From Delhi to Bihar and back: The relentless cycle of suffering for migrant workers

Migrant workers return to Delhi on 10 August after lockdown restrictions eased across the country. Sanchit Khanna / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
11 September, 2020

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.”

Rai reached Delhi on 28 August. After spending three or four days without work, he said, “I somehow got some temporary whitewashing and painting work at Vasant Vihar.”

Dharamvir Sah and Dinesh Sah, Rai’s friends who travelled with him in the Shramik train back to Saran district, were also compelled to return to Khizrabad in search of work. Unlike Rai, they both returned by train. All three said that they tried to get work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee programme but were unsuccessful. “I did not want to return and wanted to stay for some time in village doing some work,” Dinesh Sah told me. “I met my gram pradhan and filled the form. I submitted my Aadhar Card and bank account details and other documents too, but nothing happened. Apart from me, there were about twenty–twenty five boys in my village who returned to our village from Hyderabad, but did not get any work.” He added, “We are poor people living in crisis, so we had no option but to return.”

Upon reaching Delhi, Dharamvir and Dinesh Sah said they too spent several days without finding any work. Dharamvir said that before the lockdown “we were doing work 30 days in a month, while this time getting a work for at least ten days in a month would be a matter of luck. I reached Delhi on 24 July and till 4 September, I could only get 15 days of work.”

Dharamvir continued, “Uncertainty in work is there this time but we have a hope for a normal life like before. We have to earn and for that we have to stay here.” He explained that he needed money not only for his daily sustenance, but also to pay rent for the months he had not lived in Khizrabad, because he had not vacated the room. He said he owed Rs 15,000 in rent. “But there are few opportunities to work and I am facing a difficult time similar to what I faced during the lockdown,” Dharamvir added.

They have also encountered new problems arising out of the rules governing the lockdown being lifted. For instance, Rai said that even though he has found some work, it required him to travel over ten kilometres at a time when there are severe restrictions on the routes and number of passengers in Delhi’s bus transport system. “To reach the work site, I am traveling by auto paying Rs 150. For that, I needed two more such people on the same route so that we could share the amount.” He explained, “I am doing this because there is a restriction in using DTC buses. They are taking limited passengers and that is killing time. I have to be punctual in reaching the work site. So, under compulsion, I have been taking autos.”

But the financial implications are dire. “In this way, if I earned Rs 400 a day, I spend Rs 100 on commuting,” Rai said. He added, “Besides, I need Rs 50 per week to buy a bottle of sanitiser. So, there are many such added problems and expenses making our situation tougher after our return.”

Food security remains their biggest problem, the workers told me. They have little money and an uncertain source of income, and as a result, a limited supply of food. To get some relief they contacted a group of New Friends Colony residents who had helped them during the lockdown.

“People literally came begging for food,” Moulshri Joshi, a resident of New Friends Colony who was part of the group that supported the stranded labourers, said. “People are not being able to fathom whether there will be an end to their misery. Daily wagers told me how they get work few days a week and sometimes not even that. This is at a reduced wage. Many had returned from home and the harrowing experience was written on their face. The abandonment by the city and lack of support on the villages has been traumatic.”

Joshi added that there was a pronounced difference in the fear among the workers now and in 2016, when the Narendra Modi government announcement the similarly sudden and ill-planned decision to demonetise high-value currency. “The sadness is hard to look away from,” she said. “This is not like 2016 post demonetisation where one could sense some resolve and confidence of returning to normal. This time it is sheer gloom of not being able to see a way out. And these are people in a South Delhi basti, they are not slum dwellers or the homeless, many have one earning member and children enrolled in schools. I am afraid to think of those worse off than this lot in Khizrabad.” Joshi emphasised that the workers were barely surviving.“They are hanging by a thread,” she told me.“If one person falls sick or loses their job, their whole family could be pushed into starvation. Just one stroke of bad luck.”

Hema Badhwar Mehra, another New Friends Colony resident who has been working with Joshi, said the workers had not received any help from the central or state government. “We as civil society are doing what maximum we could do, but what help and support should have been provided by the administration and the government is still missing,” Mehra said. “This is a serious concern and the government should support them properly. This is disheartening and unfortunate that despite several follow-ups, the public representatives seemed not that concerned on the particular subject. It seems almost like the migrant labour issue does not exist at all. It has completely disappeared from public notice. Only NGOs and small private groups that continue to make an effort to reach out.”

According to Dharamvir, over half the people who left Khizrabad for Bihar during the lockdown had returned to Delhi in search of work by 9 September. “People are returning every day,” he said. “They are asking us about the situation and planning to return. How many days could they have stayed there without work?”