Coronavirus lockdown: Millions in migrant camps battle despair about uncertain future

Updated on Apr 09, 2020 03:05 AM IST

Coronavirus lockdown: Despite the arrangements, many migrant workers in India are desperate about separation from their families, the threat of the coronavirus disease and their financial future.

Migrant workers, who work in textile looms, are seen outside a loom after it was shut due to the 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease, in Bhiwandi on the outskirts of Mumbai.(REUTERS)
Migrant workers, who work in textile looms, are seen outside a loom after it was shut due to the 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease, in Bhiwandi on the outskirts of Mumbai.(REUTERS)
Hindustan Times, Mumbai, Lucknow and Patna | BySwapnil Rawal, Pankaj Jaiswal and Avinash Kumar

In the past week, Ajay Mahto and Sanjay Mahor have learnt the value of patience.

A truck driver, Mahto was in Punjab’s Ludhiana city when sweeping restrictions were announced to stop the spread of Covid-19. On the second day of the lockdown, he and some other stranded workers hitched a ride on a truck to get back to their villages in Bihar.

But the vehicle was intercepted in Patna the next day, and the workers sent to a government school that was turned into a migrant shelter. With no friends or family around, and bland food every day, Mahto spends his days in a small room with strangers. “My village is just 20 kilometres from here. I can feel my village but cannot go,” he said.

A high school dropout, Mahto had never seen the inside of a classroom before. “Now, I sleep on a bench every night,” said Mahto, pointing at the shabby classroom that is now home to six migrant workers.

More than 1,700km away in Maharashtra, Mahor was caught by police officers on the same day as Mahto while walking back with a group from Mumbai to his village in Madhya Pradesh.

He was put in a camp in Mumbai on March 27. Unlike the camp in Patna – where workers are allowed to walk outside and bathe in nearby rivers – no one is permitted to step out of the Mumbai camp. “It is like a prison,” said Mahor, adding that the same meal of rice and potatoes is served to workers every day. “My wife is pregnant and I wanted to be with her side,” said Mahor. “I call home to check on her now.”

The toilets are not clean and four people share a small room, said his fellow camp dweller, Mohammed Asif Sajeebul, a rickshaw puller from Mumbra.

Mahto, Mahor and Sajeebul are three of the roughly 10.55 million people who are currently living in 22,567 shelters that were set up to disperse the waves of migrant workers who swamped highways, bus stands and railway stations across India in order to get back home after the lockdown was imposed at midnight on March 25. The numbers were part of a document submitted by the government to the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Only a few of them were able to reach their villages. Many are either in shelter homes set up at check posts or big towns, or self-quarantine homes near their villages.

Authorities swung into action to provide them food and shelter and to monitor their health. Around 8.5 million people have been given food by government with the help of non-government organisations in these camps, the home ministry told the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

But despite the arrangements, many workers are desperate about separation from their families, the threat of the coronavirus disease and their financial future.

In a camp in Patna, Ganghara Panchayat Bawan, labourers complained of no masks, soaps, sanitisers and the stench in toilets. “I am a poor person. But, still toilet in my village is better than this,” said a labourer, Udit Raj, who paid Rs 1,800 to a truck driver in Howrah in West Bengal.

He and 44 other labourers hid themselves in the truck container and travelled for more than 24 hours to reach Patna. In the camp, he said the probability of catching Covid-19 in the shelter home was more than in his village.

An Asha [Accredited Social Health Activist] worker, Anita Devi has been tasked with monitoring the body temperatures of the workers every day but said she did not have masks or sanitiser –two of the most basic requirements to protect one’s self from the deadly infection. “We are on the mercy of God here,” she added.

The area’s block development officer and in-charge of the camps, Devendra Kumar, denied the charge that there were no masks, soaps or sanitisers. “If people steal them what can we do,” he said.

In Uttar Pradesh’s Badholi, Tauheed Ahmed, 45, a migrant who owned a juice stall in Delhi, said he was strictly adhering to quarantine rules at the government senior secondary school he was staying in at present.

He claimed he walked the first 250 km from Delhi to Badholi in Bahraich district and was lucky to get a lift on truck for the rest of the distance. The distance between Delhi and Bahraich is 680 kilometre. “We understand that soaking up the sun, eating a healthy diet, and taking rest is healthy in these times of coronavirus,” said Ahmed said.

Dr Nikhil Singh, superintendent doctor, said a medical team was closely monitoring the area.

“We send a doctor every two days, and our village level health volunteers are monitoring the migrants,” he added.

In another tin-roofed labour camp, opposite high-rises in Lucknow’s affluent Gomti Nagar area, workers speculated when the lockdown will end. Most of the people housed in this camp are contractual labourers, mechanics, masons and electricians who were hired to construct a high-rise complex in the vicinity.

Monu Mondal a resident of West Bengal who worked as a plumber on the construction site, attempted to travel back but was stuck after the lockdown. “We were not paid anything before the lockdown. I don’t have any money left,” he said, adding that many of the labourers left the camp looking for work in the city. “Some of them are now selling vegetables.”

With many government employees engaged in Covid-19 duties, people from different walks of life are managing these camps – migrant worker Mohammad Hasib in Badholi, block development officer Devendra Kumar in Patna, and social worker Gurmeet Singh in Ludhiana are some of them.

Hasib spends his day checking the health status of migrants and managing activities related to sensitisation of local residents, sanitization of the village, and coordinating with health and civic authorities.

“Over 2,000 migrants have returned to their homes in Badholi and all are under home quarantine as advised by the government doctors,” said Hasib, whose daughter-in-law Salma is the village head.

“I take care of everything, arranging food, monitoring their health and providing necessary hygiene. Sometimes, I provide my phone to them to call their family members,” said Hasib, who returned from Delhi, where he runs a fruit and vegetable juice shop, about two months ago.

Kumar has been made in-charge of running three camps for workers in Patna. “These days I go home for just a couple of hours to sleep. Most of the days, I eat same food what the workers get at these camps. This helps to ensure some quality when the supplies are dwindling with the each passing day,” he said.

Singh used to manage the kitchen at the local gurdwara. Now at a camp for labourers in Ludhiana, Singh’s day starts at 5 am with a visit to the local market to source vegetables and other essentials.

“There were about 1,000 persons in the camp when the exodus started after March 25. We arranged everything for them with the help of locals and some factory owners who donated food and money. Now, most of the labourers have either gone to UP or Bihar or have returned to their rented accommodation,” he said.

In Mahto’s former workplace, Ludhiana, there is just one per cent occupancy in 50 camps set up for labourers, said the local administration. An industrial powerhouse, Ludhiana is home to about two million migrant workers employed in the cycle, hosiery and textile industry.

Ashok, who works in a cycle parts manufacturing unit, said living in factory run homes was better than the shelter. “We have our friends there and the factory owner says that some work will resume soon,” he said, adding that the factory owners have arranged for their food.

Others are worried about their future. Suman Singh Das, a labourer from Raigarh in Chhattisgarh, said he had started looking for work in Lucknow, where he is currently in a camp. “I am desperate to send money back home. Can you tell me whether the lockdown will end on April 15?” he asked.

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