23/05/2020 7:27 AM IST | Updated 23/05/2020 12:21 PM IST

Away From Cameras, Migrant Workers Are Undertaking Perilous Journeys Back Home

Workers walking from Himachal Pradesh are often forced to put themselves in danger by entering unknown terrains to circumvent sealed borders and escape policemen.

prabhat kumar verma via Getty Images
Prayagraj: Migrant workers stranded in Gujrat arrived from a special train during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Prayagraj on May 6, 2020.

Chandigarh: Suraj Pal, a migrant worker on his way to his village Karanpur in Pilibhit, Uttar Pradesh, hugged his two-year-old daughter Jyoti closer and hesitated for a moment before tying himself to the inflated tyre tube of a tractor and stepping into the river Yamuna, flowing through the Haryana border.  

Suraj and his group, who were walking along with hundreds of other workers from the Baddi-Nalagarh industrial township in Himachal Pradesh to their native villages, had got stuck at the Haryana-UP border as the bridge connecting the two states near Karnal was sealed to stop people from crossing. Those who managed to get on to the bridge were lathi-charged and told to return where they had come from. 

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Suraj was among a group of workers who decided to take an alternative route. In a village just adjoining the bridge, he and others were asked to pay Rs 100 each to cross the river with the help of an inflated tyre tube, along with three more people, to enter Uttar Pradesh. 

He pleaded with the villagers to allow him to swim alone as his daughter could slip out of the hands in the fast river current.

Taking pity on him, they allowed him to use it alone and even returned his money and tied the father and daughter carefully to the tube. 

“I was scared to death as I did not know how to swim. The villagers asked me to hold my daughter with one hand and the inflated tube, which was also held by three more people holding a lot of things, with the other. I opted to move on as going back would have also left us dead due to hunger,” Suraj told HuffPost India over the phone after reaching his village on Tuesday. 

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have been undertaking long, arduous journeys back home after the national lockdown left them without jobs and wages. Several workers have died in road accidents or of exhaustion. In addition to this, many workers like Suraj are also forced to put themselves and their families in even more danger by entering unknown terrains in a bid to circumvent sealed borders and escape policemen.   

With little clarity on the disbursement of the financial package announced in five different tranches by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman last week, many state governments including Himachal Pradesh, which enjoy special industrial incentives packages, continue to face the exodus of workers even as industries gear up to restart operations.

Exodus from Himachal

In the Baddi-Nalagarh special incentive zone also known as the largest pharma hub of Asia, pharmaceutical companies have begun operations to cater to the demand of medicines amid the COVID-19 lockdown. However, most other companies still remain shut.

On May 11, the ministry of home affairs wrote to the chief secretaries of all states to facilitate faster movement of stranded workers to their native places through buses and trains so that they are not forced to walk, but in Himachal, these directives have not been implemented yet. 

Following this, the MHA on May 17 directed states to use the National Migrant Information System (NMIS) dashboard created by NDMA for better information-gathering and coordination between states on interstate movement of stranded workers. Despite this, coordination remains slow and migrant workers stranded in Himachal do not see any option but to walk or suffer in silence.

The union government did not outline the disbursement of the economic stimulus package and has asked the states to plan it. While some states under opposition rule did not respond to the call of the union government, those under the BJP rule did not plan a strategy to date. Due to this, the mass exodus of migratory workers continues in many states.Farzana Afridi, Associate Professor of Economics at the Indian Statistical Institute in Delhi.

Following their plight, about 30 organizations, comprising of trade unions, civil rights groups, youth alliances, independent social organizations and networks from Himachal, Uttar Pradesh and the country has issued an appeal in support of workers from other states stranded in Himachal and the need for urgent coordination between states to ensure and facilitate their safe return to their homes.

The Baddi-Barotiwala-Nalagarh Industrial area in the Solan district of Himachal Pradesh houses more than 2000 industrial units and is known as the pharma hub of Asia, said the collective appeal of these organizations.

With an annual turnover of more than 60,000 crores, this zone has a major concentration of migrant workers in the state of Himachal Pradesh, possibly between 1.25 to 1.5 lakh people. These workers belonging to various states mainly Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa have been under severe distress due to the sudden announcement of a country-wide lockdown.

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With an annual turnover of more than 60,000 crores, Baddi industrial area with over 2000 industrial units has a major concentration of migrant workers in the state of Himachal Pradesh, possibly between 1.25 to 1.5 lakh people. 

