Migrant dreams: Homecoming for scores, but at what cost?
Millions of migrant workers are stuck in various parts of the country with no wages and no way to get home due to the coronavirus lockdown. With the central and state governments not giving enough attention to their plight, several of them resorted to protests to draw the attention of authorities.
As the first train with migrant workers pulled into Jharkhand’s Hatia late on Friday night, it seemed like poetic justice that the stranded workers were heading home on Labour Day. But the last several days have been nothing short of a battle for thousands of migrant workers in Telangana - the point origin of the special train - who were sheltered at various camps across the capital Hyderabad and other parts of the state.
Scenes from the first train carrying 1,200 stranded migrant workers which left Hyderabad on Friday morning and is expected to reach Jharkhand on Saturday. #Covid_19 #lockdown3 #migrantworkers pic.twitter.com/4bahFgOLF0— Soutik Biswas (@soutikBBC) May 2, 2020
Stranded in the IIT-Hyderabad campus amid the nation-wide lockdown, nearby workers protested against the officials of a construction company who requested them to continue work despite failing to pay them their wages. The agitation soon took a violent turn with workers pelting stones at police authorities and injuring three police personnel.
#Telangana -Thousands of migrant workers protested, in Sangareddy, for not been given proper food,no resources. These workers were part of construction work at IIT #Hyderabad. Police van also damaged during protests on NH65. Police/Collector talking to them. #lockdown #COVIDー19 pic.twitter.com/wZCiJCqxgj— Rishika Sadam (@RishikaSadam) April 29, 2020
Close to 2,500 workers had been stranded at the campus, with no wages and no way to get home. The workers, who had arrived in Telangana to eke out a livelihood from over 10 Indian states, complained that they had not been paid their salary for nearly two months. While they were being fed at the shelter camp, they had no money to send back home, causing many to fear that their families were going hungry back home in their villages.
The violent uprising at the campus was soon doused with the tried and tested mix of police intervention and official reassurance, but it was at best a tiny battle won in the face of an impending war.
The incident in Telangana was not an isolated one. Similar expressions of dissatisfaction were exhibited in different parts of the country over the last few weeks. On April 28, workers vandalised the office of a construction site in Surat after contractors allegedly brought in more labourers. Fearing that the new workers could be carrying coronavirus, the labourers who were already present at the camp demanded that they be sent back home. Police intervened soon and an FIR was filed.
Earlier in April, Mumbai’s Bandra station was teeming with thousands of migrant workers who demanded that they be sent back home. Police intervened this time as well, albeit wielding batons.
The pattern must not come as a surprise to anyone, for it is backed by the stability of numbers. According to a report by the Stranded Workers Action Network, only 6% from the sample of 10,929 migrant workers stranded across the country received their full wages until April 26. The average daily income of the workers considered for the reports was Rs 380.
Access to food remains poor even in the second phase of the lockdown. Here are some findings in our new report '32 Days and Counting' Read more in the report here https://t.co/Tfj5GA73Vf pic.twitter.com/w8yo6dcisW— Stranded Workers Action Network(SWAN) (@StrandedWorkers) May 1, 2020
Nearly 99% of street vendors have also not made any money in the first month of lockdown. In another survey by the same organization, only half of the 11,000 migrant workers considered for the report had stocks of rations that would only last them less than a day.
Most workers are also worried that the trip home will rob them of a chance to be able to fend for the family. With last night’s announcement of lockdown extension, the migrant workers are between a rock and a hard place. They are leaving behind what seemed like a new dawn that had suddenly been enveloped by a shadow of fear to head back to familiar ground, laden with uncertainty.
While more states ready themselves to send migrant workers back home with parcels of food in hand, the pocket protests in parts of the country continue to be a reminder that while we are engaged in war with an unfamiliar enemy in Covid-19, forcing 10 crore migrant workers into a battle between dignity and necessity is a recipe for doom.