Abner Manzar

13th June 2020

The journey from Lucknow to the village of Saidanpur took one hour. As we entered the village the beautiful ruins of Wajahat Ali’s Haveli became visible. The small bricks were exposed because the outer layer of the building had peeled off. The building had beautiful arches that were still standing, most of the other structures were broken. One of DEF’s digital resource centres is located at this Haveli. As we walked in to the Digital Literacy centre we were welcomed by Utkarsh, the centre coordinator. He had spoken to some migrants in the area and told them about us, he requested them to come and have a chat with us.

About 75 people had come to the centre, a lot more than we were expecting. We sat under a tree in a big empty open space in the Haveli. Ravi kicked off the conversation, after a short intro about our project and the reason we are talking to them he asked them where they had come from. All of them sat quietly. He then individually asked a few and some of them started responding “Mumbai, Delhi, Maheshwari.” The one location that stood out here was Maheshwari, on probing further some of them told us that Maheshwari is a weaver’s cluster, like Barabanki. And since most of the villagers of Saidanpur were weavers, even those who migrated were involved in the same line of work. Maheshwari is famous for its sarees and many of the people we interacted with said that it pays better than Barabanki.

The pin drop silence soon turned into chaotic noise as the group became comfortable with our presence. Ravi then asked them to speak when asked. He asked “ye Covid-19 hai kya? Aur iska aapke upar kya asar hua hai? (what is Covid-19 and what is the impact of it on your lives?)” and we again saw no response. After an awkward 10 seconds one of them raised his hand. I walked up to him to record him. He said “samajhte hain hum, is bimaari mein bohot si mushkilein hain, kaam nahi hai, paisa nahi hai, kuchh nahi hai (I understand what this pandemic is, it has left us with no work, no money, absolutely nothing).” Another man started speaking over him, I pointed the camera towards him, he said “we have to maintain distance, wash our hands and take other precautions in this disease.” Ravi then asked, “what happens if someone gets Corona?” and he responded “the person dies, what else.”

I was surprised to hear this because most of them had travelled back to their villages in horrible conditions without any form of distancing and they did this thinking that the virus would lead to their death. They were extremely desperate to reach home. Another one of them jumped in. He said “not only is this disease deadly but if you contract it, your whole neighborhood suffers from it. Apart from that of course it has led to hunger, joblessness and lack of money. It comes with a lot of problems. Only problems.”

When they were asked when and where they heard of the virus the first time many of them said “we heard of it in December-January, we heard that it has come in China. Then it started spreading but we never thought it would come to India. Now that it has come it has led to too many problems.”

Mohommad Salim was willing to speak. What started as a description of the current scenario led to a frustrated rant about the incompetency of the government, the intentions of wealthy people and the plight of the poor. He said “no one did anything for us, after the lockdown was announced our employers stopped picking up our calls, they did nothing for us. All rich people are like this. They care about their comfort, not the plight of people like us, we are nothing for them. And the government? Tell me, you only tell me, where did the 20 lakh crore rupees go? Modiji has eaten it. And he has distributed it to all his ministers, there is nothing left for us.” His expression was very composed at the start of the conversation but with every sentence he said his face turned redder.

Saddam Hussain was working as a tailor in Hyderabad. He had gone there just a week before the lockdown was announced. He said “if they had such a problem with us why were they trying to keep us in their cities? We wanted to leave and none of the trains were running so we decided to wait for a while but the lockdown kept extending. Then the government said they will help us and they set up ration distribution centres. You should know, we wait all day and at the end of it they say it’s over. We receive lashes sir, we don’t receive ration.” When we asked him how he finally left he said “when we saw that no one is helping us we went to the highway and started walking. We stopped on the outskirts of the city and waited. None of the vehicles stopped, we spent two nights on the side of the road when finally, a truck driver picked us up on the way. He was very kind. He would feed us also and he dropped us all the way to Lucknow. But as for our employers, they did absolutely nothing.” He had a look of disgust and disappointment as he finished the sentence. “We could have died of hunger in the city, or of Covid on the journey. But it is better to die at home, not in a city where people don’t care about us.”