The majority of these migrant workers have no smartphones with GPS and no money left to charge their internet packs. They are covering hundreds of miles in unknown terrains by seeking directions from local villagers or by tailing behind groups with access to smartphones or a little knowledge of the route. Those accompanied by women and infants are sometimes left far behind the group and have to wait to join other groups headed to the same destination.

The sealing of state borders has worsened the situation as the travelers are now forced to sneak into unknown and difficult terrains holding children and their belongings to keep themselves out of sight of the police force deployed on roads. In this process of trying to avoid a confrontation at the Delhi, Haryana and UP borders, many workers have lost their way and are still stuck in the hilly areas of Uttaranchal.

“I was tailing behind a group of migrant workers in Bihar who had to change their route many times to avoid confrontation at the state borders. Despite having a vast network of roads in the country, we were forced to travel through forest areas, hills, and rivers, along with young children and tonnes of load,” said Neeraj, another migrant worker from Baddi, who reached his village Itauria in UP after traveling seven days on foot and has been put into home quarantine for 21 days. 

He added that many like him are struggling for survival on these alternate routes carved through dangerous terrains and forced to buy packaged drinking water and food at exorbitant rates.   

What prompted these workers to undertake this difficult journey?  

“It would have been a slow and painful death for us if we had chosen to stay behind. While pharma companies in Baddi were allowed to work to full capacity, the majority of the companies have shut down their operations and the cost of food escalated to a new high every day. We were left penniless in these two months,” said Suraj, who worked in a cardboard factory. 

According to Sumit Mahar,  a member of the Himachal Pradesh Workers Solidarity group working for the welfare of migrant workers during COVID-19, over 75,000 workers have registered with the state government as willing to go home. 

“They are penniless, do not have jobs, accommodation, or means of transportation to travel out of the state. While the HP government has recently got its people back from Goa and other states, it is not providing any facilities to workers stranded within the state,” said Mahar. 

He also added that while private operators have started plying their buses from Baddi with the administration’s permission, they have been charging exorbitant amounts from the already struggling workers.

No food, harassed on the way

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The cops in Haryana caught Faheem and Bano, two migratory workers from Baddi, and sent them back. the newlywed couple is now facing hardships in getting foodgrains and a job. 

Some stranded workers who walked several miles from Baddi towards Haryana were forced by the police to walk all the way back to Baddi.

A newly married couple, Faheem and Bano, who hails from  UP, walked an entire day from Baddi to Panchkula in Haryana but were stopped by the cops en route. 

“In the past two months, we only got a single supply of food by the state government and another from the local self-help group. We decided to walk as we did not have money to buy food and water. We were hopeful to at least get some food en route from the local villages. We pleaded with the cops to allow us to cross the border to survive but they sent us back to Baddi,” said Faheem who, along with his wife, used to work in a water fountain manufacturing company at Baddi. 

Sitharaman, in her second tranche of the economic stimulus package, had announced Rs 3,500 crore to provide free food grains for the next two months to migrant workers who do not have ration cards. But state governments are yet to formulate a strategy to disburse this aid to every needy migrant. 

“The union government did not outline the disbursement of the economic stimulus package and has asked the states to plan it. While some states under opposition rule did not respond to the call of the union government, those under the BJP rule did not plan a strategy to date. Due to this, the mass exodus of migratory workers continues in many states,” said Farzana Afridi, Associate Professor of Economics at the Indian Statistical Institute in Delhi. 

Shub Karan Singh, the nodal officer for Baddi, told HuffPost India that the state has not prepared any database to distribute foodgrains and instead only supply grains to those who call on the dedicated helpline. Also, he said that the state is getting very few requests for foodgrains as the migratory workers want to leave the state. 

“We are only getting around 30  requests per day by the workers seeking foodgrains but the number of migrants who want to return to their native villages is much higher. This was despite the fact that over 1,000 companies have resumed operations at Baddi in the last week at 50% capacity,” said Singh, who said that over 10 lakh cooked meals and 25,000 food packets were distributed so far in Baddi in the last two months. 

While state governments are focusing on the return of their own workers stranded in other states, they have failed to retain the migrants stranded within, who form the backbone of their economy. 

“Only those calling the dedicated numbers to get the supply receives foodgrains. Others like beggars, were asked to call every time they need food. Initially, the officials used to take our calls to help these migrants but no one responds now,” said Mahar, who has got over 200 migrants trying to leave the state registered on the official portal. 

Meanwhile, unable to wait for the resumption of the train, bus and local transportation services in the country, lakhs of hungry and penniless migrants continue to walk thousands of miles on unidentified roads to reach home in search of roof and food.