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The long journey home for migrant workers in India

Millions of workers stranded far from their home have faced government delays, mismanagement, fake news propaganda, and repression

by Sanket Jain

Migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh who were rendered homeless for four days because of the systemic mismanagement.
Migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh who were rendered homeless for four days because of the systemic mismanagement.
Migrant workers from Jharkhand waiting to get their tokens.
Migrant workers from Jharkhand waiting to get their tokens.
Workers showing the tokens they received from the local authorities to board the Shramik trains.
Workers showing the tokens they received from the local authorities to board the Shramik trains.
Photo of a board outside the registration desk on 21st May that reads “There will be no trains running today.”
Photo of a board outside the registration desk on 21st May that reads “There will be no trains running today.”
After waiting in the queue for six hours, it was announced that no trains will be running for Uttar Pradesh on 19th May.
After waiting in the queue for six hours, it was announced that no trains will be running for Uttar Pradesh on 19th May.
Sunil Gaund, the migrant worker in yellow shirt, talks about how it became a humanitarian crisis.
Sunil Gaund, the migrant worker in yellow shirt, talks about how it became a humanitarian crisis.
To submit the forms and get the tokens, workers would reach as early as 7 AM and wait for at least 12 hours. A few even had to wait for two days.
To submit the forms and get the tokens, workers would reach as early as 7 AM and wait for at least 12 hours. A few even had to wait for two days.
Migrant workers from Bihar boarding the bus that takes them to the Kolhapur railway station, 18 miles away from Ichalkaranji town.
Migrant workers from Bihar boarding the bus that takes them to the Kolhapur railway station, 18 miles away from Ichalkaranji town.

“There’s no train for Uttar Pradesh. There’s no train for Uttar Pradesh. There’s no train for Uttar Pradesh.”

Prakash Singh, stranded for two months, 1493 kilometres (928 miles) away from home, heard the same reply from over ten officials, including the local police. His hunt for an optimistic reply didn’t alter reality.

Prakash, 23, knew that the Government didn’t consider his interests when a country of 1.3 billion people was given four hours’ time to figure their affairs. After those four hours on March 24th, one of the most brutal lockdowns was declared for over two months, in four phases.

One amongst the 122 million people in India who lost their jobs in the lockdown, Prakash was left with no savings to sustain him for two months. The Government had brought all the means of transportation and economic activities to a strict halt, making it difficult for migrant workers to return to their villages. (Migrant worker in India refers to those who migrate from their homes to elsewhere in India for work.)

Only after 36 days in the lockdown, the Central Government started Shramik special trains on 1st May, by which time several thousand migrants had begun a journey of over a thousand miles on their feet.

Prakash worked as a textiles powerloom operator for Rs 12,000, around 215 CAD per month, in the Ichalkaranji town of Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district in Western India. A resident of the Allahabad district in Uttar Pradesh, to get home he had no option other than Shramik trains, which are free for migrant workers.

The last time Prakash went for work was on 20th March, after which all the looms were shut down. Since then finding everyday food and paying the house rent became a nightmare for over ten thousand migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Jharkhand, who work to keep the textile industry running in the small city of Ichalkaranji.

“No one knows how long will this problem last. That’s why everyone wants to return to their homes. Who will take our responsibility if something happens to us?” he explains.

To board these special trains, the Government had issued a few preconditions. The workers had to seek a medical certificate mentioning they had no COVID symptoms; next, they had to sign an undertaking approving that they will quarantine themselves upon reaching their destination and had to attach a copy of their government identification Aadhar Card. Upon hearing this, Prakash quickly filled the form by 8th May. However, his sudden gaiety was met with the fate of improper management.

After submitting the form, the workers are to receive a token, then the local police station calls them giving the details and date of the train journey. In reality, it didn’t go as simply as it sounds. He received a token only on the 17th May – after waiting in a queue of over five thousand workers for two days.

After receiving the tokens, the workers began leaving their rented houses as they had run out of money to pay the rent. They anticipated that a train will run soon. “If we wouldn’t have vacated the homes and stayed here for 4-5 month, every one of us would have had to pay at least Rs 10,000 as rent,” he says.

Mis-communication from the authorities that a train will run soon, raised their hopes. On 18th May, Prakash along with over 300 workers, who left their homes around the same time, were caught in a quagmire. Suddenly they had nowhere to go as the systemic troubles rendered them all homeless.

It was only on the 22nd May that they could travel and Prakash reached home on the 25th.

On several trains, the workers complained of lack of food and water provided by the Government, and even if it was provided there were major delays.

A few epidemiologists and virologists, critical of Government’s move mentioned how India’s lockdown neither helped in flattening the curve, nor in containing the geographical spread of virus.

In his addresses, India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi of the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party, gave tasks like banging plates in the balcony or a terrace to pay gratitude to the frontline health workers, lighting lamps while switching off lights for nine minutes at 9 PM on 5th April to dispel darkness. However, mere banging the plates didn’t help the frontline health workers as most of them lacked Personal Protective Equipment.

Fake news and superstitious mass messaging on WhatsApp justified these moves to battle Coronavirus. People began spreading rumours that the waves created after banging plates help kill the Coronavirus. Another message hailed Modi’s voluntary curfew (of 14 hours on the 22nd March) as a masterstroke read, “If the Coronavirus doesn’t find a carrier for 12 hours, it dies immediately.”

