POLITICS
13/05/2020 5:03 PM IST | Updated 13/05/2020 7:07 PM IST

‘Our Dreams Are Dead’: India’s Migrant Workers Just Want A Shot At Survival Now

"How will we live and work?"

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
A migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh boards a train at Pune railway station on May 9, 2020. 

NEW DELHI —  Debasis Parida, an embroiderer in a garment factory, counts the day he stood for 14 hours to get three kilograms of rations and a packet of salt as one of the hardest and most humiliating of his life. 

The 28-year-old fell so sick that he had to go to a hospital and ended up spending Rs. 200 getting treated for dehydration in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. It was days before he felt well enough to leave the room that he rents with the six other migrant workers in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat

A native of Odisha, Parida said the cooked food the municipality in the city of Surat was giving migrant workers in his part of town stopped a few weeks after Modi announced a nationwide lockdown on 24 March, leaving him scrounging for food. After cutting out one meal from the day and reducing the portions that he eats, Parida says he always feels hungry.

“I don’t know which is worse. Feeling hungry or waiting in line from six in the morning to eight in the night,” said Parida, speaking to HuffPost India over the phone on Monday.

“There is no way that poor people like us can live on our own terms in this country. We are beaten down at every turn. All we want now is a chance to survive,” he said.

Parida used to earn a monthly salary of Rs.12,000 as an embroiderer in Surat, a city famous for its diamond-cutting and textiles trade. But the factory he works in was suffering losses even before the lockdown, and his last payment before everything came to a standstill was Rs. 7,500, back in March.

With more than 8,900 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 537 deaths, Gujarat is now second only to Maharashtra in the numbers count. A bigger concern, experts point out, is its high fatality rate, prompting the Vijay Rupani-led state government to set up a panel to look into the reasons.

Millions of migrant workers have been stranded in different states ever since the first phase of India’s punitive and poorly planned lockdown was enforced on 24 March. Many are still trying to walk hundreds of kilometres to return to their villages, carrying their children and possessions on their shoulders. Workers have died tragically from hunger, exhaustion and in accidents on the way. 

The media scrutiny that triggered outrage at home and abroad forced the Modi government and state governments to take steps like distributing free rations, and making emergency cash transfers, even as they banned all interstate movement to stop the highly infectious virus from spreading to the hinterlands. After weeks of delay, the central government finally announced a plan for migrant workers to be ferried home in special trains and buses a fortnight ago, but its execution has been slow and chaotic, with no clarity on who is even paying the fares for these journeys. 

Many workers who have managed to reach home have still not been able to see their families, as they need to stay in a quarantine centre for at least two weeks before joining them. And the bigger worry—how to make a living—will have to be addressed after that.

Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party-run governments in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh have decided to tackle the looming economic crisis by rescinding crucial legal protections for workers, including The Minimum Wages Act in UP, which could force them into bonded labour

On Tuesday, Modi announced that the lockdown would be extended after 18 May, but with modifications, which he did not elaborate on. He also announced a relief package totalling Rs 20 lakh crore to revive the economy, but left it to Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to disclose the details. 

Parida, who has borrowed Rs. 2,200 from his fellow migrant workers to survive the lockdown, said, “I don’t know when I will work again. I don’t know when I’m going to be able to repay them. I can’t think about the future right now. All I want is to go home.”

The only thing that would keep him in Surat, Parida said, was if the garment factories reopen and he can start working again. If the industry does not revive, he plans to turn to farming or become an agricultural labourer in his village in Odisha’s Ganjam district. 

There is no way that poor people like us can live on our own terms in this country.

‘How will we live and work?’

Modi’s speech on Tuesday, said Parida, was more confusing than reassuring. 

“There is nothing for me to do in Odisha. Even if I make it back, I know I will have to travel again to find work in Gujarat or somewhere else,” he said. “But Modi said the lockdown will continue. If the lockdown continues, how will we live and work?”

On the Rs 20 lakh crore package to revive the economy that Modi announced, Parida said, “You will see that it will all go to big men, not to the poor. Even if it is meant for the poor, the big men will take half of it if not all. They always do.”

Dilipeswar Swain, a 23-year-old who worked in a garment factory in Gujarat, said that he wanted to hear Finance Minister Sitharaman give details about the package. “We really don’t know anything yet,” he said. “We can only hope there is something to help us.”

