Abner Manzar

16th June 2020

We left for the village of Gonauli at 9.30 in the morning with Saeed, Rahul and Jwala Singh, our local DEF team. It was raining, the village roads were narrow and broken, as expected.

The village is on one main road, there are houses on either side and narrow lanes on both sides lead to the inner houses. Here we met Ramagya Prasad and spoke to him about his life for the past few months.

He was working as a tailor in Gurugram, Haryana when the lockdown was announced. He was earning 11,000₹ per month in his job and once the lockdown was announced he still had some savings so he used those to stay in Gurugram for the next two months. He wasn’t contacted by his employer, nor did he try to contact him. This seemed normal to him. He said “why would I contact him when there is no work? I also know that I won’t get money. If I don’t work why would I get money?” It seems preposterous to us that someone is not paid but for them it is absolutely normal to not get paid.

He had not only resigned to his fate; he didn’t know any other way. As we were walking to his house someone from the side commented “Corona wali movie hai, (this is for a Corona film)”. His house was welcoming; his brother and wife greeted us and his kids ran a short distance and then looked back and smiled.

As I walked to the next person’s house I saw an old, thin man lecturing a group of youngsters. He spoke at a great extent about the incompetence of the government. He said “those who have ration cards have two bikes, and those who don’t have ration cards don’t have anything. The government gives ration cards only to those who don’t need it. And see now, they said they will give ration to everyone irrespective of whether they have a ration card or not. But did anyone get? No! They did not!”

Ram Kripa Kumar was working as a tailor in Gurugram. When the lockdown was announced he like many others believed this was a short term measure and continued living in the city. His landlord however, was not willing to accept a late payment. Every few days he would come and ask him for money. He would even say that he doesn’t have any money and the electricity bill needs to be paid. His employers had completely stopped any payments. Finally, when Ram realised that this was enough he decided to leave. With hardly any money in his pocket as he had used it to pay the rent he left Gurugram on foot. He walked till Palwal, a distance of more than 50 kilometres. There he found a police check post and the police stopped him. They asked him to get on a truck that was going towards Bihar and after travelling a few kilometres the truck driver told him that he needs to pay 2,600 rupees for the journey till Balia, Bihar. Ram agreed as he didn’t see any other option. He asked for money from home and paid the truck driver. From Balia he found a bus to Motihari and from Motihari he walked to his village, a distance of about 50 kilometres. This journey took four days and he barely had four meals in those days. He said “I will never go back to work for the people I used to work for. If they treat us like shit, why will we work for them?”

After meeting Ram Kripa we went to Rajan Kumar’s house. Rajan was working in Gurugram as a tailor and his brother was working in Vadodara in a factory. Both of them were facing the same issues but they chose to tackle those issues differently. Both their employers stopped paying them compelling them to leave, however, Rajan’s brother was patient. He decided to wait for his turn in the trains that the government had started especially for migrants. Rajan on the other hand was in a worse state, his landlord would cut their electricity off since they couldn’t pay him. He along with his roommate found a trucker who agreed to drop them to Kushinagar for 2,500 rupees. It took 36 hours to complete that journey, it usually takes about 13 hours. The truck driver was trying to evade the police as they would be stopped and the migrants might have been asked to get down. He ate one meal during the whole journey. Some people were distributing food on the highway so he had Khichdi somewhere in UP. From Kushinagar an Autowallah dropped them to the UP-Bihar border. He charged 50 rupees for the 10 km journey. Rajan requested him to charge him lesser and the Autowallah said “even we have families. Autos have not been running for a while and I also need to feed my family. Please understand.” From the Bihar border Rajan walked till his village, a distance of 80 kilometres. He went straight to a hospital to get checked up as he didn’t want to put his family in danger. After the tests the doctors asked him to go home but stay quarantined at home. He still wasn’t convinced so he went to a quarantine centre and told them that he has come from Gurgaon and he wants to be quarantined. They again asked him to self-quarantine at home. But he was adamant, with an old father and small children at home he didn’t want to risk it. So he convinced the officials to let him stay in the quarantine centre.

