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 diya”—We 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.