Migrant workers in our country — irrespective of which state they belong to — have been among the people worst affected by the coronavirus lockdown in India. It has been almost 50 days since the first round of lockdown was announced on March 24, and every day since then, groups of workers — who are struggling to find work or food and are stuck far away from their families — have been setting out, often on foot or cycle, on arduous journeys back home.
It was only after several protests across states that the government finally announced at the end of April that it would run special trains to ferry migrants back home, but even this exercise has been mired in controversy over the ticket fares. Moreover, the number of trains is still too less to cater to the overwhelming demand, meaning that many workers are still setting out on foot or on whatever transport they can find.
While there have been several reports and photographs of the sheer exhaustion and pain of travelling like this, the most horrific fallout of this so far has been the death of 16 workers in Aurangabad—a goods train ran them over as they slept on the tracks out of exhaustion.
For those who contribute massively in building the big cities that we live in, the bad news just keeps on coming.
A 35-year-old migrant labourer, Fuldev Bhuyia, was run over by a vehicle in West Bengal’s Durgapur on Saturday. Bhuyia, a mason who worked in Kolkata, was travelling towards the Kesarchepa village in Jharkhand’s Chatra district — his home, The Indian Express reported.
He had bought a bicycle for Rs 500 and set out with two others on May 6, but got separated on the way.
Bhuyia’s wife Tetri Devi was quoted in the report as saying, “There were three of them… some problem occurred with some villagers in West Bengal. They were chased… all three got separated and he walked alone and died.”
Bhuyia’s death is not an isolated incident.
Workers stuck in Tamil Nadu’s state-owned industrial estate outside Chennai told HuffPost India, “Rations are irregular, and many of us are going hungry... We have served this nation with our hard work. Now we are in trouble. Please help us.” They have been stuck there since the lockdown began, and say that it feels like a period of extended incarceration.
While human beings struggle to survive, governments have been fighting in their name.
A minister in Maharashtra, a state that sees a massive inflow of migrant labourers, has claimed that the home states of these workers don’t want them back, thwarting their efforts to send them. Maharashtra Revenue Minister Balasaheb Thorat on Saturday alleged that arbitrary decisions taken by many states regarding migrant workers had worsened the situation. He said states such as Odisha, Bihar, Gujarat and Karnataka were unwilling to take back the workers stranded in Maharashtra.
In Karnataka, the government’s unwillingness to send back migrant workers was allegedly at the behest of the builder’s lobby. After massive outrage, the B. S. Yediyurappa government had to reinstate the train service it had cancelled.
As our politicians still fumble on fixing the situation, more and more workers are dying.
On Saturday in Uttar Pradesh, 26-year-old Sagheer Ansari died on a 1,000-km journey home. Like Bhuyia, Ansari had set out from Delhi along with seven friends to reach his home in Bihar’s East Champaran district, reported NDTV. When they stopped to eat breakfast, sitting on a road divider in the morning, Ansari was run over by a car. He died in a hospital.
On Sunday, Safikul Sheikh — a worker in Kerala from Bengal’s Murshidabad district — was killed in a road accident when he went out to the market in Kerala, reported Hindustan Times.
Sheikh’s friends said he wanted to go home before Eid.
The report did not specify where in Kerala the incident took place.
Reports say that over 370 migrant workers have reportedly died in the country from reasons other than Covid-19 since the lockdown was announced.
The Wire reported that researchers Thejesh G.N., Kanika Sharma and Aman had found that till Saturday, there had been 378 such deaths, 69 of which had been from rail or road accidents. The numbers, the report said, had been put together by researchers by combing through news reports.
The lockdown means that the labourers who depend on daily work for their incomes have also been without any work or money, and are feeling the stress while missing their families.
The report in Hindustan Times said that a 24-year-old worker from Bengal’s Domkal killed himself in Kerala when he could not get on the train to Murshidabad.
The report quoted his mother as saying, “My son was depressed as he could not buy a ticket to board the special train that came to Murshidabad. We have appealed to the local administration to bring back his body.”
Earlier last week, a worker died by suicide in Gujarat’s Jetpur Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation on Wednesday.
A report in The Economic Timessaid 45-year-old Raju Lodh from Uttar Pradesh killed himself because he was unable to go home.
The report quoted Lodh’s friend Nandu as saying, “Once he called me and broke down over phone. We told him to hang on and said some or the other way will work out after May 17. But he couldn’t hold on.”
It is likely that even after May 17, migrant workers will continue to struggle to reach their homes as they run out of money and can’t find work.