For daily wage earners and migrant labourers, it’s a sense of Déjà vu

For more than a year, our lives have revolved around Covid. A pandemic fatigue had set in. But just when people were hoping to move on, the situation exploded in our faces. The second Covid wave has hit India hard. The country is reporting on average three lakh fresh Covid infections daily and rumours of lockdown are making people anxious and restless. Yet again, migrant workers and daily wage earners are crowding local train and bus stations to return home because bitter memories of the 2020 lockdown are still fresh in their minds. We bring to you five heart-breaking stories of those who had faced harrowing experiences during the lockdown last year. They shudder to think what is in store for them and others this year

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“Please take some. It’s from a good shop,” said Anil Shastri, 38, as he offered me some sweets. This was just before Diwali in October 2020. Shastri and his family, comprising wife Rekha Devi (32) and two children Priya (13) and Mayank (7), lived in a one-room home in a lane not far from where I live in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. It is tucked between rows of bungalows on either side and most of the occupants are daily wage earners. As Shastri and I spoke, his wife sat on the floor to make tea and his children settled in another corner of the house to do their homework.

“It’s a sad Diwali. I have not had a regular income since the lockdown was announced in March (2020). I am not touching my savings because it’s meant for school fees and medical emergencies, but I withdrew some cash to buy new clothes for my children and this box of sweets,” he said. Shastri worked as a priest and before the lockdown, people would call him home for religious functions. He would get paid in cash and sometimes in kind. The earning was decent but cyclic. He earned well during the festivals, but otherwise, it was a daily struggle.

However, on March 24, 2020, the day the first three-week-long nationwide lockdown was announced, Shastri knew it was bad news. “The government should have given people like us some time, at least a few hours, to make alternate arrangements. This is a one-room set. We would have died because of heat and suffocation. It would have been impossible for me to pay the monthly rent of Rs 2,500 per month and the electricity bill of Rs 1,500 without any income. Managing ration would have been another headache. So, the moment I heard the news at 8 pm, I fled from Lucknow.”

Shastri and his family left for Hardoi – a district 100 km away from Lucknow – on their motorcycle, with minimum belongings. “My parents and brother’s family live in a village near Hardoi. They have a small farming land. I knew I was not going to get any work so I decided to move back home for a few months so that I could at least feed my family. I drove non-stop for hours and reached at 2 am. There were police on the highway, and I even had to pay a small bribe to cross a toll naka.” 

Shastri and his family in their one-room set in Gomti Nagar, Lucknow

Shastri’s landlord was kind enough to allow him to pay the rent in trenches during the lockdown. The family returned in October 2020, just before Diwali. When I met Shastri then, he was looking at options, because in the absence of a regular income, it was becoming difficult for him to live in a city like Lucknow.

When the second wave hit India in April 2021, and rumours of a lockdown began surfacing, I went to meet Shastri to ask if I could help him in any way. The family was gone, lock, stock, and barrel. The neighbours told me they have moved back to their village as Shastri was not getting any work. In fact, most of the homes in the lane were locked. While some have made the big shift back to their villages, some have left temporarily fearing lockdown.

Singh’s family, comprising his parents, wife, and a year-old son, lives in Samastipur. His wife was expecting last year and gave birth to a baby boy in March 2020. Because of the lockdown, Singh could not leave Lucknow and got to see his new-born only in June.

A few blocks away, Ram Prasad Singh, 33, a vegetable vendor from Samastipur in Bihar, who has made Lucknow a home for the past few years, sat dejected next to his cart. He asked me if a lockdown was going to be announced and whether he should go back home. When asked where he was last year, Singh said: “I was stuck in a room with five others for months. There was just one fan, no income, and no fixed ration. This time, I don’t want to make the same mistake. I will never forget that long journey back home — nearly 50 of us were stuffed in a bus that had a capacity of 35. I will also always remember the pangs of hunger that we would experience during the lockdown.

“We are poor but eating two square meals a day was never a problem. It was humiliating to ask for food packets. It was even more humiliating to eat that sub-standard food. I am not willing to go through similar humiliation this year,” Singh said.