Hasmat Jahan was working as a weaver in Maheshwari. Her granddaughter was born in the month of March. She said “we had to leave with my 15-day-old granddaughter in the heat. We booked a toofan vehicle (a long taxi that seats about 12 people) and we all paid 3000 rupees per person. It was extremely hot so we would keep washing the baby’s face to make sure she stays cool and doesn’t fall sick. It was an extremely difficult journey. We spent most of our savings on it. Now we don’t know how we will eat, we don’t have a source of livelihood.” Her employer asked her and her family to leave when he realized work wasn’t going to start soon. On asking her what her plans are now, she said “God will take care of it. Nothing is in our control now.”

Mohommad Junaid, a weaver who was working in Delhi started to share his story when he saw other people opening up. “We walked from our house in Delhi to the UP border but the police didn’t allow us to go through so we walked some way back and then slept on the side of the road. The police saw us there the next day and told us if we try to cross the border again they will beat us with the lathis. We started walking back again but an autowallah said he will help us cross the border. He asked for money and we gave him some of what we had. He however dropped us before the border. We again tried to cross but we weren’t allowed. As we started walking back we found out that someone can help us. A taxi driver said he can help but he was charging 450 rupees just to drop us across the border. Since we didn’t have any other option we paid him the money and he dropped us in UP. We slept on the road the next night as well. And the morning after that we found a bus to Lucknow. So a journey that should have taken 12 hours took three days.”

Mohommad Museen was working as a vegetable seller in Lalgunj, Nepal. Due to Covid-19, work in Nepal had also slowed down and he wasn’t able to earn enough money. He started walking to the India border and he was stopped by the police in several places but allowed to go through after brief questioning. When he reached the border they did some formalities, he filled out a form and then he was allowed to go. Saidanpur is about 200 kilometres from the border and he started walking but soon enough he found a bus going to Barabanki so he hopped on.

After our interaction with the group we had lunch at a kind well-wisher’s house. We then drove towards the village of Bansa. It is about 4 kilometres away from Saidanpur. There were about 15 to 20 people waiting for us there. We distributed masks to all of them and then started our conversation with them. As there were fewer people the conversations were informal and free flowing. They were reluctant to speak at first but after one of them took the initiative to start talking, they all joined in and spoke about their work and journey one by one. We sat in the verandah of the Digital Literacy centre and the village was visible from here.

A tractor passed by the narrow village road while small kids curiously peered in to get a view of us. Talking to the people here I realized very strongly what I had read in an article a few days back. People who go back home from the cities are usually welcomed like heroes but the reverse migration that has taken place in the last three months has made these heroes look weak and vulnerable. Some people in the village even mock them. “They say you went to the city saying you had a job, now we know that in reality you were just a labourer. It is humiliating” said Niyaz, 22 he returned from Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh a few weeks back. He came back to the village on the 16th of May. He said “madam didn’t even ask us if we have had food or if we’re even alive. There was absolutely no contact with her after the 25th of March.” We asked him how he came back and he said “we waited for the trains. The government said there would be trains for us but our name didn’t come in the list. After suffering for two months we realized we can’t wait any longer so we applied for a movement pass online and then walked to the highway to find a truck. The truck driver charged me 3,700 rupees to take me to Lucknow. There were 14 others in the truck as well.” As Niyaz spoke to us his expression was calm and composed throughout, almost like he had resigned to his fate. He added smilingly “now we will not go back to that madam. We will go back to Bhopal to work, but never with her.”

The others also chipped in with comments about the inhumanity of their employers. Amit Kumar said “I told my employer that Modiji has said that salary payments should not stop, he told me to go to the PM and ask for money.”

Then we started driving towards the next village. The narrow lane was blocked by a tractor so we had to take a different route. We asked one of the people walking by if the road would lead outside and if it is wide enough for a car. He said “yeah yeah, you will be able to go very comfortably.” As we moved on an extremely difficult fifteen minutes came. The lane was as wide as the car, there was hardly any margin, or at least that’s what I thought until a biker came from the opposite direction. He didn’t stop at seeing the car he just came in front and parked on the side and signaled me to go past. With a drain on one side, honking bikes behind me and the biker on the other side we somehow got out of that situation without any scratch. The condition seemed like the migrants with the employers on one side, the government on the other side and Covid-19 honking from behind. They just had to leave.