Swain, who reached his home state Odisha last week on a special train, was also not hopeful of finding work there because all he knew was working the machines in the saree factories of Surat. 

“Will the Odisha government be able to give us work? I don’t think so,” he said. 

Dreams 

Parida and Swain, who have studied till Class 10 and Class seven respectively, once had “other dreams” while they were growing up, but they both said these now seemed too far-fetched to even share with this reporter. 

Parida, who sends home half his salary every month, said, “Given that I’m worried about buying food, it is crazy to start talking about my dreams. My dream is to survive.”

Swain, who lost his father to a liver disease two years ago, also sends home half his salary to his mother and sister, every month. During the lockdown, Swain said that he ended up borrowing Rs. 12,000 from fellow migrant workers and he has no roadmap for repaying them. 

“Life is full of worries right now,” he said.  “What is the point of talking about my hopes and dreams? I had dreams. Those dreams are dead. Now, I just want to survive.” 

I had dreams. Those dreams are dead. Now, I just want to survive.

Survival 

A month after Modi first announced the lockdown on 24 March, Parida said that he was borrowing money to buy food, but he still decided to pay Rs. 750 to a stranger, “a friend of a relative”, for a train ticket that would get him back to Odisha. 

Two weeks on, Parida does not have a train ticket and he only has Rs. 450 left. “I’m desperate. I really want to get on a train and go home,” he said. 

Parida does the math. Of the Rs. 7,500 he had when the lockdown started, he spent Rs. 2,500 on the room he rents with six other migrant workers in Surat. The rest he spent on gas for his stove, Rs. 120 for five kilos of gas, and other essentials. 

Parida has an Aadhaar card, but with no ration card for shopping at a fair price shop, he is at the mercy of the markets. The local shopkeepers, he said, had hiked the prices of pulses and vegetables because of the scarcity triggered by a break in the supply chain. A kilogram of dal that would cost Rs. 70 before the lockdown, now costs Rs. 95, and a packet of biscuits that would cost Rs. 5 now costs Rs. 10, he said. 

“If there is nothing to eat then how do I survive?” he said. “Living with coronavirus has taught me that if you don’t have money, you don’t matter. The poor are left to sado aur maro (rot and die). No one even turns around and looks at you.” 

The poor are left to sado aur maro.

Parida said that he could not have received the emergency cash relief that state governments had promised because he has neither a ration card nor a bank account. 

Other migrant workers from Odisha working in garment factories in Surat told HuffPost India they had not received any money in their bank accounts. 

Pintu Mohanty, 26, said, “I have not received one rupee from the government,” he said. “No one came and asked after the poor. We asked for the authorities to come and sanitize our basti. They came once but they did not sanitize. They just threw bleach.” 

Swain also said that he had neither received any rations or money from the government. 

Swain said the only time that he received rations was when volunteers from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist umbrella organisation of which the ruling BJP is the political arm, visited the settlement where he rents a room along with other migrant workers. 

“I recognised them from their clothes, but they only came that one time while I was there,” he said. “I could no longer afford to live there, buy food, pay rent. I had to leave.” 

What happens when you’re back? 

Swain said that he had paid Rs. 750 for a train ticket on 3 May and arrived in Odisha on 4 May. 

After standing in line for nearly three hours to be tested for the coronavirus — a state-government administered test that migrant workers boarding the special trains must take — Swain was not expecting that he would have to spend another 14 days in a quarantine centre in his home district of Ganjam in Odisha. 

“It is like this nightmare never ends,” he said. “I’m so close to home now, but still can’t reach it. I just want to go home and spend time with my mother and sister.”

It is like this nightmare never ends,” he said. “I’m so close to home now, but still can’t reach it.

Jagannath Barada, a 29-year-old migrant worker who works in a garment factory in Surat, said that he too had paid Rs. 750 for a train ticket on 3 May and landed in Odisha on 11 May, a few hours before this reporter phoned him. 

“I’m too tired to talk about my life,” he said, explaining that he was mentally and physically exhausted after the train journey that took more than a day. 

Barada, who was also at the quarantine centre in Ganjam, said that he had nothing to eat on the journey.

“We did not get anything to eat or drink in the train. They gave a parcel at Raipur but it was really bad. I’m really hungry. All I want to do now is to find something to eat,” he said, before hanging up the phone.

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