Abner Manzar

18th June 2020

Today we visited the village of Dhanauji where we met Birju and Hirawan. Birju Thakur and Hirawan Kumar would earn 10,500 each and would send back 8,500. They said that they would’ve preferred to work in Bihar but there are no employment opportunities. Hirawan has been working in a factory in Tamilnadu for about 15 years. He went there at the age of 8. He even got his father a job in the area and together they earn about 15,000 rupees. He has a loan of 4L rupees. He took it to get his sister married and for his mother’s treatment.

In Tamil Nadu six of them were living in a two room house. They reported to the collector that they didn’t get rice and after she left two of the employers beat him up. They kept shouting “why did you tell her that?” While we do have some people in the administration who have been working hard to help people and make their lives easier, we also have exploitative employers who undo any good that anyone does.

The collector got train tickets done for them. She even fed them. However, once they left her area she couldn’t do much for them. In the train once they crossed the Andhra Pradesh border they didn’t get any food. The train stopped in at a railway station in Madhya Pradesh; there was food for the passengers at the station however, the policeman said “don’t distribute to the Biharis, give only to the UP people.” So they didn’t get any food there. Some of them got food at Jhansi station. He said “along with food they gave us lashes as well so many of us decided not to have food.” The train journey was four days long, it stopped innumerable times. It would stop anywhere in the fields for 4-5 hours at end. They got food only 3 times in these four days.

After four nearly impossible days they finally reached their station. They got down at Narkatiaganj railway station and reported to the authorities. “We were advised to stay at home for 14 days.” He added “I have gone through a lot because I’m poor, but I never thought something like this would ever happen.” He was extremely frustrated with the government “nothing happens in the country without an exchange of money (corruption).”

When we asked him when he thinks Corona will leave us he said “Modiji has said that Corona will go, we believe him.”

Birju Thaku said he needs at least 20,000₹ per month to run the house. The earning members are him, his brother and his father. The first time he heard of Covid-19 was on the phone when he called someone. He had absolutely no money when the lockdown was announced. The employer paid them 50% of the money and told them to stay. He forced them to stay and wasn’t allowing them to leave. They even went to the police but they asked them to go back to the room. “When my family would call and ask me how I am doing I would tell them my stomach is full, there is absolutely no problem” he said. He didn’t want to burden his family with negative thoughts.

Even though the employers were giving them 50% income they were mistreated, mishandled and abused which is why they left. They were highly disappointed with what had been done with them but they said “we are extremely disappointed but we want to forget everything, put it behind us and move on with our lives.”

Saif-Ul-Mia used to work in Jalandhar. He is 18 years old. He earns about 9,000₹ per month. He was working in Jalandhar with his brother. They both used to work as labourers in the farms. He was treated very well in Punjab. He came to know about Covid-19 when the lockdown was announced. He asked for money from home when the lockdown kept extending and used it to go home.

When asked how he is surviving now he said “we have taken loans to survive, there is absolutely nothing else that we can do.”

Bikau Shah, 39 was a construction worker near Aurangabad, Maharashtra. He used to work overtime and earn 20,000₹ when he would do so. He used to send back approximately 90% of his income so that his family is comfortable. His elder daughter and son go to a private school in the village. He said “I have to earn to send them to a private school because government schools are not good. The teachers come sometimes and sometimes they don’t.” He is working hard to provide for his family. When he decided to go back to his village he started walking on the highway. He paid 15,000₹ for 60 km on a truck. Then he walked about 60 km. He said “I will not go back to Maharashtra. It’s too much of a hassle. I will stay in the village and try to make a living here. There are too many uncertainties out there. If at all I go out it’ll be within Bihar.”

All the labourers in the village earn about 200₹ per day for work.

In the village of Dhanauji some of the villagers were very welcoming. We were welcomed into a house and they almost force-fed sweets to us follow by a cup of chai that could compare in the level of sweetness to the sweets we were offered. After talking to a few people who had returned from Tamilnadu we walked in the village to find other people who had returned home. People were extremely reluctant to speak to us; they thought we would throw them into quarantine centres again. The experience of most people has been bad and that is one place they are sure they don’t want to go to. Seeing us come from outside, they are scared that we’ll take them there.

We met Kamlesh Kumar in Bhitiarwa, Bihar. Kamlesh is a young boy, about 23 years old. He was working in Ludhiana. The boy’s mother stepped in and spoke about the difficulty the family was facing. Her husband had medical problems so she got him treated in Patna, Bettiah, Muzaffarpur and Varanasi and from then her kids started working. They left the village when they were very young and went to the city to work. She seemed proud of what her children were doing but regretted not being able to give them a normal childhood.

Now there are thirteen members in the family including the boy’s uncle who is mentally challenged. The boy’s mother cooks at a local government school and her salary is 1,500 rupees per month. Kamleshand his brother also send back money every month.

Two months into the lockdown they left from Ludhiana and near the UP border a Haryana Policeman said “your cycles will be seized at the UP border so you should sell them. That way you will get some money also.” He sold his cycle for 2,000₹ and then walked across the border. In Yamunanagar, Haryana they were tested and then sent to a quarantine centre. A Haryana DM helped a lot; he wrote down their details and got their train tickets booked. He even went to the railway station to ensure they went safely. The train journey from Yamunanagar to Muzaffarpur took 3 days. There was sufficient food till UP at the railway stations. They changed trains at Muzaffarpur and reached Bettiah. From Bettiah they took a bus to Gaunaha, free again. From there they reported to the authorities and they were told to home quarantine. He stayed at home for 14 days.

