Name: Hirawan Kumar
Hometown: Dhanauji, Bihar
Occupation: Construction Worker
Returned from: Pushpathur, Tamil Nadu
Hirawan Kumar worked at the recycling part of the assembly line at a Papermill in Tamil Nadu for the past fifteen years. He arrived and twenty-two days later the lockdown was implemented. Hirawan had no resources available, his contractor exploited him and beat him, and the policemen were of no help either. At his breaking point, he reached out to his family and requested for a safe ride back.
Interviewer: What information did you have of the virus before the lockdown? What incited your decision to return? Share your complete experience.
Hirawan Kumar: I use a smartphone to source information from applications such as Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Aaj-Tak, and ABP News. That is how I initially gathered information on the Covid-19 virus in January. I refused to return to Tamil Nadu as there were indications of a global spread, but my employer pledged the work will continue. I arrived in late February to continue with the work. Twenty-one days later, the lockdown was announced in the evening; work stopped, all the shops were shut, and we were not allowed to leave the premises.
For the twenty-one days I worked, the employer paid Rs. 5,335 for eight-hour shifts despite my working twelve-hour shifts. Furthermore, he intimidated us into waiting and accept Rs. 175 a day. How am I supposed to send money back to the family, cover personal expenses, and repay my debt in this much amount? Each day I manifested a new worry. I visited the police station to register a complaint but they denied seeing us and suggested we do not leave isolation.
The company was mandated to pay us Rs. 1,000 during the lockdown. The supervisor would present us with Rs. 1,000 for the photograph and the contractor withheld the same on the walk out. I was scared; if he was capable of stealing my only source of survival, staying there will lead to only further abuse. There were 200 individuals from Bettiah, we all demanded the company to pay our dues, and let us leave right away. I could not have survived there like this. That evening the contractor visited me; he threatened me with two slaps and ordered to not leave.
I contacted home for help. They were able to request for a ‘collector’ to rescue us from Tamil Nadu. My friend and I were ‘lathi-charged’ in the other room, as she communicated with the police officers in a different room. I fell and begged the policemen to not beat us. However, the collector succeeded in obtaining the ticket.
First, my friend and I were tested at the railway station, then the food was provided, the ticket was next, and then we finally boarded the train. There were food provisions, but it was not a sufficient amount. During the journey, I was given food till Andhra Pradesh, and not for the remainder of the journey. At the stop in Madhya Pradesh, the policemen were patrolling the food being distributed. The two of us waited as one of the policemen screamed from afar, “these bastards are from Bihar, do not give them any food. Attend to those from Uttar Pradesh first.” Similarly, in Jhansi, we waited in a queue for more than an hour for a small portion of ‘khichdi’, yet the policemen began ‘lathi charging’ since the crowd got too large. The policemen do not look where they hit an individual, they just swing. Throughout the journey – we received food only three times.
The train arrived at Narkatiaganj, Bihar and we were guided to the quarantine centre. All necessary testing was performed, there was paperwork to attend to, and we were directed to quarantine at home for the next fourteen days. It was after quarantine we shared the entire experience with our families. Until now, we had been lying as we did not want them to be stress on our behalf.
Interviewer: How has this experience affected your lifestyle? What is your condition now in the village?
Hirawan Kumar: I have been in Tamil Nadu since I was ten years old. A contractor from Ramgarh, Jharkhand pocketed Rs. 10,500 from the two of us. I sent Rs. 8,500 back home and earn extra for personal expenses through night shifts.
I have had no routine since I have been back. I looked around for work, but it is infrequent and pays Rs. 200. I did not study either. I have five family members, and four earn. My father has worked at the same mill for the past ten years earning Rs. 8,000; one of my brothers is a mason worker in Tamil Nadu, and the younger one is in his learning phase. The family earns Rs. 16,000 a month, curbing the expenses at Rs. 2,000. There are recurring medical expenditures for my mother, along with my wife and father – who take ill rather often. In addition to all ongoing expenses, we have a loan of Rs. 4 lakhs from an individual of the neighbouring village. We needed the money for my sister’s wedding and the medical expenses of both my parents. Banks require too many documents and assets; we have neither. I have only one asset – the two-bedroom house the six of us currently reside in.
I will consider returning because there are not enough employment opportunities in Bihar. I cannot afford a third meal at the moment; any unforeseen expenses will starve us to death. No one in the village or outside is willing to hire, how do I pay for my family? The poor need to adapt to the circumstance. If we do not, the virus will attack us. No poor man can live through the virus, he is starving regardless.
I have lost interest in government schemes. We were assured Rs. 1,500, but where is it? I did register for it. I will wait for the virus to eradicate and then look for work. I trust Prime Minister, Modi.