17th June 2020
The first village we visited today was Jogapatti where we met Sunil Prasad. Sunil Prasad went to Gurugram to work on the 17th of March since there wasn’t any good job opportunity in his village. In Gurugram he had a salary of 10k but didn’t get to earn it since he was there only for a week. “I took loans for my daughter’s marriage. About 2-3L rupees that’s why I went to Gurugram to work” he said. He thought the lockdown was short term so he didn’t worry at first. But as it kept extending and the condition of Delhi got worse in terms of the number of cases he started panicking. After a few days when he saw there isn’t a way to go back either, he started walking. He kept walking and found some trucks on the way and paid them to take him a short distance.
He described his journey to us “we gave 500₹ for 125 km from near Gurugram. We then stopped at a place where some civilians were distributing food. We then got on a truck again for 250₹ for 250 km. From there we again found a truck for 300-400₹ for 500 km.” In this way he reached Gorakhpur in UP where the UP government had organised a bus and they dropped him for 50-60 km for free. He said he didn’t get any help from the Bihar administration. He found a hospital there and got himself checked. “Finally, when we reached near the village we went to a quarantine centre for 14 days since we didn’t want to put the village in danger. We didn’t get any food for seven days. We then requested the BDO to make some ration available to us and he agreed” he said. There was such a simplicity in his words and expression. His opinions were not based on theoretical ideologies of politics; it was completely based on how the people treated him.
After returning to the village he stayed quarantined at home for another two weeks because he didn’t want to risk the lives of the villagers. He told us that he has been looking for a job but there are absolutely no employment opportunities in his area. He has just been sitting at home; jobless, penniless, debt-ridden and depressed. He expressed his grief over failing his kids “my kids have had to leave their studies. I can’t pay for their fees and books. I find it hard to buy ration, studies are a luxury. My 15-year-old son is very capable. He would come first in everything, so I put him in a private school. He loved to study and he was very good at it as well. I even sent him for tuitions. But now I have absolutely no money, it breaks my heart that because of me my kids can’t have a bright future. Now I have had to send him to a government school.”
He said he wants to stay in in Bihar now. He doesn’t want to travel far away. Family is very important to him and he said that the only reason he left was that the situation had become extremely dire. He wants the government to create more job opportunities in Bihar itself.
Harinder Paswan and his brother live next to each other and as we reached their house all the kids ran around trying to make a game out of the visit. Much like the baby goats who were posing for the camera. They told us that they have many mouths to feed and they need to earn at least 15,000-20,000 rupees to do so. They have to support their parents, kids, their wives and even relatives at times. In the village they are not able to earn more than 1,500 rupees per month. They have taken loans on high interest rates to survive. They said “we can’t live without loans either, we will die of hunger.” These two brothers are the only earning members in their family and they work very hard to earn about 20,000 each, every month. They toil in the city, work as labourers, do more than most people so that their families are well-fed.
They said that when the lockdown was announced the locals told them not to leave, they promised to take care of their food needs, however, Harinder wanted to return to his family. He still waited for two months when the locals said they can no longer sustain the two, even their incomes had taken a hit so they left from Gunda, Uttar Pradesh on foot. “We had 1500₹ on us, we had food with that and then were hungry for a week. We decided to leave on foot and reached Bansi (150 km away) in UP at the Bihar border. We were stopped at the Bihar border by the police. Whenever we would stop at a village they would start shouting, corona has come corona has come and they would chase us away” they said.
The facilities at the quarantine centre were far from adequate. They didn’t get food regularly and they even went four days without water. Finally, when they made a great commotion an official came and mishandled Harinder. He said his arm is still hurting. However, he added “but it’s worth it. We got to drink water.” These two also say that if given the option they would like to stay in Bihar and find employment here itself; the outside is full of uncertainties. Their message to the government was to create more job opportunities in Bihar so that people like them don’t have to face separation from their families to earn a respectable income.
After meeting Harinder’s family we went to Geeta Devi’s house where we met her, her husband and her 16-year-old daughter Shivani. They had returned from Ambala, Haryana a few weeks back. As the conversation started the mother shifted in her seat uncomfortably and mumbled some things. Her daughter, seeing this took charge of the conversation described their journey well. She spoke freely about the struggles her family was facing and guided her mother through the safety processes. The Haryana government was very helpful she said and added that she had made sure all the documents were in place and she was the one who applied for their pass and the train ticket. The train was free, they even provided food before the journey.
“I don’t know if I will be able to continue the studies. I want to but the condition at home is very bad. We might have to stay back in the village, if I tell you the truth I want to go back to Ambala, there aren’t any good schools here. I won’t be able to study well. Online is my last chance if I can’t go back to Ambala. I want to become an army officer. I originally wanted to become a doctor but as the condition of the family got worse it was no longer a viable career option. But I am fine with army as well. It all depends on luck. It is very possible that even that won’t happen” said Shivani.
The whole family was speechless when we asked them if they have another source of income. They have a small shop but it is not a sustainable source of income.
The area of Champaran in Bihar has a high level of corruption and yet it is surviving. The reason for that is the region is ‘Aatmanirbhar’ as the Prime Minister says. 75% of its population is dependent on farming and that sector can survive to an extent without government intervention. However, with the influx of migrants the region can no longer sustain its population. The population has increased and the income has reduced. The migrants would send money back to the village and their families used to survive on that and that is what the state was running on. So the ‘Aatmanirbharta’ of the region is actually independence not from external resources but from government help. They are still dependent on their working population who boost the economy not only of Bihar but also of the states they go to.