Migrant labourers and daily wage earners crowding at Anand Vihar bus station in Delhi after chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced a lockdown to tackle with the rising Corona cases. Image source: Twitter

Not willing to take a chance …

As India is reporting record-breaking fresh Covid cases daily during the second wave that has hit the country in April 2021, there is panic all around. Even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in an address to the nation on April 21, said that a lockdown should be seen as a last resort, daily wage earners and migrant labourers are not willing to take a chance … not this time. The bus and train stations across major cities in India are witnessing similar scenes like last year – panic-stricken people, carrying minimal belongings, wanting to catch the first bus or train to go back home.

In 2020, a few days after the nationwide lockdown was imposed, National Highways across the country witnessed a mass movement of people. Migrants who were stranded in different cities set off for home, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of kilometres away desperate to be with their families in the prolonged lockdown that left them with no money, no jobs, and no roof over their heads. Many set off on the long walk wearing basic shoes with paper-thin soles or ordinary flip flops, their belongings packed into backpacks or bundles. While some reached home, some could not make it. Fatigue killed them. And then there were people like Shankar Yadav who were stuck in an alien state.

Shankat Yadav and 50 others were stuck at Rajnandgaon in Chhattisgarh last year for over a month

“We had to eat insect-laden, substandard food for a month”

“It was terrible. Even the most basic facilities like water and electricity were missing. There were many women and children with us. As it was close to a forest area, there were mosquitoes. We feared dying of Malaria or Jaundice and not Corona. The worst was the food. We were not even getting three meals a day. There were days when we had to wait until late afternoon to eat the first morsel of the day. At times they would send food cooked in the morning, which would go bad by the time it reached us in the noon because of the heat. On many occasions, there were insects in daal (pulses) and rice that was served to us,” said Yadav while talking about the month-long ordeal at Rajnandgaon.

Yadav, 24, who is originally from the Giridih district in Jharkhand, moved to Hyderabad in 2018. He runs a juice shop in Gachibowli corporate park in the city. Last year, when the rumours of a complete lockdown surfaced, Yadav and 50 others from various districts in Jharkhand, who lived together in an urban slum in Hyderabad, decided to return to Jharkhand. Unfortunately, the lockdown was announced when they reached Rajnandgaon district in Chhattisgarh in a bus, and they all got stuck. They were taken to a government school, which was their home for the next 1.5 months.

He adds: “We are not rich, but we still manage to give decent food to our women and children. Yes, we were unwanted guests in Chhattisgarh then, but the least that the administration could have done was to treat us like human beings.”

Yadav and others reached their homes in Jharkhand after 1.5 months when the state government started plying buses for stuck migrant labourers. “We returned to Hyderabad in October. We had to. There was no income, but the owner was still asking for the stall rent. We had to dig into our savings to pay the rent. By the time, I went back to Hyderabad, I was penniless. I had to start afresh.”

Yadav is now panicking as the Corona cases are going up and there are again rumours of a complete lockdown. “This time I am confused. I am not sure if I should stay back here because if there is going to be a lockdown, I will have no income, but I will still have to pay the stall and home rent.

“I don’t want to start for home as I fear getting stuck like last time. You are more informed. I request you to tell me honestly if there is going to be a lockdown,” says Yadav.

Migrant labourers outside a bus station in Chhattisgarh. Image: Twitter

“I feel like throwing up when someone offers me biscuits now”

Like Yadav, Champa Marandi, 19, from Adivasi-dominated Surguja district in Chhattisgarh too has some terrible memories of the lockdown. Around 25 young boys and girls from different villages in Surguja had moved to Srikakulam district in Andhra Pradesh in October 2019 to work in a construction company as labourers. After the lockdown was announced, the work came to a standstill. Their contractor told them that the company was not in a position to pay them for long. Marandi and others didn’t have an option but to walk back home.

The distance between Srikakulam district and Sarguja is around 770 km. “Our parents were getting worried. So, we decided to start walking. We had one last conversation with our parents before we set off as we could not charge our mobiles after that. All we had were our backpacks and water bottles. While drinking water was not a problem as the villagers living in small hamlets along the highway were helpful, food was a major problem. “I think we got to eat one proper meal after two-three days. Some volunteers were distributing food packets along the highway, so sometimes we got to eat proper meals, but otherwise we survived on water and biscuit packets that were distributed by the CRPF jawans.

