migrant labour: Miseries of migrant labourers worsen amid coronavirus pandemic and lockdown

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Irshad Ali has been living for the past 19 days on the second floor of a five-storey building that is under construction in a
gali in Daryaganj, Delhi. The building has no walls on two sides. Irshad sleeps next to a pile of cement. He wakes up staring at uncertainty. Will this lockdown end on April 14? Is there enough food to eat for the day? On April 9, he scraped the last grain of rice to make
dal-chawal.

He was fasting on Shab-e-Barat, the night of worship. But he knew there wasn’t enough to go around for the 30-odd migrant labourers who were huddled under that roof. “There’s nothing to eat today. There’s nothing for tomorrow,” he said.

Irshad, 20, has a few clothes in a bag, a 2 kg LPG stove that is running out of gas, a phone and a wallet with no money. He cannot buy rice or dal or vegetables. Even if he gets free ration, he needs money to buy at least a kilo of gas to cook it. He cannot buy a bar of soap to wash his hands, as the world struck by the novel coronavirus constantly asks him to.

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He cannot buy a sachet of washing powder to clean his few clothes. Irshad, who came to Delhi two years ago, works in the construction industry, but he doesn’t have an address here. On March 19, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi exhorted the nation to hold a Janata Curfew on March 22 — “No one should come out of their homes. Don’t go out into the streets. Stay at home” — Irshad was living on a footpath in Chandni Chowk.

On the night of March 21, as Delhi geared up for the curfew the next day, Irshad was pushed out of the footpath by the police: “Find a place to stay.” His contractor found this building as a temporary refuge for him and others. Most of them are from his village of Kotar in Uttar Dinajpur, West Bengal; a couple of them are from Uttar Pradesh and one person is from Bihar.

They came here thinking the curfew would be for just one day. Irshad had about Rs 400 in hand. He bought some rice and potatoes and filled the stove with gas — Rs 200 for 2 kilos. Within a few days he was running out of rice and rupees. So were the others. Now, there was a 21-day lockdown in place. “I thought the curfew would be just for Sunday; I thought I would go home on Monday. Then it was extended for over a week in Delhi. Then it was extended for 21 days. What could I do? I have just Rs 70-80 on me. I don’t even have money to go back home,” says Tassavur Ali, 47, from Kohali village in Kaiserganj, Bahraich, UP.

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A daily wage labourer, he came to Delhi 20 years ago. “I barely make `200-300 a day. I send home `2,000-3,000 a month, whatever I can save after spending on food.” They all saw on their phones hundreds of people trudging back to their villages. “We got to know they were walking but we have to walk not 200-300 km but 1,400 km… even if we walk 50 km a day it will take us 28 days. It is madness to even attempt to walk to Bengal. I will not make it,” says Jithku Ali, 39.

They are stranded in the city where they work, like millions of other informal, migrant labourers across the country, with no work or wages for weeks now. Says Sultan, who came to Delhi about 20 days ago: “I don’t have a paisa with me. And I am the only one who works in my family. How will we survive? When will I get work again? Nobody understands the mazdoor’s problems.”

As the nationwide lockdown progressed, their supplies dwindled. “We ate once a day. We starved once a day,” says Irshad. They tried to make the supplies last. That was when Jithku heard of a community kitchen serving cooked food. “Two of us went out, looking for it. On the way, the police stopped and questioned us. Frightened, we said we had gone to get medicine.

Then the policeman asked us to show the medicine or prescription. We had none, of course.” They have not stepped out of the building since. The Delhi government said last Saturday that it provided lunch and dinner to around 6.5 lakh people at 1,500 food distribution centres and would eventually feed 10-12 lakh people daily. But Jithku is still wary.

“A lot of us are not going out, scared of the police.” Then Irshad got a phone number of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) in Delhi and made a call to them. Meanwhile, Dildar Rahman, a labourer who has found refuge with a dozen others in another unfinished building nearby, called his former MP, Mohammed Salim, who also asked them to contact CITU in Delhi. On March 30, Rahman and others in his building got a grocery kit each of rice, dal, atta, oil and soaps; on April 1, Irshad and others got a similar kit. It lasted them a little over a week.

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They are desperate with each passing day; they fear the lockdown may not be lifted anytime soon. “We will die of the illness later. First we will die of hunger. And we won’t be dying alone. Our family back in our villages will die before us,” says Arif Ali, 19.

He studied till Class IX and has just come to Delhi to work and send some money to his family back home: “There’s mummy, papa, a younger brother and a sister, dada and dadi. I am the eldest child. I came with a villager to Delhi to make some money. The situation is very bad at home.” He sits on a bedsheet on the floor. “We are also worried about the country. But the government should also think about us who earn day-to-day and eat day-to-day. Those who work in offices will get their salary sitting at home. What will we get? Nothing. If we get nothing, then our families get nothing.

It is not just the rich people who vote. We also cast votes. We also belong to this country. But nobody thinks about the poor. As if the poor don’t have dignity. We are not scared of the corona. We are scared of the government which is not helping the poor.” They are falling between the cracks and abysses in welfare measures.

On March 25, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said the government would give `5,000 to construction workers registered with the Delhi Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) board. But only about 41,000 workers are registered there. The 30-odd workers in that building in Daryaganj haven’t even heard of it. Ashif Shaikh, founder of Jan Sahas, which conducted a survey of the impact of Covid-19 on migrant labourers, says, “About 80% of seasonal migrant workers in Delhi are in construction. Only 5-15% are registered with BOCW. Most people are not eligible for BOCW benefits. Lots of announcements have been made. The problem is in implementation on the ground. Now the government has to think seriously about how to build these systems.”

The Delhi government has also said it would give free ration to those who don’t have cards after they have registered on a website. In the Daryaganj building, only Rahman, who has studied till BA second year, had heard of it. Rahman only has a feature phone; so he borrowed the smartphone of a relative and registered, but he still hasn’t got his e-coupon.

By the time Irshad tried to register, the website had crashed for a couple of days. Sunain Akhtar from Muzaffarpur heard about Bihar’s Corona Sahayata — `1,000 will be put in the bank account of each migrant worker from Bihar. They have to download the Corona Sahayata App and register with Aadhaar and bank account numbers.

The government has sent money to over 1 lakh people. But Akhtar hasn’t got it. “I registered, but I haven’t got any money so far,” he says. From subsistence to soup kitchen is not a slide, it is a steep descent marked by hunger, helplessness and hopelessness. It is the very precipice of existence. It is the absence of agency.

Dignity of labour, howsoever sporadic the work may be, howsoever meagre the wages may be, has been hollowed out. Those who are used to earning a living are reduced to stretching their hands for a portion of food twice a day.

It is poverty that strangles and stifles — and it stretches from cities to villages, from the jaws of a five-storey building in Daryaganj to homes in rural Bengal. It is the forewarning of a social and economic catastrophe if this lockdown extends without social security measures in place.

Postscript: On the evening of April 10, Irshad and Rahman called to say that when their supplies were nil, CITU came with a second batch of kits. These would last them a week. They have pooled their last rupee and filled gas in the stoves. The trade union people also took them to a school supplying food near Jama Masjid to help them get over their inhibitions.

On the way, they came across Delhi Police’s mobile supply unit that served them chhole-rice. Meanwhile, Farhan ul Haq, a district coordinator of schools in Chandni Chowk, who was alerted about them running out of supplies, rushed cooked dal and chawal to them. They were also nudged to come to the community kitchen. Irshad and friends are considering it.



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