Struggling for over a month, hundreds of workers leave Delhi’s Khizrabad to walk to Bihar

By 9 May, around two hundred workers who were living in Delhi's Khizrabad locality were forced to leave the city for their native homes in Bihar, after receiving little help from the state government and their elected representatives. Adnan Abidi/REUTERS
17 May, 2020

Behind the posh Delhi neighbourhood named New Friends Colony, lies Khizrabad, a narrow, congested cluster of houses occupied by thousands of workers from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. For years, these workers have stayed in Khizrabad and provided the labour and domestic services to develop and maintain the affluent locality. Since the sudden nationwide lockdown, they have been unemployed and struggling for food, despite assurances from the state and central governments. With no public transport to return home, these workers were forced to stay in conditions that are ideal to contract and spread the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, and without any assistance from the government or their elected representatives.

On 9 May, I spoke to several workers staying in Khizrabad, and learnt that over a hundred workers had been driven by desperation to try and walk home to Bihar. By the next day, that number had reached nearly two hundred. At around 1 pm on 11 May, I visited the area to meet the workers who had not yet left. At Khizrabad, a stark truth became immediately apparent—the workers living there, without food, money or assistance, and others like them, were among the worst sufferers of this poorly planned lockdown.

The area was marked by narrow lanes, broken roads and overflowing sewers. After navigating through the congested alleys, I reached an old building, situated near an open drain, that housed approximately two hundred people. It had damp walls and a dark, narrow corridor through which it was impossible for two people to cross without touching each other, making social-distancing norms particularly difficult to enforce. Some children peeped out at me from behind the curtains that covered the entrance to their homes, and others continued playing in that narrow corridor.

The building had four storeys with four or five rooms, two common toilets and one communal bathroom on each floor. Each room was approximately ten square feet in dimension, and the residents varied from families with small children, to bachelors, to senior citizens. In one of the rooms, I met a family of four people who paid a rent of Rs 2,600, excluding electricity costs. But without work, the labourers had little or no money remaining, and said the landlords were pressuring them to pay rent.

One of the four, Pramod Yadav, from Bihar’s Supaul district, who stayed in the room with his wife and their two young children, told me that the landlady had come to collect the rent earlier that day. “I have my own cart and I used to earn Rs 200–300 per day,” he said. “Now you can imagine my condition without that work since lockdown. In that if I am pressured to pay rent , how can I stay here?”

The workers said the Delhi government normally distributed food in their area twice a day, at around noon and then at around 7 pm, before adding there had been lapses on multiple occasions. Several also complained that it was often of poor quality. Referring to the promises by Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, and the prime minister, Narendra Modi, for free food and ration, Yadav asked, “What happened to the CM and PM’s statements?” It seemed clear that despite Kejriwal’s calls for migrant workers to remain in Delhi, and his assurances that the government would provide for them during this public-health emergency, the measures that had been adopted were vastly insufficient.

Yadav said his two-year-old son was sick because he had been unable to feed his child properly. “Despite all these things, I clean my cart every day with the hope that the things will be better from today or the next day. I want to stay here because I have nothing in my village and I wanted to build my kids’ futures. But in this situation, how will I survive?”

Similarly, Ram Sabad Ram, a Dalit resident of the district of Chapra in Bihar, said he had been forced to leave Khizrabad even though he did not want to, because of the inconsistent quality and quantity of the food provided. Ram said that he was the sole earning member of his family and that his family at home was surviving under poor conditions, but he decided to leave after he received just rice and roti for dinner on 10 May.

“How can we eat rice and roti without dal or sabzi?” he asked. “If proper food cannot be provided at least twice or thrice in a week, whatever be the reason, that is not something we can tolerate when we have not eaten properly for forty days. So many people are leaving this place because they found it difficult to survive for long in this situation, when proper food is not provided to the poor even two times a day.” Ram was among a group of around fifty people who left for Chapra on 11 May.

Dharmender Tiwari, from Bihar’s East Champaran district, also wanted to stay but could not because of the living conditions. Tiwari is a painter by profession, and he began crying while discuss the crisis he has been facing for the last two months. “I am helpless this time,” he said. Tiwari has two sons, aged 14 and 17, and his wife is suffering from gall stones. “I brought my wife to Delhi for treatment but it seems not possible now.  I want to stay and to work but how long can I survive in this situation?”

