Anil Kumar and Manjit Singh, both skilled workers from Bihar’s Bhojpur and Buxar districts respectively, began their new jobs at the same workplace on 17 March. They were working at a bottling plant which was located at the Karsua village in Uttar Pradesh’s Aligarh district. Anil, aged 28, said that they were hired on a contract basis for around Rs 18,000 per month. They were sharing a room with another colleague, Prem Kumar. Anil aimed to spend as little as he could in Aligarh and send most of his remaining salary back home, where twelve of his family members depended on his income. But his plan did not materialise. “This lockdown ruined everything,” he said.
Since 25 March, India has been under a nationwide lockdown to contain COVID-19, which left several migrant workers in the lurch. Tens of thousands of migrants made their way back home, and at least twenty two of them died in this effort. Anil, Prem and Singh were among the workers who were compelled to return to their homes.
The roommates were working till the third day of the lockdown, they told me, and required more financial support from their workplace. They realised that they would not be able to make ends meet in Aligarh and embarked on an arduous journey back home on bicycles. Anil and Singh travelled around nine hundred kilometres to their homes in Bihar. Prem, a resident of Bhopalpur village in Uttar Pradesh’s Basti district, pedalled over six hundred kilometres to his native village. They reached their homes safely, only to find that they had few options left to earn a living. Still, the three of them were content with being home. “If we live at home, we will be able to survive with just salt and roti too,” Anil said.
The three roommates told me that they were short on money when the lockdown was announced. They said they worked at a bottling plant of the Indian Oil Corporation, run by a company called Kosan SFPL Project India Limited. A contractor, Nagrajan NV, from NRV Trading and Contracting, had hired them to work there. While Anil and Singh were hired just a week before the announcement of the lockdown, Prem said he had been working at the plant for five or six months. According to Prem, Nagrajan was supposed to pay his salary, of Rs 24,000, on the twelfth day of each month, but the payment was almost always late. In fact, he did not get Rs 14,000 of his salary for February and the entire payment for March. In addition, the three roommates had visited their families for Holi, on 10 March, and spent a large proportion of their savings during the trip. “We had come here after Holi, thinking that we will earn and send money back home, payback debts, but that couldn’t happen,” Anil said.
After the commencement of the lockdown, they asked the local grocer if they could buy food items from him on credit, but he refused. Moreover, their landlord insisted that they should not go for work, lest they contracted the virus. The three of them, however, wanted to go to work, in hopes of getting their full salaries, Prem and Anil said. They tried to call Nagrajan for help, but did not get a response.