If I don’t get work, I’ll survive by begging: Rampukar Pandit, the face of Bihar’s migrant workers

Rampukar Pandit, a Bihari migrant worker whose photo went viral on social media in May, rests with his family in his house in Begusarai district. Umesh Kumar Ray

Five months after he was promised lakhs in support by Bihar’s politicians, Rampukar Pandit, a 45-year-old migrant worker, remains in dire poverty. In May, an image of Rampukar breaking into tears on the Nizamuddin bridge in Delhi went viral. For a brief moment, his image spoke of the tens of thousands of migrant labourers who were stuck, hungry, poor and homeless in the country’s metropolises as the prime minister Narendra Modi’s government announced one of the harshest lockdowns following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. After the photo went viral, politicians from Rampukar’s home state were quick to assure him that he and his family would be cared for. Tejashwi Yadav, the former deputy chief minister and scion of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, promised him a job and monetary aid, while the ruling alliance of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Janata Dal (United) released various schemes assuring that returning migrants would gain employment. But Rampukar has seen none of these supposed benefits and lives a squalid life.

Rampukar told me that he had gone to Delhi in search of work around Holi, in early March. He had been unable to find any formal employment in his native village of Bariarpur Purvi, in Bihar’s Begusarai district. Begusarai is represented by Giriraj Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Lok Sabha, who was the minister of state for micro, small and medium enterprises. Rampukar was landless and unable to continue his father’s trade of pottery because he had severely fractured his leg in his childhood. “A lot of pottery work is done with your legs,” he told me. “You have to prepare soil and manage the wheel with your foot. The fracture was so severe that it still pains when the easterly winds blow.” Rampukar had previously migrated for work to Bengaluru. Uttam Pandit, his father, had also migrated for work. In early March, Rampukar found work at a construction site in Najafgarh on the outskirts of Delhi, which paid Rs 250 a day.

In May, Bimal Devi, Rampukar’s wife, told him over the phone that his one-year-old son had fallen ill. On 11 May, he was unable to find transport back to Bihar because of severe lockdown restrictions and he decided to begin walking back to his village, a distance of more than a thousand kilometres. “I left the construction site in Delhi at 5 am and reached Nizamuddin bridge at noon,” Rampukar told me. “When I tried to cross Nizamuddin bridge the police stopped and abused us. While I was nearing the bridge, my wife called me and told me that she was helpless in getting our son any medical treatment. She told me that he would die, whether I returned or not.”

Rampukar told me he was heartbroken and began to cry where he stood. He told his wife that he was on his way back. At the same time, Atul Yadav, a photojournalist for the Press Trust of India, took a photo of Rampukar. In the photo, Rampukar is seen holding a phone to his ear with a black mask stuck to his chin. His hair is dishevelled and veins are visible across his forehead. The picture was shared widely across social media. He symbolised the 23.6 lakh migrants who were trying desperately returning to Bihar.

In an interview with Rediff News, Atul said, “I was distracted after seeing the naked pain in his face. I felt that I should not move forward just by taking a picture. I asked Rampukar, ‘where?’ He pointed to the road leading to the bridge and said, ‘there.’” Rampukar told me that Atul had given him some biscuits and water after clicking the photo and helped him cross the Nizamuddin bridge.

Rampukar Pandit, a migrant labourer reacts while talking to a relative over his mobile phone, at Delhi’s Nizamuddin Bridge on 11 May, during the COVID-19 lockdown. Atul Yadav / PTI

Rampukar reached Ghazipur bridge after a day of walking. “I was carrying Rs 5,500 which was snatched by some miscreants,” he told me. At Ghazipur bridge, he met Salma Francis, a social worker, who decided to fund his journey back to Begusarai after listening to his story. “The police were not allowing anyone to stay near the bridge,” Francis told me over the phone. “I told him to hide near the pillars of the bridge. He stayed beneath the bridge for two days. I used to give him food and keep my car near him so that no one disturbs him. On 13 May, I finally got a railway ticket for him and he went to Nizamuddin railway station, where he took a train bound for Bihar.” Francis said she also gave Rampukar Rs 5,500 that he could spend to reach home. When I visited Rampukar’s home, he showed me a ticket and a hundred rupee note that he had laminated. “I have kept this safe as her memory,” he said.