The workers told me their crisis began around twenty days into the lockdown. They said they realised that the lockdown would continue, but there was no means to get any work or income. “Looking at the situation, we discussed with each other and decided to ask to our leaders from our own area,” Rajnath Prasad Yadav, who hailed from the city of Garkha in Bihar’s Saran district, told me. Most of the workers in Khizrabad were from Bihar, and Saran in particular. Yadav added that the labourers decided that “if there is no work, then it would be better if we could reach our native place.”

The workers made a list of 324 residents of Khizrabad who were in desperate situations and trying to return to Bihar, with their names, native villages, Aadhar numbers and mobile numbers. They said they shared it with Rajiv Pratap Rudy, the member of parliament from Saran, of the Bharatiya Janata Party, over WhatsApp, on the number of a control room that the MP had set up in Patna. The workers added that they had also given the list to local police officials who had come to the area to collect data on the number of workers in the area. Some of the workers said they also tried to call the members of legislative assembly from their hometowns. For instance, Dinesh Rai, one of the workers, said he called Muneshwar Chaudhry, the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s MLA from Bihar’s Garkha assembly constituency. The workers said they also tried to reach Manoj Tiwari, the state president of the Delhi BJP, and Amanatullah Khan, the Aam Aadmi Party MLA who represents the Khizrabad area. But they did not receive a response from anyone.

Most of all, many workers told me, they repeatedly tried to contact Rudy.“Our pain is heavy and it is for survival,” Dharamvir Sah, a 37-year-old resident of Saran who had compiled the list and shared it with Rudy, told me. “We can’t sleep on an empty stomach. People who are with families have started taking food only once a day to survive, just to save money and food, and to give food twice to the children. Now, it seems endless and like we are dying here.”

Sah added, “I have followed up with Rudy more than ten times on the number I have.” But the control room had not taken any measures that helped the workers, Sah said. “Sometimes I got response from the person I spoke with on that number, who was not Rudy but someone from his office. He said that the list was sent to Bihar and the MP’s office would do something. But it is now more than a month to that and nothing happened.” Sah said that now when he reached out on that number, his calls went unanswered.

When I called the control room, a person named Abhishek, who did not tell me his last name, answered the call and told me that he had received the calls from the workers. He added that he had forwarded the list with the names and numbers to another control room run by Rudy in Delhi, which was helping stranded workers in the city.

I called the Delhi control room, and a phone operator named Rahul Singh confirmed that Rudy’s office had received information about the workers at Khizrabad, and that the Delhi government was providing the workers with food. Singh did not, however, have any answers for the other concerns raised by the workers, particularly about their desire to return home to Bihar. “Thousands of calls come every day, it is not possible to follow up on all of them,” Singh said. Khizrabad’s workers also expressed their surprise that no government or administrative official had visited them or inquired about their health. “They should have at least come to us, considering we gave a list to the police too,” Rai told me. “It is obvious that the MLA and MP of our area are aware about the fact that thousands of labourers living here. Even the councillor, who is the closest person to the community from the government, did not come. How is it possible that after giving a list of more than three hundred people to police and making them aware about the condition, no one approached us?”

On 14 May, I spoke to Amanatullah Khan, the local MLA, who asked me to share the details of the workers with him, and told me that he would ensure that their needs were met.But when I asked him why the Delhi government had failed to help these workers for over a month despite having their details, Khan stopped responding to my messages or answering my calls. I received a similar response from Harleen Kaur, the district magistrate of south east Delhi. She did not respond to my calls and messages, and her office on multiple attempts said that she was busy and could not attend the call at the time. The plight of workers has come to the fore only through social media, and going by the administration’s response—or lack thereof—they have received little help from them in their time of need.

Rai raised several questions of the government. “There were 324 numbers, and if the state government really bothers about us, or if the central government really is a government of the poor, then why did no one approach us?” he asked.“Why are we compelled to leave the place? This is a question we will keep in our mind while voting the next time. Because this is a pain we will keep in our hearts till our deaths.”