“We are deserted”: Migrant workers forced to walk hundreds of kilometres due to lockdown

Migrant workers walk along a road to return to their villages after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an unanticipated 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spread of COVID-19, in New Delhi. This triggered a wave of panic, leaving scores of workers to fend for themselves without any administrative assistance from the central government machinery. Danish Siddiqui/REUTERS
26 March, 2020

At 6 pm on 25 March, Naru Lal Bargot, and eight other daily-wage labourers were walking through a forest like area near Palghar in Maharashtra from Borivali, a suburb of Mumbai. They had started at 8 am that morning and were now 90 kilometres ahead. Bargot, like many other casual workers and migrant labourers had set out from Mumbai after Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared an unanticipated 21-day nationwide lockdown on the night of 24 March to contain the COVID-19 outbreak in India. This triggered a wave of panic, leaving scores of workers to fend for themselves without any administrative assistance from the central government machinery.

In the wake of the lockdown, thousands of workers across India, like Bargot, are left with no option but to walk from their urban dwellings to their villages and home towns because bus and train services have screeched to a halt. Bargot’s journey seems particularly arduous as he has to make it all the way to Lohagarh village in Pratapgarh district of Rajasthan, a whole 700 kilometres from Borivali. Bargot who has been working in Mumbai for the past 15 years said that he works under a local contractor who pays him for marble and tile-fitting work. He added that he did not find any food by the roadside to eat throughout the day and that all he could do is drink water and walk. Bargot and his group were stopped once at Mumbai’s Mira Road by the police and told to go back. When they told the police that they have nothing to eat or drink, the police ignored them and told them to return to Borivali. Desperate, the entourage backed away and then made their way ahead through routes where the police were not stationed. Later, when they came across more police personnel, the group started splitting up and the men started walking one behind the other, waiting at intervals, instead of moving ahead as a group.

“At night, we will keep walking. Who knows, if we find a place to stop, we will stop,” Bargot said, when I asked him how long he planned to keep going.

Modiji ko hamne Ram-Ram bol diyaWe have bid our good-byes to Modiji—Bargot said. “He did not give us time. On 21 March, he said that on Sunday no one should go out and then yesterday he added another 20 days.” He continued, “What are we supposed to eat, what are we supposed to do, what are we supposed to earn? We earn our living through daily wage. We don’t have a permanent job that will get us monthly salary.” Bargot told me he has four children waiting for him, and does not know how he would feed them.

On 23 March, the ministry of labour and employment issued an advisory calling on private and public entities to “extend their coordination” in the “backdrop of such a challenging situation” by not “terminating their employees, particularly casual or contractual workers from a job or reduce their wages.” The direction was issued in the nature of an advisory without any attendant punitive measures. In the absence of these measures, employers of both small-scale units as well as major industries have taken to retrenching contractual and casual workers. Such workers will continue to scramble in these tough times with minimal social security and prospects of an assured job even when the 21-day lockdown period ends.

Rajiv Khandelwal of Aajeevika Bureau, a trust based in Rajasthan that works towards addressing economic and socio-legal problems of migrant workers, said that the helpline run by his organisation has been continuously receiving distress calls from workers on the ground. The trust operates from 17 different field offices spread across Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra.

“A lot of calls that we are receiving are of the same kind,” Rajiv said. “For instance, ‘We are deserted here, please get us out of hereʼ or, ‘We can’t find a bus, how do we get back home,ʼ or 'We have nothing to eat, please get us some foodʼ … There are thousands of people trying to get back home and to prevent that from happening, I think, is preposterous. Many of these people are walking, are at the borders trying to get into their home states but are being denied entry.” He continued, “These aren’t Syrians trying to enter Turkey. They are legitimately trying to get back home. What will they stay back for? What is there in the cities for them now? There are no jobs, there is nothing to eat, shops are closed. This whole idea of lockdown as a war-time diktat will have a major humanitarian crisis kind of effect.”