“I feel like throwing up when someone offers me biscuits now. We would keep walking all day long and exhausted, we would sleep on the National Highway,” Marandi said over the phone in her extremely frail voice.

Her village falls in a forest area, so connectivity is a problem. But Marandi was curious to know about the rising corona cases in the country and the lockdown rumours. When asked why she did not go back to Srikakulum after the lockdown, Marandi says: “The contractor never cleared our dues. We kept calling him. Ultimately, he switched his phone off. Our parents are upset. Also, they are worried. They will never send us back now. That was our only chance to go out and earn. The lockdown ruined it.”

Dev Yadav and Kedar Yadav (in black shirt)

“This was our last selfie together”

“I was close to my brother. But when we were getting his body back in an ambulance, the stench was so unbearable that, for the first time, I was not comfortable sharing space with him. We requested the authorities so many times to give us some ice, or at least a coffin box, but they just refused,” says Dev Yadav, 19, a resident of Gaya in Bihar, while talking about his brother, late Kedar Yadav, 32.

Yadav was among those unfortunate migrant labourers who passed away during the lockdown. They left for home but could not make it. On September 13, 2020, Union Labour Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar informed the Parliament that his ministry does not how many migrant workers may have died during the 68-day lockdown. Incidentally, over 1.04 crore migrants returned to their respective home states.

During the lockdown, thejeshgn.com, a website run by a group of techies and scholars, started documenting deaths that occurred during the lockdown, but not due to Coronavirus. The data was published in July 2020. The deaths were categorized as exhaustion (walking, standing in lines), starvation and financial distress, police brutality or state violence, lack of medical care or attention, death by crimes associated with lockdown, accidents due to walking or during migration, suicides, suicides due to fear of infection, loneliness, and lack of freedom of movement, deaths in Shramik trains and deaths in quarantine centers. As per the data, during the lockdown, 216 people died due to starvation and financial distress, 209 people died in road and train accidents, 133 died due to suicide, and 96 people died while travelling in Shramik trains. As per the website, a total of 971 people died due to non-Covid reasons.

Yadav died in an unfortunate road accident. A newly married Yadav had moved to Rajasthan to work as a construction labourer so that he could support his wife, parents, and younger siblings.

On May 15, 2020, in a desperate attempt to get back home, Yadav, along with other migrant labourers from Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, who were also returning home, hitched a ride on a truck that was transporting sacks of cement. At 3 am on May 16, the truck collided with another stationary truck that was stationed outside a dhaba at a place called Mihauli in Auraiya district of Uttar Pradesh. Incidentally, the stationed truck had around 20 migrant labourers from Delhi. The collision was so powerful that both the vehicles overturned. At least 24 migrant workers died and 37 were seriously injured in the accident. Yadav was one of them.

“My brother had called us when he left from Rajasthan. He said he was coming in a bus and would be home by morning. At 4 am on May 16, I tried calling him, but could not reach him. I kept trying for two hours. At 6 am, we received a call from a policeman informing us about the accident and that my brother was seriously injured. We immediately hired a cab and left for Auraiya. But by 10 am, his name had started showing among those who had died,” says Yadav’s younger brother Dev.    

He adds: “We reached there at 3 pm. All the bodies were covered with cement, so it took us a while to identify him. We were provided with an ambulance to take his body back home, but the body was uncovered. We requested them to give us some ice or a coffin box as it was peak summer, but the authorities refused. I kept requesting the driver to switch the AC on, but he did not pay any heed. The stench was making us sick. Once we reached Gaya, we were asked to go to a police station to report a case of accidental death. Upon reaching there, we were told that our residence falls in some other police jurisdiction, so we were sent there. Then we were asked to go to a hospital to get his covid test done. Finally, at 10 pm, we reached the crematorium.”

Yadav’s wife has moved back to her parents’ place and the family is still coming to terms with the tragic loss. “We had clicked a selfie before he left. Little did we know that it was our last selfie together. I am still so numb with grief.” I know the situation is bad. People are again talking about a lockdown. I just hope no one has to go through what we went through last year,” said Dev.   

Published by Swati Subhedar

Meaningful conversations, ginger tea, Maggi, playing Tennis, backpacking, travelling, exploring, photography, adventures, meeting interesting people, mountains, beaches, and dramatic sunsets ... these are just some of the uncomplicated things that keep me going.

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