Rampukar stayed at a quarantine centre for a few days before he was allowed home. By the time he reached, Ram Parvesh, his son had died. “When his health deteriorated and began having breathing difficulty, I somehow took him to a private hospital,” Devi told me. “I was a little late in admitting him as it took time to arrange money for his treatment. My husband could send only Rs 2000 and he himself was facing difficulties in surviving.” A few days later Ram Parvesh died. The last time I spoke to her, Devi said, “I had a lovely son only after three daughters, now he is gone. The three of them are struggling too.”

By the time Rampukar finally returned to his grieving family, the photo Atul had taken had gone viral. Tejashvi Yadav had reached out to Rampukar on a video-conferencing call and assured him of money and a job to support his family. Rampukar belongs to the Kumhar community, who fall under the Other Backward Classes list and form an important voting bloc in the state. With Bihar’s legislative elections coming in November, Rampukar’s story was one in which all the state’s politicians wanted a role.

In 2019, Rampukar had been given a loan under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Gramin)—the central government’s scheme for rural housing—to build a house, but the funds quickly ran out. The family did not have enough money to finish the roofing, instead covering the house in a sheet of asbestos. Since the house did not meet government regulations, he was not given the last instalment of the PMAYG loan. It was only after civil-society members donated money to him that he completed the roof. The house still remains unplastered.

On 25 May, Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, announced that workers henceforth could trust in his government to give them work in their own state. Workers will not need to go out of Bihar was the promise. On 20 June, Modi launched the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan for six states, including Bihar. The campaign started from Telihar village in Khagaria district, which neighbours Begusarai. The main objective of this campaign was to provide immediate employment to the workers who returned to their homes from other states. The GKRY scheme is due to end in October and the Bihar government, which Modi’s BJP rules in an alliance, has spent only 50 percent of the Rs 17,000 crore that was allocated for the scheme. On 5 July, Tejashwi Yadav promised that if he were voted into power, he would create ten lakh permanent jobs.

Rampukar, representative of the community that GKRY sought to serve, has found no work yet. He is what remains after promises are made. “It is very difficult to run the family,” Devi told me. “If we had got any work, we would do it together, but we are not getting any. We have been sitting at home since he came. We haven’t been able to find a single job.”

Rampukar was frustrated and helpless. “I remain confined in my house all the day as I have no work to do,” he told me. Tejashwi Yadav had given him a phone number to call if the family faced any difficulties. “I made many calls but every time they said that they were arranging work,” he said. Despite the state and central government’s promises, Biharis are already beginning to migrate out of the state again due to acute unemployment.

When I visited Rampukar’s house, he looked like a different man. He was gaunt and frail after being unable to feed the family properly. He told me that since his return from Delhi they had only survived on food grains that social workers had donated to them. “I bought new clothes for my three daughters and met daily expenses with the money given by social workers,” he said. “After returning here I fell ill. I had to spend on treatment. Now I have no money left with me. I had borrowed Rs 3000 from money lenders, paying a monthly interest of five percent. Rs 2000 of that went on wheat alone, as the doctor had suggested I not eat rice.” The school Rampukar’s daughters study at is closed. Classes are being given online, but his children have no way to access them. He told me he was struggling to pay for tuitions instead so they do not fall too far behind.

Rampukar’s wife told me she would not allow him to ever migrate out of the state again. “When he previously left, there was demonetisation and he had to face a lot of difficulties,” Devi told me. “This time he went to Delhi and our child died in the lockdown. Now, I will not let him go other states. If we get any work here, we will do it together. We will survive eating salt and roti.” She told me she believed that her son would have survived had Rampukar stayed home. “Had he lived here; he would have saved my son. He could have gotten a loan from somewhere. I am a woman, how would I manage things, who would give me loan for treatment?” Rampukar agrees with his wife. “Now, I will live and die in Bihar,” Rampukar said. “If I do not get work, then I will survive by begging, but I will not go to other states.”