No money, no food and 2,000km from home:

a journey facing millions in India’s

migrant worker humanitarian crisis

By Kunal Purohit

Published: 12:15pm, 24 May , 2020

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  • Across India, millions of migrant workers, scarred by a lockdown that has left them jobless, hungry and penniless, are struggling to return home

  • Many face journeys 2,000km long, with as little as US$6 in their pockets and sometimes with babies in tow

Migrant workers wait outside Mumbai's Bandra Terminus railway station. A handful of special trains are being run to take migrant workers back to their hometowns. Photo: Kunal Purohit

Off the dusty national highway that connects Mumbai to northern India, Rambhau Prasad Yadav, 52, sits on his haunches, waiting. It is early Thursday evening and his face mask is wet from sweat, the fabric so thin his lips are showing through.

Yadav, a labourer in a gas utility company, is looking for ways to return to his hometown, 2,000km east in the state of Bihar.

He has been waiting to do so for two months. At first, he was waiting for India’s lockdown, implemented in mid-March and now scheduled to last until May 31, to be lifted. Things had looked up, briefly, when the Mumbai police asked migrant workers like him to fill in forms to be repatriated, but then he heard nothing more.

 

In the three days before This Week in Asia spoke to him, Yadav was waiting for food. Out of money after his employers stopped paying him due to the lockdown, he lived on khichdi, a porridge made of rice and lentils, handed out by a community kitchen. When the kitchen closed, Yadav asked neighbours if he could borrow money to buy fuel to cook the rice grains he had left. They turned him down.

Migrant workers wait outside Mumbai’s Bandra Terminus railway station. A handful of special trains are being run to take migrant workers back to their hometowns. Photo: Kunal Purohit

“After three nights of sleeping on an empty stomach, I could not take it any more,” he says, the whites of his eyes yellow.

On Thursday morning, he began walking to the highway, taking only a half-filled small gunny sack. After walking more than 25km in eight hours, he stopped.

“I can’t walk much in this heat,” he concluded, pointing to his slip-on shoes with a hole in them. His urine, he added, was blood red. He said he was hoping, and waiting, for someone – perhaps a truck or bus driver – to give him a ride east.

Yadav’s story has echoes across India’s cities, where millions of migrant workers, scarred by an economic shutdown that has left them jobless, hungry and penniless, are struggling to return to their villages and families.

Their migration has become an unending humanitarian crisis for the country’s poorest.

Critics say New Delhi’s handling of the pandemic, with few provisions for the millions of migrant workers serving India’s large unorganised sector, broke the fragile social contract these workers shared with the government.

Migrant workers walk on the highway connecting Mumbai to northern India. Photo: Kunal Purohit

And as these migrants desperately try to leave cities – walking hundreds of kilometres, pedalling on rickety bicycles with children riding pillion, hanging onto overcrowded trucks, sneaking across police checkpoints in milk containers and cement mixers and even swimming across rivers – for some it has proven fatal. In the last week alone, more than 50 migrant workers have been killed in road accidents, while on Sunday, 26 were killed when the truck they were travelling in collided with another truck in Auraliya, Uttar Pradesh.

FRUSTRATION AND DESPERATION

Mumbai’s position as the country’s economic nerve centre makes it one of the biggest destinations for India’s migrant workers. Data from India’s last population census in 2011 shows that between 2001 and 2011, Mumbai and its neighbouring areas absorbed more than 3 million new migrants from across the country. These workers form the backbone of the city’s economy, from its construction sector to its transport services to smaller manufacturing industries.

Illyas Shaikh, 22, from West Bengal’s Murshidabad, is among them. A labourer on construction sites, his job vanished with the lockdown.

“My employer owes me over a month’s salary, but he refuses to take my calls and answer my texts,” he said, his mask barely touching his upper lip.

Illyas Shaikh, a migrant worker who has been waiting for two days on the highway intersection in Majiwada, outside Mumbai. Photo: Kunal Purohit

Shaikh used to earn 450 rupees (US$6) for a day’s labour. With no income for nearly two months, Shaikh had just 100 rupees left when he decided to leave and started asking friends to lend him money. “But they were all as broke as I was,” he said. Eventually, having borrowed from 20 people, he had a total of 500 rupees and started walking out of Mumbai. His hometown is 2,100km away.

On Wednesday, when he reached the city’s borders at Majiwada, a busy junction where arterial roads intersect the National Highway 160 connecting northern India to Mumbai, Shaikh was happy to see buses that could take him 400km north. Never mind that he had to go eastward.

Migrant workers head to Varanasi in a truck, a journey of over three days. Social distancing norms are routinely flouted in such trucks, with workers charged as much as HK$300. Photo: Kunal Purohit

But the long lines meant he could not board the bus. And there was no one to tell him when the next bus would come.

So, Shaikh, like thousands of others at the highway junction, waited. “I just slept on the highway, under that flyover,” he said, pointing to the bridge in the middle of the junction. On Thursday, when he was interviewed, he was not any closer to leaving.

“I don’t know how I’ll get there, but I need to get out of here,” he said.

THE SLIVER OF HOPE

Last week, the government announced that it would distribute free foodgrains to 80 million migrant workers who have, so far, not been eligible for such subsidies. It also announced affordable, rental homes for these workers.

But these measures will take time to have an effect. In the meantime, little has been done to address the immediate needs of people like Yadav. On the highway, for instance, where thousands of workers gather each day, there are no toilets or shelters. The absence of food security has meant that civil sector organisations have had to step in to fill the void.

One of them is Khaana Chahiye, which has been distributing food packets daily at the highway and at railway stations where migrant workers are being sent back in limited trains each day.

It has also been sending meals to frontline workers. So far, it has distributed over 2.4 million meals at the highway since March 27, each meal consisting of a hot snack, at least two different fruits and a bottle of water.

The group has teamed up with city restaurants to provide hot meals to the group at cost price.

Such a model, said co-founder Swaraj Shetty, ensured only the best quality food was used.

Volunteers with Khaana Chahiye – a charity initiative that has distributed over 2.4 million meals in Mumbai since March 27 – distribute food to migrant workers outside Mumbai. Photo: Kunal Purohit

Funded by donations, the group of 100 volunteers, from accounting consultants to IT professionals, fan out across the city each day, donning gloves, masks, face shields and orange reflector jackets.

“Our volunteers have been the backbone of our operations. When a funding crunch forced us to curtail operations for a few days, I would get angry calls from our volunteers because they wanted to go out and help and weren’t able to,” said Ruben Mascarenhas, another co-founder.

The project started when one of the co-founders stopped to talk to some of the migrants in an unending stream on the highways leaving the city.

Volunteers with Khaana Chahiye – a charity initiative that has distributed over 2.4 million meals in Mumbai since March 27 – distribute food to migrant workers outside Mumbai. Photo: Kunal Purohit

Pathik Muni, another co-founder, said stories of hardship often played out in front of them.

“We once saw a couple with a nine-month-old baby, walking back home north, 2,000km away. We just kept thinking, how is the baby going to make it in this heat?”

For Yadav, the hot snack he got from the volunteers was his first meal in three days.

As he tucked in, he went over his options, wondering aloud which one he should take – a bus for a few hundred kilometres, “but then what?”, or a truck all the way home, “but I don’t have the money”.

Eventually, he broke down. The answers weren’t easy, he said.

Before he set out on his trek to the highway, Yadav saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi announce economic initiatives aimed at helping India turn the pandemic into an opportunity to produce more and import less.

It has been on his mind since.

“Modi said he wants India to be self-reliant. Has he left us any choice, any way?”

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