15th June 2020
Today we travelled from Lucknow to Bettiah, a journey of about ten hours through the two most backward states in the country; Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The plan was to meet more migrants who have returned to their villages in Bihar to understand how their experiences were. How they were similar or different to what we heard from people who had returned to Uttar Pradesh.
15th June 2020
Process of questioning follows the following patten and segue into conversations as and how they respond. The aim is to cover the entire gamut of their ordeal-
- Name, what they did and where have they reverse migrated from?
- Why did they choose to go out and how is it alleviate financial burden for their family?
- When and where did they first hear about coronavirus and what was their level of awareness before lockdown happened?
- How did the dynamics with their employers change during the lockdown and the tipping point that led them to return to their villages?
- What kind of challenges did they face in organising travel back to their villages and specific details of their journeys?
- Once they arrived in their village, did their ordeal end—or new challenges replaced the old ones with stigmatisation and quarantine process?
- How did the family cope with it emotionally?
- What are they planning to do now to recover from financial blow?
- What do they expect from the government?
- What kind of life lessons have they derived from the whole experience?
Bihar seems to be an extension of UP. Here also regard for preventive measures toward Covid-19 is extremely low. Even though they claim to understand and respect the unprecedented situation, their cavalier attitude tells a different story.
Many migrant labourers are scared to talk to us thinking they will be quarantined again. To escape getting targeted by quarantine officials again, many shared incorrect contact information, which prevented them from officially being recognised as migrant labourers and receive government aid.
Initially, in Bihar the administration budgeted the stay of each migrant at Rs. 2400 per day for 14 days—in which they will receive protection kit, fresh clothes, milk etc. But the inflow of migrant labourers turned out to be much higher than expected. As a result, schools and colleges had to be enlisted as quarantine centres. Each housed between 200-300 migrant labourers. As situation became critical, they were relegated to receive meals only twice a day-chana and gud in the morning; and rice, dal and sabzi in the evening. Some even complained that they would be given rice twice a day. Gradually, the infrastructure became so distressed—that to ease pressure on the administration some migrants were allowed to receive meals from home with proper distancing. And later when migrants approached quarantine centres as per mandate, if they didn’t return from red zone cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore—they were advised home quarantine, because availability of space was constantly shrinking due to the overflow of the migrants that continued unabated. All the quarantine centres have been dismantled by now because the administration is planning to get schools and colleges ready for reopening.
Aggregating the responses of the migrant labourers we have spoken to till now—most of them turned to lucrative destinations like Delhi, Noida, Gurgaon, Hyderabad and Pune to eke out a living, introduced by a contact in the village. We spoke to a lot of young men and their occupation ranged from tailors, carpenters, heavy lifters etc. Their literacy level was invariably low. Women also migrate, but their number is far lesser than men.
They earned between Rs. 10000-15000 a month, either as salary or fees. It’s not enough, but better than Rs 3000-5000 that they could inconsistently scrounge in their villages. They left their wives and children back in the village with their parents for economic reasons. Standard practice appeared to be sending 30-40% of earnings back home, if it was not hindered by uncalled for expenses due to health or other anomalies.
Life away from home was tough and modest, but it was serving to an extent to effectively fulfil their duties as a son, husband and father.
Lockdown struck like a sledgehammer. Migrant labourers are caught between rock and a hard place. “Jaan hai to jahan hai”, lamented one. However, emotions burdened by insecurity and uncertain future belies forced smile.
They are hurt that their employers abandoned them in this crisis when they needed them the most. “If I have to go back, I wouldn’t go back to the same employer”, echoed many migrant labourers. But none of them wants to go back, at least till the situation improves.
They had an excruciating experience making their way back to their villages. They had to borrow money or have it sent to them by their families who were already under financial duress. They had to spend days on foot, bus and train—without food, water and basic amenities—driven by fear of the virus and great resolve to be amongst their loved ones. They were compelled to take extreme steps caused by sudden loss of income and unrelenting pressure to pay room rent (even though government had ordered landlords to give concession on the grounds of humanity) and meet expenses for basic survival.
Many migrants complained of partiality by the state governments. “In Gorakhpur station only people from UP were given food”, shared a migrant.
Tamil Nadu government was lauded for providing every returning migrant labourer with food and water to last them through the journey back home. While in Maharashtra, middlemen were charging Rs. 15000 to book a seat in the train, which was supposed to be free.
A large chunk of potentially productive youth has been rendered jobless because of the crisis. They are clueless, aimless and without resources. They are neither aware of measures by the government to support them, nor hopeful (based on past experiences) that any government will come to their aid.
One family is surviving through Rs. 500 allocated for children by the state government affected by schools being shut due to the crisis. There are four children in the family, which adds up to a good enough total.
It’s a double edged sword for the family. While they are happy to have their sons, husbands and fathers back home, it won’t be long when uncertainty and insecurity would drive them over the edge.