of Maharashtra who were rushing out to get back to their home states. No one was there to test them or to enforce social distancing. There is no way to guess the number of people coming in and going out," Madhukant said.
Firstpost reached out to state and district authorities in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, who are working with migrant workers, and all of them said pretty much the same thing: we will get them food and supplies. No one will go hungry. But, they should reconcile with the idea that they might not return home for a while.