When we reached the next village, Rampur there were a few people waiting for us. The conversation with them started very slowly. They were extremely reluctant to speak. Even when we asked them to talk individually they refused. They said “no, he will speak”, pointing at the next person. Finally, one of them started talking.

Then the conversation started flowing and soon it became heated. Their frustration was palpable. We also saw a case of fake news here. They said they were promised 1,000 rupees to talk to us. When they realized that that is not the case their frustration shifted from the government and their employers to us. It took a while to pacify them and once they started listening we asked them to visit the digital resource centre in the village to gain information about schemes that the government has put in place for them.

We distributed masks to all those who had come to speak with us and even then they mumbled under their breaths “we didn’t get money, what’ll we do with the masks? Eat them?”

We then left Rampur and went to Saidanpur. After a cup of chai with Utkarsh we left for Lucknow. The sun was setting over the highway to Lucknow, its rays were reflecting off the road. It seemed like a beautiful ending to an eye-opening day.

Ravi Guria

13th June 2020

“Corona means death.”

“Lockdown means hunger and unemployment.”

“I don’t care about corona. All I know is I don’t have a job and my family is hungry.”

“These politicians rake up Pakistan, but do little to address our genuine problems. Bomb Pakistan out of existence for all we care. Give us food and jobs….that’s the only thing that is important to us.”

“I’m hurt that my employer abandoned me.”

“My employer drove me and others from Mumbai to Barabanki in his personal car.”

“My employer is calling me back to work, but I can’t trust him anymore.”

“My employer told me not to go back, but I would much rather die in my village amongst my loved ones than in a foreign land.”

“We don’t have anything to do here. I would go back if my employer calls me because I can’t see my family struggle and not do anything.”

“When I came back, my own villagers treated me with suspicion. They believed I’m a corona carrier.”

Emotions run high. People are frustrated and nervous about their future.

Misinformation through the word of mouth is rampant.

Word got around that migrant labourers who have returned will get money. So a lot of them came to talk to us with their aadhaar cards. Disappointment was palpable on their faces when they realised this was not the case. On one occasion we were literally besieged by angry villagers, arguing and demanding answers for their difficulties.

However, new normal has not affected village life. Nobody wears mask. Hand sanitizer is an alien concept. Physical distancing never adhered to. People spit and piss everywhere with abandon. But they know quarantine, a word they’d never heard before.

Most of them are not literate and have resigned themselves to their fate. They have little knowledge and understanding of coronavirus, not because there are not enough resources to gain knowledge and information from, but they simply don’t care. Even after we provided a group of migrant labourers with some degree of awareness and how cleanliness is of utmost importance to counter the virus—when samosas came, I reminded to them that they should wash their hands before eating—one young lad retorted back by raising his palm, “I washed my hands an hour back and they still look clean”.

Muslim migrant labourers are fighting on one more front—religious bigotry. A lot of them lost their jobs because their Hindu employers were suspicious of them. Therefore, they seem more impacted than their Hindu counterparts.

One migrant labourer who travelled back from Nepal argued with me, “why should I be scared of something I can’t see.” He believed it is a man made situation driven by people with political agenda.

It seems to be a vicious cycle. These migrant labourers could not get education because their parents were not financially well of. That’s why they have to migrate to other cities to support themselves. Their children will also lead the same lives because they are also not in the position to provide them with education and other facilities. They would prefer to not migrate and find jobs closer to their villages. It’s painful to leave families and go to far off places. But despite all hardships, when normalcy prevails, they would start looking for opportunities where ever they could find. When I told them that perhaps normalcy as they knew it may never return, I was just met with a deafening silence.

Side note-

There was news going around that government is planning to again implement lockdown. This set us all in a tizzy. We breathed a sigh of relief only when the government and state governments categorically refuted it in the media.