Savings decimated, no work in their villages and unable to access an assemblage of confusing government schemes, India’s army of migrant labourers is leaving families and risking health and lives to return to work, despite a worsening pandemic
Mumbai: Over eight years, Rajiful Hoque went from being a naka worker—one among tens of thousands who wait every morning to be picked up by labour contractors from India’s traffic junctions or nakas—to taking small contracts for civil works.
At 28, the West Bengal native has been working for 14 years, including six years in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh. Thrift ruled Hoque’s life in Mumbai and, over time, his 11-member family was able to secure some manner of self-reliance.
Now back home in Uttar Dinajpur district’s Chit Madhepur village since June, he has taken small loans, totalling more than Rs 25,000, mostly for food and bare essentials, to keep his family afloat.
There is no work on most days. On a rare lucky day, he gets work retting jute fibres, standing bent over for hours, knee deep in a river, for Rs 300. Three times since June, flood waters ravaged his village, once inundating a part of his home and finally destroying his meagre paddy crop.
“In the village, there is shame in openly discussing financial difficulties,” Hoque said over the phone. “Only I know what we are going through right now.”
Hoque, two of his three younger brothers, and nearly 45 other men from Chit Madhepur who shared a single, large living space in Mumbai’s decrepit Falkland Road area, want only one thing, to return to a busy work life in India’s financial capital.
To Hoque and other migrants we spoke to for this story, the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic had significantly worsened over the two months since he left Mumbai did not matter. India had 1,964,536 Covid-19 cases on 6 August 2020, a rise by over 1,000% since the end of May, when Hoque fled Mumbai on board a Shramik train, as a nationwide lockdown, announced with a four-hour notice by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left an estimated 80 million workers stranded.
As millions of workers left for home by any mode of transport they could find—or died trying—a compendium of initiatives under the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan (Self-reliant India Campaign) announced by the Union government in May should have come to Hoque’s aid.
These programmes, according to their declared aims, should have reskilled workers, formed self-help groups and provided employment-guarantee support for migrants returning to villages along with free foodgrain for migrant workers and others not covered by the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013, and state Public Distribution System (PDS) schemes.
In reality, workers found access to free food under the schemes complicated, confusing. Employment support was only through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), 2005, and long-term city dwellers found they did not have the required job cards to seek work under this law.
The hard labour and subsistence wages were other problems for returning migrants looking for work, not to mention that MGNREGA work was itself neither uniformly available across the hinterland nor available every day.
Other elements of the Atmanirbhar scheme, including a labour code and universal-access ration cards, will bear fruit months later, when these months of deprivation for these families may translate into children pulled out of school and dipping levels of nutrition and health.
Already, a decimation of savings and absence of adequate state support in villages has rendered migrant workers, including a large percentage of short-term migrants who tend to be highly casualised workers, more vulnerable than ever, according to accounts of workers, confirming surveys that have revealed such vulnerabilities.
On 9 July, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the Supreme Court that migrant workers had begun to return to cities as the economy was “opening up” and the situation was “very healthy”. But those who are returning have tales of the confused Atmanirbhar rules cleaving families, of journeys made in desperation.
Hoque, his friends in Chit Madhepur and the hundreds of migrant workers alighting from trains everyday now at the Lokmanya Tilak Terminus in suburban Mumbai have somehow slipped through the safety net that Atmanirbhar Bharat was to provide.
Those who do not possess ration cards for the PDS schemes found the rules for accessing free foodgrain under Atmanirbhar Bharat befuddling.
Nandu Kumar, 42, (name changed on request) has spent more than two decades in Mumbai, having moved to the city from eastern Uttar Pradesh with his parents and younger brother in the 1990s. The family has a home in Bariyarpur, Deoria district, where they return for festivals, weddings and the like.
They belong to that large category — Mumbaikar, Bambaiya, but also Uttar Bharatiya (north Indian). Critically, they don’t have an active ration card, which allows them to access free or subsidised foodgrain through a country-wide network of PDS shops.