The two villages we went to today were different in some ways and similar in others. The villagers of Dhanauji were unsure of the guests that had come; many of them were scared that we would get them quarantined again while the people from Bhitiarwa were relaxed. They didn’t bother about the visitors; they went about their business as usual. The similarity in them was seen when we reached the second village. The people we spoke to there were open about the topic and were willing to give us the full story. Just as we got done with one interview here three boys rode in on one bike; they managed to flout two rules of two categories. The first category being traffic; three people are not allowed on a bike and they were going without a helmet. The second category being Covid; they weren’t maintaining social distancing, nor were they wearing masks. But to me what was more important to see was their enthusiasm and excitement. They had heard that we had come to their village and spoken to some people regarding the mass migration that has taken place in the past few months. They were in the fields working when we were there. When they got back and heard about it they called us, found out where we are and came to meet us on a bike. They were eager to share their stories. Arbaaz Khan was one of them.

Mohommad Arbaaz Khan, 20 was working as an electrician in the district of Aurangabad, Maharashtra. He was earning about 10,000 rupees per month; he would try to save as much as he could to send back to his family. On an average he would consume 3,000 rupees and send 7,000 to his family. He went to Aurangabad in the month of January after his class ten exams. When we asked him how come he gave his exams so late he told us that he had to leave his studies in 2015 when he was in class 8 because his family was going through a serious family crisis. He worked for three years after which he started studying again and gave his class ten exams recently. His story impacted me because I am older than him and he has had to take up the responsibility of his whole family while I am still dependent on them for support.

After speaking to some people in Bhitiarwa we called it a day.

Ravi Guria

18th June 2020

Dates for the assembly elections in Bihar is just few months away. Bettiah—which has always been communally sensitive, is already on the edge.

Yesterday another incident took place, which intensified communal tensions. A section of local Hindus claimed a small piece land in the middle of Muslim settlement to be traditionally their cremation ground. So the land, which has allegedly not been used for cremation for many years, was used for cremation, which flared up emotions and anger among local Muslims. More than hundred protesters from both the communities clashed, and had to be separated with a lathi charge.

Police head of the district believes—these conflicts are being instigated by the Pradhan (Village Council Head), who is also responsible for local quarantine centres and distribution of government sops across affected people.

“Modi ji has said that situation will improve…so I’m hopeful”, shared a migrant, who travelled all the way from Tamil Nadu—suffering four days in train without food and water.

When we were visiting a village, observing the permit pass pasted on the windshield of our vehicle, a local onlooker commented that we are representatives of the Delhi Government. On another occasion, somebody commented that we are collecting data with the purpose of vitiating Nitish Kumar Government in the upcoming elections.

Yesterday also we encountered genuinely bemused villagers who began questioning our intention and agenda for speaking to the villagers about their ordeal back home. Some thought we would have them taken back to the quarantine centre. If we were not accompanied by trusted locals then they would never have spoken to us or perhaps even resorted to aggression towards us.

There is a definite unease, disorientation, lack of trust and frustration amongst affected population—and in this context, the present crisis seems like a minefield.

Ideally, the migrants would prefer to stay back in their village, close to their families and make a living. But better livelihood opportunities are few and far between. This lacunae is being exploited by the middlemen, who target village youth for various low level tasks across the country, and that forms the basis for acquiring a certain skill for most of the migrants. So if they got an opportunity to learn tailoring, then they would become a tailor. None of them pursues an occupation by tradition.

The middlemen often belongs to the area and has local network to target potential workforce. It’s easier for the organised and unorganised industries in other states, which constantly need cheap labour to deal with one person. The payment structure and timeline is negotiated between the company and the middleman. The middleman picks up the payment and pass it on to the workers after deducting 20% commission. It is an accepted norm and acknowledged by all the participants in the fold.

In the name of assets the migrants have just their house. Some also have little land (less than an acre), which is used for farming to barely support the family.

Marriages happen very early—between 18-22 years of age—and children are considered a gift of God.

A migrant had five children—three girls and two boys. Sons can add to the family’s income, so they are an asset—while girls have to be married off, which means further expense and responsibility. Hence, desire for a son invariably leads to many children. Consequently, more mouths to feed than a meagre income can address, results in intense financial duress.

It’s a vicious cycle. The burden of life is passed on from one generation to another, and they are trudging along struggling to barely keep their heads above water.

There are no meaningful aspirations to rise above present situation. They only understand hunger and survival, and play along as far and best they possibly can. And this will go on—lockdown or no lockdown. Fathers will pass on the baton of debt to their sons and they will further pass it on to their sons.

Lockdown has significantly brought disparity in the rural society starkly out in the open. The migrant labourers are the poorest and the most marginalized section of the rural society—economically and socially.

One of the main reasons for the desperation to return—apart from financial difficulty in the adopted place was—most of the migrants are the sole earning members of the family. And in this time when they are not able to earn and send money back home—their families are literally in dire straits.

However, even through physical presence, the migrants are able to do little to support their families.