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Home / India News / Coronavirus update: Borders shut, migrant workers look for refuge in shelter homes

Coronavirus update: Borders shut, migrant workers look for refuge in shelter homes

With rail and interstate bus services suspended due to Covid-19 outbreak, these labourers – most of them migrants – can neither return to their villages and towns, nor afford to pay for their food and shelter without work.

india Updated: Mar 27, 2020 07:12 IST
Abhishek Dey
Abhishek Dey
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Daily wage workers and homeless people wait for food outside a government-run night shelter in New Delhi on Wednesday.
Daily wage workers and homeless people wait for food outside a government-run night shelter in New Delhi on Wednesday.(Reuters Photo )

“I can understand the reason behind the lockdown but why could the government not plan it keeping in mind the condition of the most vulnerable ones?” asked 33-year-old Dileep Ranjan, as he washed a stainless steel plate after having his lunch at a government-run shelter home in southeast Delhi’s Sarai Kale Khan on Wednesday.

The shelter is for the city’s homeless but is currently being inhabited by Ranjan and other daily wage labourers who have no jobs because of the 21-day national lockdown.

With rail and interstate bus services suspended, these labourers – most of them migrants – can neither return to their villages and towns, nor afford to pay for their food and shelter without work.

Over the last two days, hundreds of them have either crossed the Delhi border on foot with their families or been left stranded at bus terminals and railway stations.

“First, the Prime Minister sought one day from us. Nobody resisted. Then the chief minister of Delhi announced a lockdown till March 31, that made people anxious about their earnings. And now a lockdown of 21 days. How shall we survive?” said Iliyas Hussain, a labourer from Bareily in Uttar Pradesh, who is staying at a government-run centre in Yamuna Bazar.

Hussain wished the government had provided a few trains. Another labourer in the shelter, Naresh Kumar interjected, saying, “But train journeys would be risky too. What if there was an infected passenger? All others would be infected too. Who would look after our families then?”

The argument left other temporary inhabitants of the shelter baffled. They were already concerned about food and shelter but no communication with their families has added to their anxieties.

“Most of us are prepaid mobile subscribers and have run out of balance. We have no means to recharge our phones too,” said Ajmal Ali, a migrant from Murshidabad in West Bengal.

Vimal Rai, a member of the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), which operates the shelters, said: “Around 16,000 homeless people live in the shelter homes of Delhi. Over the last two days, around 7,000 people have arrived. Most of them are daily wage labourers. The city has 234 shelter homes.”

As more people poured in looking out for meals, food shortage had surfaced in several shelter homes, separate caretakers, who are employed with the DUSIB and work at its respective shelter homes. HT.Each meal consists of rice served either with vegetable stew or dal. There is no cap on the number of servings per person.

According to the 2011 Census data on migration, Delhi has the second-highest population of interstate migrants in India, more than 63 lakh(after Maharashtra), which is 40% of the city’s population. Around two-thirds of them are from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand.

In terms of absolute numbers, daily wage labourers in the city, which is also referred to as the unorganised workforce, would amount to at least 1.5 million, said Animesh Das, a doctor by profession and a trade union leader who was part of Delhi government’s board that was set up in 2019 to fix minimum wages.

Rakhi Sehgal, a Delhi-based labour rights activist and researcher, said, “Daily wager labourer is too generic a term and it also includes the self-employed ones – rickshaw pullers, hand-cart vendors, etc. It is difficult to imagine where would these people go in case of a lockdown. Most of them do not have the privilege of self-isolation and neither can they head back home.”

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi clarifying that the current lockdown is to be treated no less than a “curfew”, the police have started to ensure that the streets of the city are out of bounds for regular inhabitants. “The police beat is up last evening while we were looking out for a bus to head back home. Why are we being treated like criminals? It is a health emergency, we understand. But the authorities too must know that we are the ones who enable the city to function,” said 19-year-old Rajesh, a migrant from Darbhanga in Bihar.

The largest chunk of daily wage labourers in Delhi, several experts opined, is in the construction sector. On Tuesday, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced a one-time subsistence allowance of Rs 5,000 for the ones enrolled with the Delhi Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board, which has around 3 lakh enrolled members.