Rajan’s brother found a train that took him from Vadodara to Gopalganj from where a bus dropped him to Bettiah. All passengers went through thermal scanning at the Gopalganj railway station. He requested the authorities in Bettiah to put him in a quarantine centre and they agreed. They both went home after being in the quarantine centre for two weeks and even after going home they kept a safe distance from the other family members for two weeks.

After talking to Rajan’s family we went to Balak Shah’s house. His oldest child is 14 years old, the next three children are daughters, the youngest one aged 7. They were all happily running around doing something or the other when we went there. Ram came to sit with us and when his wife joined in, the kids also came. Ram was working as a labourer in Kolhapur, Maharashtra when the lockdown was announced. He has been working there for the past 16 years. He came back to Bihar by train. The journey from Kolhapur to Gaya took four days. He had some biscuits and bananas during the journey. We asked him how much the ticket costed him. He said 15,000 rupees. I was shocked. It seems that due to less supply and high demand people were selling tickets in black. In Gaya the passengers went through thermal screening after which they were allowed to go. He took a bus from Gaya to Bettiah and then walked to his village. At home he tried to self-quarantine but with four kids in the same house it was difficult. He said “I tried to keep them away but the kids hadn’t seen me in very long so they would keep coming to me.”

After speaking with Ram and his family we drove to the village of Awharshekh. The roads in Bettiah are horrible. In the village of Awharshekh we went to Rizwan’s house. Rizwan, 25 and his brother, 18 had returned to the village about 20 days back from Ahmedabad. Both of them were tailors. They used to work at the same company and they also used to live together. Even though their employer was giving them some money, after two months they realised that it wouldn’t be enough. They found a bus that would take them to Gopalganj. The contractor who organised it for them was charging 4,000 rupees person. The two boys asked for money from home and paid the bus fare. The journey took about 48 hours. They didn’t face issues on the way with respect to food. They said the driver stopped the bus at various places and there were many people who were distributing free food for the migrants there so they didn’t go hungry.

After conversing with Shyamakan Sharma, a carpenter who returned from Jammu his 21-year-old son asked us what we would do with all this footage. We explained to him that we’re doing this as a part of a research program. He wasn’t satisfied. He said “how does it help us?” We told him that we would publish a research about the reverse migration that has taken place in the country in the past few months so that people know the facts along with data that backs it up and this footage would help us present this research in the form of a documentary film. This time he seemed a little more satisfied. He asked me, is this a private organisation and I said “yes it is an NGO” to which his reply was “is it registered?” I smiled at him and told him “yes of course. Google ‘Digital Empowerment Foundation’, also follow them on all the social media handles.” He said he would and this time it seemed like he was satisfied with my answer.

Most of the people that we came across in Bihar seemed resigned to their fate. They believed that what was done with them was either justifiable, or understandable or at least expected. But this young man was nothing like them. He was from the new generation; the generation that questions, reasons and follows a certain method to come to conclusions. He wasn’t accusing us of wasting his father’s time, all he was doing was understanding why we were doing it and questioning our intentions and credentials. It was very refreshing.

Ravi Guria

16th June 2020

Process of questioning follows the following patten and segue into conversations as and how they respond. The aim is to cover the entire gamut of their ordeal-

  • Name, what they did and where have they reverse migrated from?
  • Why did they choose to go out and how is it alleviate financial burden for their family?
  • When and where did they first hear about coronavirus and what was their level of awareness before lockdown happened?
  • How did the dynamics with their employers change during the lockdown and the tipping point that led them to return to their villages?
  • What kind of challenges did they face in organising travel back to their villages and specific details of their journeys?
  • Once they arrived in their village, did their ordeal end—or new challenges replaced the old ones with stigmatisation and quarantine process?
  • How did the family cope with it emotionally?
  • What are they planning to do now to recover from financial blow?
  • What do they expect from the government?
  • What kind of life lessons have they derived from the whole experience?

