Fear of 2020 rerun grips Delhi's migrants amid Covid-19 infection spike

There is fear and anxiety among the thousands of migrant workers in villages such as Shahpur Garhi, Tikri Khurd, Bhor Garh, and Singhola.
Migrant workers with their landlord in a tenement in village Shahpur Garhi in Narela.(HT Photo)
Migrant workers with their landlord in a tenement in village Shahpur Garhi in Narela.(HT Photo)
Updated on Apr 12, 2021 10:52 AM IST
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By, New Delhi

Every evening, Anil Kumar, who lives in Shahpur Garhi village in north Delhi and works in a plastic factory in the nearby Narela industrial area, religiously checks the day’s Covid-19-related news on his mobile. On Saturday, he could tell the exact number of new cases in Delhi, and how some hospitals in neighbouring Noida and Ghaziabad had run out of vaccines.

“I am keeping a close watch on the Covid-19 situation, because it will help me decide when it is time to leave the city. Night curfew has already been imposed, lockdown could be next,” says Kumar. “I do not want to be caught off-guard like last year. Some of my friends who recently lost their jobs have already left for their villages.”

Kumar is not the only one. There is fear and anxiety among the thousands of migrant workers in villages such as Shahpur Garhi, Tikri Khurd, Bhor Garh, and Singhola.

The Narela industrial area has about 3,500 factories, manufacturing everything from footwear to auto parts and providing direct and indirect employment to about 150,000 people. Over the last two decades, as demand for housing labourers rose here, these villages transformed into workers’ colonies with hundreds of multi-storey tenements. Together, they housed about 100,000 people mostly from eastern UP and Bihar.

Read more: Fearing lockdown, some migrants opt to go home

Shahpur Garhi, a farming village till the mid-90s, alone was home to about 15,000 people before the lockdown last year. The village’s residents’ welfare association (RWA) president Surinder Singh Khatri says that soon after the lockdown, the village had turned into a ghost colony. Within a couple of months, the number of residents there had fallen to 3,000.

“Last year, about 90% of the workers had left for their villages and we thought that they will never return. Most permanent residents here are dependent on rental income. But, thankfully, by the end of last year the workers were back, but today they are worried again and are talking of going back,” says Khatri, who also owns a tenement in the village.

“People are leaving in small numbers right now, but we fear it might soon become an exodus. Three of my tenants from Bihar have already told me they will leave next week,” says Anand Khatri, another landlord.

Read more: Amid Mumbai lockdown talk, migrant movement seen on MP route

Monthly rent for a room here varies from 2,000 to 2,500. The average monthly income of a tenant in these villages is around 13,000.

Labourers living in these villages said that last year they had left due to fear of contracting the disease, but this time it was because work in Narela had been drying up in the past few weeks. “Last year, a lot of us had taken loans from local moneylenders to survive when we were in our villages, and we are yet to repay them. But when we returned , the landlords here forced us to pay all the pending rent in instalments,” says Satish Singh, who works in plastic factory.

Rajiv Kumar, who lives in the nearby Bhor Garh village and lost his job in a footwear factory last week, says he will have no choice but to leave if he did not find work soon. “My factory owner explained that with Covid-19 cases rising in Maharashtra, he has few orders and will have to halt production,” he says.

Similarly, Arun Prajapati, who lives in Tikri Khurd and, like Rajiv Kumar, works in footwear factory, says what worries him most is that, unlike last time, when factory owners provided food during the lockdown, they may not be as considerate this time. “I will be on my own if I am caught in another lockdown as most factory owners are not as sympathetic this year. I cannot decide if I should leave or watch the situation for some more time,” says Prajapati. “Last year, I walked almost 100km with my wife and 10-year-old daughter in May before a truck offered us a ride home. I do not want to be in the same situation again”.

Read more: Migrant labourers leave Mumbai in packed trains fearing lockdown

Lakshman Mahto, who runs a dhaba for factory workers in the Narela Industrial Complex, says that a lot of his customers who left last year never returned. “And of the some who did, many have stopped coming in the past few days. Workers are leaving as work is dwindling in factories here ,” he says.

He is not exaggerating.

Bhagwat Dayal Aggarwal, president of the Narela Industrial Welfare Association, said the factories that were working at about 60% capacity before the current surge in coronavirus cases a month back, are now working at only at 35% capacity.

“Things were slowly getting better after the lockdown. But this sharp and sudden surge in coronavirus disease cases, which has led to night curfews in many major cities, is again lowering demand. Many factories here have stopped production, and many are on the verge of doing so. They have no choice but to reduce manpower,” says Aggarwal.

Deepak Vats, whose factory makes plastic containers and toys, says with cases rising in the states from where he got a lot of business, he has had to reduce capacity. “About a month ago, I was working at 70% capacity and employed 25 people. Now, I am working at 35% capacity with only 12 people ,” he says.

It is late afternoon and back in Shahpur Ghari, Ranjeet Kumar, who is on night duty, is ready to leave for work.

He says he worries being mistreated by his landlord if there is a lockdown and he loses his job. “Some of us were treated badly after we failed to pay the rent last year. We were shocked by their rude behaviour. I just hope they do not do it again if I lose my job and fail to pay,” he says.


    Manoj Sharma is Metro Features Editor at Hindustan Times. He likes to pursue stories that otherwise fall through the cracks.

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