The next person we met was 20-year-old Moti Mohammad. “I started working in Pokhra, Nepal in January. I was earning about 8,000₹ per month as a labourer. When the lockdown was announced I was worried about my family and I had been away from them for a very long time so I decided to head back home. I started walking, I had 400₹ in my pocket. Whenever I stopped in a village to fill water I was chased out because they were scared of Corona. I hardly had any water and I kept walking. I was extremely hungry as well.
I lived the life of a dog. When I reached the India border I requested them to let me pass but the Indian official there abused me. He said some horrible things so I found a place to sleep nearby and then I woke up and walked to the border again, this time the policemen were different, they allowed me to pass through. Once I crossed the border I again started walking. Once I reached home I reported to the officials and they asked me to quarantine at home. I stayed away from everyone at home for 21 days. I will never go out ever again. I had an extremely horrible experience. I don’t want to go through any of that again” expressed a dejected Moti.
The next person we met was working in Surat as a tailor. “I earn about 15,000₹ per month and I send back about 11-12k. I went to Surat in January and the lockdown was announced in March. Before the lockdown was announced I knew about corona but I didn’t believe it. I thought it was a rumour. Once the lockdown was announced I started looking for more information about the virus and learnt the full extent of it and its seriousness.
Our landlord was very good. We stayed there for 45 days and he didn’t ask for rent even once. We had to pay for ration though. We heard that there are free trains available so we went to the railway station only to find out that it costs 800₹.
Even if we get 50,000₹ we won’t go back to that company. They didn’t treat us well at all. They said they will not do anything for us. They asked us to do what we can ourselves” he said.
After some eye-opening and heart wrenching conversations we called it a day and hoped that a good night’s sleep would give us the strength to listen to more such stories the next day.
17th June 2020
Bihar was and is ill prepared to deal with the crisis. A senior bureaucrat confesses that health is the weakest aspect of the state. In fact, they realised that nothing had been done in the area of health during the crisis and panic set-in at the top level of the government. CM of Bihar insisted all the migrants from the state to stay where they were and financial aid will be transferred into their account, which was Rs. 1000 per family. However, they hadn’t accounted for the magnitude and complexity of the task, which involved identifying and validating genuine migrants through aadhaar cards before making the cash transfers. The migrants who were devastated by economic and social challenges, couldn’t wait that long and invariably spent way more to head back home.
Another perspective highlighted in this regard was—other state governments were specifically identifying migrants from Bihar and UP in their states and going out of the way to make arrangements to send them back home to keep the number of infections down in their state. UP pulled out all stops to ferry the migrants from Bihar at the doorstep of the state in Kushinagar—which is the border of UP and Bihar.
In Bihar, the migrants received no logistical support from the government, which was the hallmark of other states. The migrants feel betrayed and abandoned by their own government. However, Bihar government believes—they are providing labour support to the rest of the country, therefore the states which are being served with their labour force, should have done more to sustain and retain them.
Caste and religion plays a vital part in the social structure of Bihar. There is a sly propaganda machinery at work to project lower caste communities and minorities as the face of the problem.
One migrant shared, “Our train was stopped in Chapra because a train carrying Muslims from Maharashtra was targeted with stones.” Another migrant states, ”the first case of coronavirus in our village was a Muslim.”
Rumour mills are on an overdrive to manufacture sensational stories out of innocuous incidences.
Last night there was an incident in Bettiah. A deranged Muslim man who was disturbed because his wife had left him, entered a temple and ransacked it. The pundit who was sleeping in the temple at the time of the incident ran way to save his life. The people soon gathered and almost mob lynched him, before police arrived and rescued him. By morning a Hindu group had got wind of the situation and they were on top of it like vultures.
The police head in the district rues that it could have easily flared up a situation of communal tension in the district—and combined with corona crisis, which has resulted in unemployment and desperation of gargantuan proportion, one only shudders to imagine where it could’ve led to.
Most of the migrant labourers heard and started taking coronavirus seriously only when lockdown happened. When everything came to a standstill, it came as a sudden realisation. Then their employers wanted them out, the adopted state wanted them out and their native state was not willing to accept them. It impacted them mentally, physically and financially.
A migrant who walked several kms from Pokhara in Nepal to the Indian border expecting help and support, was turned back with a barrage of abuses by the Indian soldier manning the checkpost. His eyes welled up while recounting the experience as he showed his feet, which still bear the marks of the ordeal. Eventually, he had to sneak into the country through forest area. He is young and skilled, but jobless and uncertain about his future.
The migrants are worried about their families, which were being supported by their income. Marriages happen young and most of them have more than one children. Each migrant has at least 4-5 family members dependent on them.
A daughter studying in first year college with a dream of joining Indian Army, had to leave her studies and now she is clueless.
A son who was studying in an English medium school has been shifted to a Hindi medium government school because the father has to make a choice between food on the table and good education for children.
A sister’s marriage has been held up because of financial issues.
Pregnant wife needs love and care amidst hunger and desperation.
“I have taken a small loan at 10% interest from the local lender. Once it gets over I’ll take another loan…then another loan. I’ll try to keep myself afloat till I can and is possible”, a migrant shares. “What will happen when you will not be able to return the loan…money lender can also hurt you”, I ask. “Yes he can and maybe he will. We’ll see about that”, he nonchalantly replies.
When we were returning back, our car was blocked by a group of villagers earnestly witnessing something. We enquired and came to know that there is an ugly brick fight in progress between two groups. I wanted to witness it myself, but was stopped by the local coordinator. “Sir these fight are very raw and bloody. I have witnessed a few of them and couldn’t endure the sight. More often than not they result in brutal killing.”