Doman Thatti, a native of Begusarai, says he has gone out twice looking for his contractor and the “rich man” from Karnataka who owes him money for building his bakery. (Express Photo)
Assagao is known as “Goa’s Tuscany”, or the summer pin-code for some of India’s richest millionaires. It took a virus for the administration to wake up to its other residents — the service staff, including migrants, who keep this world of large hacienda villas and private pools, hidden behind layers of bougainvillea, afloat.
The two worlds, as exemplified in the Oscar-winner film Parasite, rarely meet. And it is the migrants who have been hit the hardest by the 21-day lockdown.
Felly Gomes, a Goan and the coordinator of a volunteer network, says the locals have neighbourhood and family links to see them through this crisis, but not the migrants, many of them workers brought here to build the villas. “I have been living here for decades, but the sheer number of labour camps was a revelation. We knew they lived around, but never knew the numbers.”
While Gomes’s volunteer network now has a list of 630-odd homes, where limited rations have been supplied, he points out that a larger policy intervention is needed and they have approached the government.
Raj Singh, 29, came in a group from Jharkhand to build a villa. The house is half-done, with all work at a halt. “We keep checking for trains to Jharkhand but there is little information... The contractor is supplying rations but these will stop some day, and we need to make plans.”
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At another end of the village, Doman Thatti, a native of Begusarai in Bihar, says he has gone out twice looking for his contractor and the “rich man” from Karnataka who owes him money for building his bakery. “I am told both have left the state, my money is gone.”
The 35-year-old adds that he has been struggling to understand coronavirus. “Yesterday I told my wife and neighbours it’s got something to do with meeting people. I don’t know yet, but I promise the government that if you allow us to work at construction sites, we will not talk to anyone, keep our heads down, and work.”
His neighbour Sandeep Kumar Bharti, 32, is worried about his pregnant wife Julie Devi, not knowing if and where to take her when the time comes. “We are from Uttar Pradesh. We came here as we can earn Rs 400 here per day compared to Rs 300 in our village. Someone asked us to buy soap and sanitiser. I went looking, but they cost too much.”
Further ahead, behind one of Goa’s most famous coffee shops, Pradip Mitra, 36, from Bihar is also struggling to get in touch with his contractor for the money owed to him for building “a house with a pool”. “I have a wife and two children. I can’t walk far as police scold us and I don’t even know where to go hunting for the contractor.”
His neighbor, 80-year-old Pal Singh, shares his predicament.
The neighbourhood grocery shop owner, Anant Kumar, 50, who is a Goan, says the migrants are his regular customers and usually buy flour. Now, that is not available. “The distributor only had 5 kg of rice, the migrants eat chapatis.” Calling the situation “pathetic”, Kumar adds, “When I open my shop, the people come to buy Parle-G, the only thing that continues to come. Earlier I would sell 100 packs a day. Now it’s more than 400.”
Alok Hisarwala, 40, a volunteer who has been going construction site to site, emphasises the contrast between the two Assagaos. “These villas are spaces where conversations are about kombucha (an exotic, fermented tea), gluten-free food, alternative spiritual lifestyle… The government and civil society need to put their heads together on food security for this parallel world. It’s not about just fixing their rations for a few days.”
Officials say they are aware of the situation and are in touch with panchayats and volunteer networks to ensure supplies. An official at the Secretariat said they had got “frantic calls of help” from many quarters, including migrants, and that things would change soon. “We have been informed that stocks are reaching. We are making a database and understanding the scale of migrants in the state. The state registry only has 15,000 building and construction workers listed with it.”
Assagaon sarpanch Hanumant Ranu Naik, however, accuses the state government of being of no help, despite the fact that they had handed over a list of villa site workers and migrants on March 24 to the Block Development Officer. “Initially we arranged 520 bags of essentials (rice, dal, flour etc), but had to distribute it first to the needy. Soon we also started including migrants. But the panchayat has seven wards and the calls were too many. We are making arrangements for the next round of stocks,” Naik says.
Meanwhile, he adds, they continue to find destitute labourers stuck at construction sites every day. “Yesterday we found 35 huts at one site, where they had no food. It’s where the next Assagao yoga centre is coming up.”