225 labourers from Maharashtra return home, 1,875 still stranded in other statesUpdated: May 21, 2020 00:19 IST
Thanks to the efforts of Raigad-based labour organisation Sarvahara Jan Andolan (SJA) and state authorities, 225 migrant labourers who were stranded in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have come home to their villages in Raigad district over the past week. Another 1,875 migrant labourers from Maharashtra, who are still in these three states, will be brought home over the coming weeks.
Based in Mangav, in Raigad district, SJA has been working with migrant labourers for the past 30 years, and many such labourers are members of the organisation.
SJA started tracing migrant labourers from Raigad district after some of them got in touch with the organisation after the lockdown was announced. Most of these labourers find work in neighbouring states for four to five months in the year. The rest of the time, they earn their living locally in Maharashtra as daily wagers. When they migrate, they usually take their entire families, including children and the elderly, with them. “When they leave Maharashtra, even they don’t know where the contractor employing them will take them,” said Ulka Mahajan of SJA.
The labourers are from the Katkari samaj and are mostly brick kiln workers. A few also make charcoal, which is a skill indigenous to the community. Tracing the migrant labourers was a challenge.
“Even though they have mobile phones, they are usually taken to remote areas with no network. Some of them contacted us after the lockdown. We asked these people to trace others from their village or anyone else they knew, and send us the details. The first call I received was on March 24,” said Mahajan.
After Mahajan started receiving calls from labourers, members of SJA went from village to village, and pada to pada, to trace those who have left the state in search of work. Ultimately, SJA was able to compile a list of 2,100 workers and their families. “We gave a list to the tribal development department, and the district collector of Raigad. We told them there are 2,000 odd people stranded in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana, and they need to be brought back safely,” said Mahajan.
The returning labourers are brought till the Maharashtra border by the respective state governments after being screened. From the border, buses organised by the Maharashtra department, bring them to their villages in Raigad. All expenses are borne by the Maharashtra government. The labourers are screened before they leave their temporary homes in the other states.
Yashwant Sonu Jadhav, 35, who is from Ambivali village in Raigad, is a member of SJA and had been working in Gaundali village, in Karnataka.
“When the lockdown was announced, we had no way of knowing what was going on. Even the news was announced in the local language. The villagers in the area where we worked were so scared of us. Someone came and told us to stop work right away. The villagers barred us from entering the village,” he said. Jadhav then called Mahajan, who told him to stay put.
SJA contacted non-governmental organisations in the other states and requested them to distribute food to the stranded labourers. Mahajan said SJA’s first priority was to convince the labourers to stay where they were and not start walking.
“We were talking to them right from the beginning, and we had decided that they should not leave; that they were safe where they were. Immediately after lockdown, relief work was organised. We spoke to several organisations and the state government. Contractors made the staying arrangements, but since work was not going on, the labourers were not getting daily wages. So they could not go to local market and purchase anything,” said Mahajan.
Jadhav said the labourers were taken care of, but most had no money since they had not been paid since the lockdown. After travelling for two days on state buses, Jadhav returned home on May 17. “I boarded the bus in Karnataka at 5pm and reached the [Maharashtra] border at 10am the next day. We waited at the border for an hour, and then reached our village in Raigad at 11pm the same night,” he recalled.
Upon return, the labourers must remain in quarantine for 14 days. Ravikant Jagtap, another labourer from Ambivali who was working in Karnataka, said, “We do not have any money as we have not been paid since March. We found one kilo of rice at our house, and four members of my family have been eating only that for two days now.”
Brick kilns are supposed to come under construction work and migrant labourers ,like those SJA has been working with, should be registered under the Maharashtra Buildings and Other Construction Worker’s Welfare Board. Recently, the government announced ₹2,000 for construction workers.
However, as these labourers are not registered under the board, they will not be eligible for this money.
Mahajan said SJA has also been pushing for the government to start work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) so that these labourers may be employed again. They are also entitled to food grains under the Food Security Act, which is expected to be distributed soon.
SJA stressed the need to register migrant labourers under the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, so they can avail benefits of the public distribution anywhere outside of their home state. “Since migrant workers are not a vote bank, no one is interested in their issues. This crisis will give us an opportunity and space to highlight their difficulties. Bringing them back was equally difficult for the bureaucracy,” said Mahajan.