As many as 250 loom workers, mostly from UP and Bihar, are stuck with no amenities in Khokha Compound, Bhiwandi area, near Mumbai. (Photo: Deepak Joshi)
Kalim Mulla (47) fears that hunger will get him and his 250 colleagues, stuck at the now-closed handlooms of Bhiwandi, before the novel coronavirus reaches them.
“There’s a lot of panic. We have no money left to purchase any food. We will all die of hunger even before coronavirus reaches us,” Mulla says. After a 21-day national lockdown was imposed to contain the spread of the virus, the men, mostly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, have been stranded at Khokha Compound of Bhiwandi, barely 40 km from Mumbai, without food or any means of transport. Handlooms — an essential part of India’s economy that employs thousands of people ? are not a part of essential services and have been shut during the lockdown period.
Known as a textile hub, Bhiwandi is dotted with hundreds of handlooms. At Khokha Compound alone, there are more than 300 to 400 looms that employ over a thousand daily wage workers. While most of them had left after the March 22 ‘Janta Curfew’, a handful had stayed back after their employers assured to provide for them during the lockdown period. However, just five days into it, none of the loom owners have come forward to their aid, workers claimed.
“With China in lockdown because of COVID-19, people stopped buying Chinese products leading to a spike in the demand for our handloom products. That’s why our employers wanted us to stay back. But since the 21-day lockdown commenced on March 25, not one loom owner has come to even ask after us,” Mulla, who has been working in a loom since 2003, says.
Most of these 250 workers are now dependent on local NGOs, which occasionally reach out, for food and a public toilet nearby for water. Mohammad Fareed Ansari (49), who had taken up job at one of these looms in December last year for Rs 400 a day, also accused his employer of dodging them. “He rarely answers our phone calls, and when he does, he says: ‘I’ll come later’.” Left with little money, the Jharkhand resident has now taken refuge inside a now-shut loom. “They (the loom owners) haven’t asked us to leave yet. That’s the only saving grace in the face of this crisis,” he adds.
On Sunday, as the Centre asked state governments and Union Territory administrations to effectively seal state and district borders to stop the movement of migrant workers, many of whom have set out on foot to return to their native places, Najir Shaikh (57) breaks down. The resident of Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh, had come to Bhiwandi on March 18, just days before the lockdown began, to take his son Sameer (23), who was unwell, home. The father-son duo is now stuck with the other loom workers. “My daughter was supposed to get married on April 14. Now, I have to cancel it,” Shaikh says.
The workers, who have been receiving panic calls from their families back home, have just one news to share: We have nothing left here. “The money we had saved is all gone and we are worse off now than when we had come here to work. Still, one has to eat. If the situation gets worse, we might have to walk back home like all the others. There, at least we will be with our family. It is better than dying of hunger and thirst alone,” Ansari says.