Modi's ruling BJP party has an Information Technology Cell involved in spreading pro-government messages using social media. Through the Cell and hardcore Modi supporters, content is produced justifying every move of his government. These messages are widely circulated amongst several WhatsApp groups and social media.

As illogical and bizarre as the justifications were, India now faces a massive healthcare crisis as it crossed more than 300,000 cases on 12th June, making it the nation with the fourth most cases globally, and  reporting over 9,000 deaths.  

As of now, there are no official figures available in the public domain on the total number of migrant workers displaced because of the lockdown. On 28th May, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said in Supreme Court that the centre had sent 9.7 million migrants back home. However, as per the experts, these are conservative numbers that don’t give an exact picture of reverse migration. In an interview to the Indian Express, Professor Chinmay Tumbe, a scholar and an expert on migration, puts the number of reverse migrants at 30 million.

One amongst them is Sunil Gaund, who has been out of work for 55 days now. “There are rumours that the powerlooms will run only by Diwali (November 2020),” he tells me. “Even if I stay here what work will I get? It’s better if I return to my village and farm our small plot.”

Every month, Sunil, who before the pandemic averaged earnings of Rs 11,000 (197 CAD) per month, would send more than half the money to his family back in the village. “Even if you are not working, there are expenses,” he says.

Chief Justice of India, Sharad Bobde, while listening to a Public Interest Litigation brough forward on behalf of migrant workers, asked, “If they are being provided meals, then why do they need money for meals?”

Sunil’s life answers this insensitive question. “For using public washrooms, they are charging Rs 5 (0.09 CAD) every time. If two kids use the washroom even seven times each, then we lose Rs 70 (1.26 CAD) on this only,” he adds, furiously. He can no longer anticipate how much he will be made to spend on inequality. “When we are charged for every single thing, even 30-40 rupees (0.54 - 0.72 CAD) matter a lot,” adds Prakash.

Another reason why workers were evicted by the landlords was because of the apathy for the poor. After workers awaiting to collect the tokens would return, the landlords began saying, “You can’t stay here anymore because you came in contact with 1000s of people. What if you have the virus?” Discrimination based on residence was yet again brought to the frontline. “We don’t want to fight with anyone here. We want to reach home peacefully,” said a frustrated Prakash.

Several workers I spoke to even mentioned that the landlords didn’t let them carry their everyday essentials like their utensils, cupboards, and stoves. “They did it because, if we don’t return, then they can recover our rent by selling these items,” Sunil elaborates.    

He's not worried about finding any employment back home in the Gorakhpur district of Uttar Pradesh, but sick of the barbarity he saw. “I will be home at least,” he says. Thousands of workers have been voicing from the start of the lockdown that they want to go back to their houses. As per a World Bank report, nearly 40 million internal migrants were affected in India by the lockdown.

For several migrants, returning to their homes came at the cost of police brutality. Roughly 100 bale packers, who specialize in packing the textile units at Ichalkaranji town, were among the many victims of it. In the first week of April, 28-year-old Yaseen Khan and a group of bale packers decided to commute 888 miles on their motorbike to Rajasthan’s Nagaur district. However, as they crossed the district borders, they were caught by the police and beaten. Immediately, all the bikers returned, saving their lives.

With no savings left, they decided to migrate yet again in the second week of May, this time with a firm resolve. Around 80 of them reached Rajasthan after 3 days of biking. A few of them, caught by the police (in the lockdown) were beaten black and blue for ‘violating the lockdown.’ Yaseen found his nose broken but somehow made it to his village after a fearful journey.

The textile industry in Ichalkaranji town was shut for nearly 70 days and even after resuming in partial shifts, it’s reeling under losses. “We won’t return at least for three to four months now,” Yaseen says. A few of the bale packers had to even borrow loans for buying food grains. “We will do farming or find some other work, but won’t come anytime soon.”

COVID pandemic saw a surge in two disasters in India: the rise of inequality and the crackdown on dissent.

In his three decades of existence, Dinesh Kumar has never seen anything worse than the lockdown. “We’ve seen the worst in the past two months. At least 40 percent of us won’t return.” When he saw landlords weren’t allowing workers to return to their homes, and a few even confiscated everyday items, he was shocked. He didn’t feel at home, and instead saw a humanitarian crisis.

Dinesh, who’s from Chandauli district of Uttar Pradesh is worried about his ailing parents. “They are not keeping well, and I need to go home at the earliest,” he tells me, fearfully.

“If we don’t get on a Shramik train, what option do we have? There’s no money left even to buy food, how will we buy a ticket later?” he asks. With a delay of every passing minute, he gets scared of what the future might look like for his family.

Like 5,000 other stranded migrants waiting near the central weekly vegetable market, Dinesh was even finding it difficult to fetch drinking water. After several unsuccessful attempts at finding water, they were left with no option other than paying for publicly installed water purifiers. “We put a one-rupee coin and get 5 litres of water. Look what days have come upon us. If we don’t reach home soon, we’ll die of hunger.”

Around 80 migrants lost their lives in the Shramik trains. “We are sitting here for four days despite all the documents and tokens, yet no one is taking care of us,” Sunil narrates as he stares yet again towards the registration desk.


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