Kumar made several attempts, trying to present his Aadhaar card, other identification bearing his Mumbai address and his wife’s Deoria voter ID card, but the dealer told him the Atmanirbhar rice was for pravasis, migrants stranded away from home.
He might have been eligible in Mumbai, a city he actually considers home. “No food was cooked at my home yesterday,” Nandu said quietly on the phone. He was in the last leg of a one-hour walk to a neighbouring village where he could ask a friend to lend him some rice, and he took a break from walking in the rapidly dying twilight to unburden himself over the phone to a stranger.
He’d sent his family home in batches, starting with his parents. The weeks leading up to the lockdown had already been difficult for Kumar,with only four working days as a substitute driver in the month before the lockdown.
“By the time we all managed to get back to Bariyarpur, we were already penniless,” said Nandu. “The only grocery we have had at home since was sent by my parents-in-law, and that got over more than a week ago.”.
For 10 days, his two daughters and a son, his parents, and his wife ate whatever the neighbours could spare. Having lived for decades in Nallasopara, a far suburb of Mumbai, he did not have a job card to seek work under the MGNREGA. “How did we get to this point, madam?” he asked. “We have worked all our lives. We were not destitute.”
Kumar’s struggle to collect state-guaranteed aid is a protraction of conditions for migrant workers that began in the end of March when the government’s various announcements and commitments to the apex court fell short of expectations on the ground.
As Rukmini S wrote for Mint, the government miscalculated terribly, failing to account for short term migrants, apparently unaware of how extensive the phenomenon is. “More than a story of The Great Indian Dream, the story of short-term migration is one of desperation,” she wrote. The result was that while the Union government told the Supreme Court on March 31 that there no more migrants were walking on highways trying to reach their native villages, a 12-year-old girl died on April 18 after walking 100 km in three days; and 16 workers died on May 8 when a train ran over them near Aurangabad in Maharashtra after they’d walked 40 km trying to avoid the highways.
Now, another two months later, many have no option but to return to the cities worst affected by the pandemic. An independent survey found 29% of migrants who had returned to their villages back in cities now, while another 45% wish to return, mainly on account of lack of employment opportunities, the Economic Times reported on 3 August. The collaborative study on how the hinterland is unlocking was conducted by the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (India), Action For Social Advancement and other organisations, and included a rapid assessment survey of 4,835 households in 48 districts spread across 11 states.
Falling Between Official Cracks
Matadin Dhakad, a marble polishing worker from Morena in northern Madhya Pradesh, said he was booked on a train back to Pune on Thursday. When the lockdown was imposed, he was herded along with other migrant workers into a school turned into a shelter in Maharashtra’s Pimpri-Chinchwad, near Pune.
A Rajput by caste, circumstances led Dhakad to join India’s army of hard-working migrant labourers. At the shelter, he said he set aside his higher caste-dictated rules of purity and pollution, and swallowed his pride while accepting the paltry meal portions, the pulao that he complained was only ‘namkeen chawal’ and the watery, pale yellow dal.
After almost two months of this, desperate, he sank most of his savings into hiring a small pick-up truck to return home.
“Now I have run out of money,” he said over the phone on Wednesday, a sense of resignation clouding the mood at home on the eve of his departure. The same day, the Pune municipality recorded 1,282 fresh Covid-19 cases, the most among Maharashtra’s urban local bodies, while the Pimpri-Chinchwad municipality recorded 714 new cases. Pune district also has the maximum number of ‘active’ cases at 39,385.
“I’ll just be careful,” Dhakad said. “I’ve spent almost Rs 45,000 to Rs 50,000 in these four months, first on getting back home and then running the household on savings. Now we can’t live unless I return to work.”
The Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan skips this class of people, not so penurious as to require free foodgrain and also not beneficiaries of schemes such as Mudra loans that provide small loans for non-corporate, non-farm small or micro enterprises; who may avail the loan moratorium and interest subvention schemes for small agriculturists but whose families still depend heavily on their income as migrant workers.