Bihar seems to be an extension of UP. Here also regard for preventive measures toward Covid-19 is extremely low. Even though they claim to understand and respect the unprecedented situation, their cavalier attitude tells a different story.

Many migrant labourers are scared to talk to us thinking they will be quarantined again. To escape getting targeted by quarantine officials again, many shared incorrect contact information, which prevented them from officially being recognised as migrant labourers and receive government aid.

Initially, in Bihar the administration budgeted the stay of each migrant at Rs. 2400 per day for 14 days—in which they will receive protection kit, fresh clothes, milk etc. But the inflow of migrant labourers turned out to be much higher than expected. As a result, schools and colleges had to be enlisted as quarantine centres. Each housed between 200-300 migrant labourers. As situation became critical, they were relegated to receive meals only twice a day-chana and gud in the morning; and rice, dal and sabzi in the evening. Some even complained that they would be given rice twice a day. Gradually, the infrastructure became so distressed—that to ease pressure on the administration some migrants were allowed to receive meals from home with proper distancing. And later when migrants approached quarantine centres as per mandate, if they didn’t return from red zone cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore—they were advised home quarantine, because availability of space was constantly shrinking due to the overflow of the migrants that continued unabated. All the quarantine centres have been dismantled by now because the administration is planning to get schools and colleges ready for reopening.

Aggregating the responses of the migrant labourers we have spoken to till now—most of them turned to lucrative destinations like Delhi, Noida, Gurgaon, Hyderabad and Pune to eke out a living, introduced by a contact in the village. We spoke to a lot of young men and their occupation ranged from tailors, carpenters, heavy lifters etc. Their literacy level was invariably low. Women also migrate, but their number is far lesser than men.

They earned between Rs. 10000-15000 a month, either as salary or fees. It’s not enough, but better than Rs 3000-5000 that they could inconsistently scrounge in their villages. They left their wives and children back in the village with their parents for economic reasons. Standard practice appeared to be sending 30-40% of earnings back home, if it was not hindered by uncalled for expenses due to health or other anomalies.

Life away from home was tough and modest, but it was serving to an extent to effectively fulfil their duties as a son, husband and father.

Lockdown struck like a sledgehammer. Migrant labourers are caught between rock and a hard place. “Jaan hai to jahan hai”, lamented one. However, emotions burdened by insecurity and uncertain future belies forced smile.

They are hurt that their employers abandoned them in this crisis when they needed them the most. “If I have to go back, I wouldn’t go back to the same employer”, echoed many migrant labourers. But none of them wants to go back, at least till the situation improves.

They had an excruciating experience making their way back to their villages. They had to borrow money or have it sent to them by their families who were already under financial duress. They had to spend days on foot, bus and train—without food, water and basic amenities—driven by fear of the virus and great resolve to be amongst their loved ones. They were compelled to take extreme steps caused by sudden loss of income and unrelenting pressure to pay room rent (even though government had ordered landlords to give concession on the grounds of humanity) and meet expenses for basic survival.

Many migrants complained of partiality by the state governments. “In Gorakhpur station only people from UP were given food”, shared a migrant.

Tamil Nadu government was lauded for providing every returning migrant labourer with food and water to last them through the journey back home. While in Maharashtra, middlemen were charging Rs. 15000 to book a seat in the train, which was supposed to be free.

A large chunk of potentially productive youth has been rendered jobless because of the crisis. They are clueless, aimless and without resources. They are neither aware of measures by the government to support them, nor hopeful (based on past experiences) that any government will come to their aid.

One family is surviving through Rs. 500 allocated for children by the state government affected by schools being shut due to the crisis. There are four children in the family, which adds up to a good enough total.

It’s a double edged sword for the family. While they are happy to have their sons, husbands and fathers back home, it won’t be long when uncertainty and insecurity would drive them over the edge.