Even as India’s COVID-19 tally surges at an alarming rate, crossing Brazil to become the world’s worst-affected nation after the United States, and cases resume rising in Delhi, workers from Bihar are forced to return to the national capital seeking work. In May, over three hundred workers staying in Delhi’s Khizrabad area, a congested housing cluster occupied by migrants from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, had moved back home after struggling to survive during the lockdown. Three months later, several workers were compelled to return to Delhi after failing to find any source of income in Bihar. “It would be better to die while working for a livelihood than to die in hunger looking at the pain of families in financial distress at my village,” Dinesh Rai, a migrant labourer from Garkha block in Bihar’s Saran district, said. “This was the thought behind my return to Delhi.”
In early May, the railways ministry had begun the operations of Shramik Special trains for stranded migrant workers, after the sudden, ill-considered and poorly planned nationwide lockdown had left them in conditions of despair. As I earlier reported for The Caravan, the trains were rolled out with the same rushed incompetence that marked India’s response to the pandemic, which led to an arduous journey without water or any assurance of whether they would reach home. Upon reaching, the workers found the Bihar’s health department woefully unprepared to deal with the pandemic, and one among them, Rajnath Yadav, died after the state government released him early from quarantine despite him showing COVID-19 symptoms. But even for those who survived, their return home was far from the end of their troubles.
“His death created a fear in all of us for COVID19, but hunger compelled us to return and work for survival,” Rai said. “We have no option left except to work in Delhi to improve our financial condition.” He continued, “We were in crisis during the lockdown and suffered for two months, we were in crisis in the train while going to our place, we were in crisis at our village living in fear of COVID struggling for food. So, we preferred to face the crisis on the ground, to earn a livelihood.” Rai is now back at Khizrabad.
Rai told me he could not find any work at his village, which forced him to take a loan to survive. “It was very painful at the village,” he said. “I asked my gram pradhan”— village headman—“to manage some work but it would not happen. In the period from the last week of May till the last week of August, I took a total Rs 14,000 as loans. I put my wife’s gold earrings as security.”
He was forced to borrow money even for his bus journey back to Delhi. According to Dinesh, private buses have been running between Saran and Delhi that charge between Rs 1,500 and Rs 1,800. He had borrowed Rs 1,500 for the ticket. Rai said the buses were overcrowded without any enforcement of social-distancing protocols. “The journey was painful because they overbooked up to double or triple the number of passengers compared to seats,” he told me. “So we suffered in Shramik trains while going to village, and we suffered in such buses while returning to Delhi. The suffering stuck with us.”