Hoque, for example, didn’t qualify for any new initiatives under the scheme. He has lived for years in a crowded, shared accommodation that costs him Rs 700 to Rs 800 per month including electricity. Barring food and incidentals, he sent every rupee he earned back home, usually Rs 8,000-Rs 10,000 and the occasional Rs 20,000 if he got a string of “double-double shifts”.
The PDS is normally of little use to the family, as they eat the rice they grow on their 2 acres, and other staples including potatoes, brinjal, chillies and oil must anyway be purchased. What he really wanted was work, and that was not available.
Before the declaration of Atmanirbhar Bharat, a key relief measure for the poor who bore the brunt of the lockdown and its concomitant economic wreckage was the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (Prime Minister’s Food Security Welfare Scheme for the Poor), involving allocation of foodgrain from the central pool.
On 30 June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana would be extended till the Diwali and Chhath festivals, or till November. This programme provides 5 kg free wheat/rice per month to every member of a family, and 1 kg free whole chana (whole Bengal gram) per month per family, to benefit 800 million (80 crore) people.
“But these 80 crore are the total NFSA beneficiaries, not the stranded migrant workers or those who either do not have a ration card or have a ration card at a different address,” said Mukta Srivastava, convenor of the Maharashtra unit of the Anna Adhikar Abhiyaan or Right to Food Campaign, a coalition of community organisations.
“Too many people never saw the chana in any case. We have been saying repeatedly that the PDS has to be simply universalised,” said Srivastava. “Those out of the NFSA for any reason are now heavily reliant on charity.”
Puja Sanghvi of the Lockdown Relief Project, set up to provide survival support in and around Mumbai during the lockdown, said they were receiving calls from workers they had been in touch with in April-May, many expressing difficulties in accessing foodgrain.
“We are trying to educate them about what the government schemes offer,” said Sanghvi, “but they say they’re not getting the ration.”
A Flight Back, But No Work
Asif Shaikh, 34, (name changed on request) returned to Mumbai from Giridih in eastern Jharkhand on 4 August. A tailor who stitches little girls’ frocks at a garment manufacturing unit in South Mumbai, Asif was among 174 passengers, including labourers and family members who flew from Mumbai to Ranchi on 28 May, on a chartered flight leased by an alumni group of the National Law School of India University.
Shaikh’s wife and four children were on board too, their first airplane experience. For the first time since he got married, Shaikh has now left them behind with his parents, in Girdih. It’s only sensible, he said sadly .Their Jharkhand ration card bears the names of the couple and their eldest son, entitling them to free foodgrain under the NFSA and the Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana.
Although Shaikh had 17 years of experience as a tailor, he could not find a single day’s work between 29 May and 4 August, prompting him to pack his bags for Mumbai.
“The seth said there is no work here, no demand, and I can at best work one or two days a week, but even that is better than starving at home,” said Shaikh. But he arrived in Mumbai amid torrential rains, and spent Wednesday hungry and cold in the manufacturing unit, with no money to take a taxi to Kalwa, 40 km away on the outskirts of the city where he and his family used to live in a rented room.
The manufacturing unit owner was not expected until the rains receded. “But when I can work, I’m paid per finished frock and can make Rs 600 a day,”Shaikh reasoned.
On 1 August, the Supreme Court noted that states and union territories had not yet informed the court about compliance with its 9 June order to send all stranded workers home and maintain records of migrant workers who had reached their native towns or villages along with details of their skills and nature of employment. The court gave the states three weeks to comply. Some migrants were still stranded, including in Maharashtra, the court said.
Meanwhile, the four months of impoverishment is set to compel many families to consider taking a child out of school. Hoque’s daughter Yasmin is only three years old, not yet in school. But a second baby is on the way, and the medical expenses are weighing heavily on his mind.
Kumar actually said the local government school sent representatives door-to-door, and he enrolled his children who were studying in a municipal school in Nallasopara.
Shaikh’s response to whether his children’s education could be a casualty of the difficult times: “Woh baad ki baat hai (That is a matter for later). A year’s lost education can be regained. Let us first make it to the end of this year alive.”
(Kavitha Iyer is a Mumbai-based journalist.)