India’s form of employment has a major role in this complete abandonment of workers. Ninety  percent of India’s workforce is employed in the informal sector. Despite their preponderant size, these workers command little to no social security. According to the Periodic Labour Force Survey, for the year 2017-2018 average wage earnings per day by casual labourers in urban areas clocks in between Rs 314 to Rs 335 among men and between Rs 186 to Rs 201 for women. To add to this, the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation and the Employees Provident Fund—two schemes that provide social security to workers in India—fail to cater to the needs of informal sector workers in India. The ESIC, for instance, is applicable to premises where ten or more workers are employed. However, as per the Economic Census of 2013-14, a little over 98 percent of Indian entities employ less than ten workers, which effectively means that a vast majority of workers fall outside the purview of social security.

On 26 March, the union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced packages under the PM Garib Kalyan Yojana for those whose lives have been severely impacted by the lockdown. The total outlay for the scheme is Rs 1.7 lakh crore which aims to extend help to migrant workers, sanitation workers, Accredited Social Health Activists as well as urban and rural poor via direct benefit transfers to their accounts and through food rations availed via administrative routes.

Under the scheme the regular wages received under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme have been hiked from Rs 182 a day to Rs 202 a day. This hike according to the government is likely to result in an additional income of Rs 2,000 for every worker. Theoretically, this measure seems good on paper, however, the realities on the ground are starkly different. Work across India has largely come to a halt under the MGNREGA scheme due to the lockdown, effectively highlighting the hike as a purely cosmetic measure. It also fails to address the issue of many daily wage labourers either stuck without employment in cities or those who are in transit to their homes.

While the efficacy of the central government’s scheme will be seen in the next few days, the Pinarayi Vijayan-led Kerala state government has unveiled a package of Rs 20,000 crore to revive the state economy. Meanwhile, the Delhi government has opened up a number of night shelters for migrants and poor people deprived of food during the lockdown. On 24 March it also announced cash support of Rs 5,000 for all unemployed construction workers per month until the end of the lockdown.

“The informal sector employs ninety percent of our workforce and for them to not earn enough is a problem, of course, but what is due to them needs to be paid to them,” Khandelwal said. “We are already getting cases of wage denials. We got a call where workers told us that the employer called them back and told them to sign a request or aavedan, where the workers are requesting that they should extend work without pay. Think about it. Will a worker ever agree to this?” He continued, “Indian employers are notoriously manipulative. If they get an opportunity, they will want to pull off something like this...Right now, workers’ need should be primary. Their wages need to be protected in the long term as well as the short-term.” Khandelwal argued that “even while this 21-day lockdown goes on, the presence of migrants in cities has to be of primary focus because these are people with no claims to the city. They don’t even have the necessary documentation of the city. Whether they get the services due to them is a major issue.”

Divya Varma, the programme manager at Aajeevika Bureau, told me that many workers who have returned to their hometown are being stigmatised by others in their villages. “Rumours are rife in villages that those who have come back are carriers of the disease,” she said. “Everyone has that fear, everyone is scared that those who have come from outside are suffering from the disease. There are cases of people physically harming those who have come back from the cities.”

Varma said that a large number of workers are stuck in transit. “We have a number of cases where people are walking from Mumbai, from Surat, from Ahmedabad to Rajasthan.” She continued, “Many of them have been on foot for two or three days, trying to reach their villages. They are also going hungry because they don’t have food to eat, they don’t have supplies. They are also being harassed by the police. On top of it, the police is also closing down a lot of eateries so workers are not able to access food from there either.”

“The government gave one to two days’ notice when they were dealing with foreign travellers, students and other Indians stuck abroad, Varma said. “There were protocols instituted, people were brought back and screened and those who had symptoms were tested. Those protocols could be instituted here as well.” She continued, “The same courtesies should be extended to the people within our border who are much poorer, from vulnerable background, who really need government support.”