Pune: For Jai Sahu, a migrant worker from Odisha who cooks for a living in Mumbai, work was just starting to pick up in the last few months. Then, Sunday, the Maharashtra government announced new restrictions in light of the second Covid-19 wave, and a familiar fear began to grip migrant workers.
In May last year, left out of work by the Covid lockdown, Sahu made a gruelling three-day journey back home to Odisha in a truck with 60 others. He came back in November with the hope that the situation would return to normal.
“After I came back I resumed work in one house, then in another house. After some time, I got employment in a third house. Things were getting back to normal,” he said. “If the lockdown happens again, we don’t know what will happen.”
Maharashtra has been reporting the highest number of Covid-19 cases in the country as India grapples with its sharpest coronavirus surge since the start of the pandemic. On Tuesday, the state recorded 55,469 cases and 297 deaths.
The restrictions announced by the state government to curb the spread of Covid-19 include a weekend lockdown, night curfew, ban on gatherings of five or more people, and shut-down of all shops and markets, except the essential ones. Agriculture is among the activities allowed, as is construction, but only if the labourers live at the site.
Despite the fresh Covid surge, an exodus of last year’s scale is considered improbable because many of the workers who left the state last year are said to have not returned yet. Those who have, meanwhile, are steeling themselves for what they predict will be a battle for survival.
On its part, the state government is looking to extend financial and rations-related help to migrants to prevent a repeat of last year, when the sudden loss of livelihood left thousands at sea and forced them to return home.
Many suggestions in this regard were discussed at an online meeting convened Monday by the deputy chairperson of the state legislative council, Neelam Gorhe, with State Labour Minister Dilip Walse Patil, Health Minister Rajesh Tope and Transport Minister Anil Parab.
Apart from this, the guidelines released over the weekend call for employers in the construction and manufacturing sectors to grant medical leave with full wages to workers if they test positive for Covid-19.
‘Not getting any work’
Every morning, hordes of migrant workers gather at the Ganraj Chowk in Pune’s Balewadi area, waiting for contractors to come by and offer them a day’s worth of work at the many construction sites in the vicinity.
The workers, who hail from within Maharashtra as well as other places like Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, said they left the state last year but returned a few months ago in the hope of resuming their work.
“It’s been four months here, but we aren’t able to get any work. Now, they’re implementing restrictions again, but we want to work. We don’t want a lockdown,” said Lalita Verma of Raipur.
She added, “I fear that we will have to return to our villages, but what will we do, we have to work. We can’t just go back, we will have to stick on and make it work.”
Manoj Kumar, a worker from Bihar, said he is “afraid of the lockdown”. “But we aren’t getting money for our rent, then how will we go back home now? The room is on rent, we have to look after that, we also have a family,” he added.
According to Jaydev Kamre, a migrant worker from Maharashtra’s Latur district, work has been sparse in the last few months.
“We don’t have work in hand. Because of coronavirus, none of the thekedars comes here to hire us,” he said.
He added, “They can think about implementing a lockdown but they should also think about a package for us. For us, if we get a package of Rs 4,000-5,000 a month, then our families can survive… But, before coronavirus gets to us, (it seems) we will die of hunger.”
‘No panic-buying of train tickets yet’
Despite the concerns, Shivaji Sutar, the Central Railway Public Relations Officer (PRO) said there has been no “panic-buying” of tickets by migrants so far this year, unlike in 2020, when dozens thronged stations for tickets.
“The increase in trains is routine. Whenever there’s a rush in the summer, we run additional special trains. This was being done before Covid also… There is no panic-booking, which means people are not coming and buying tickets at the station itself,” Sutar said.
Labour leader Nitin Pawar pointed out that the impact of Covid restrictions is likely to be different this time around as only a fraction of those who left last year have come back.
“Before, we saw that the migrants were those who had migrated here for the first time… when they went back from here, they didn’t come back. Those who came back are those who had been working here for quite some time, they are the semi-migrants,” he said.
According to him, the situation is also different because vaccines are now available.
Prakash Balwadkar of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, a Maharashtra-based farmers’ union whose work extends to migrant workers, said another lockdown will be to the detriment of the migrant workers in the state.
“If you put a lockdown, and stop all the work, then all of the labourers, who live hand to mouth, where will they go? The government is not paying any attention to that,” he said.
At the meeting convened by Gorhe, it was suggested that the government should speed up registration of unorganised workers and develop a website for the same.
“Cases are rising in Maharashtra once again and workers are mulling over going back to their native places. So it is important that the state government gives them some financial help and rations,” Gorhe said at the meeting, according to minutes accessed by ThePrint. “The state government can appeal to NGOs and major industrialists to help in this.”
She also directed the state government to ensure that migrants get inoculated at the earliest, and make sure they have food and accommodation — or the means to return home — if they lose their jobs during this time.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.