When the terrifying exodus of migrant workers spilled over from our busiest cities onto the web of highways that eventually led to their homes thousands of kilometres away, 22-year-old Abner Manzar was at a relief camp in Haryana’s Nuh.
As workers streamed out of Delhi via Gurgaon hitting the Western Peripheral Expressway to reach their homes in Uttar Pradesh, he witnessed their shock and anger firsthand at the camp organised by the Digital Empowerment Foundation, an organisation his father Osama founded in 2002.
Manzar decided he would give the workers some time to process the trauma triggered by the sudden and cruel national lockdown announced on March 24, before he travelled to their homes to conduct a detailed postmortem of their ordeal.
His journey through worst-affected states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Jharkhand, in June has now yielded an important online archive of first-person accounts about what Manzar believes is one of the biggest stories in recent times.
Agrees Rajiv Khandelwal, co-founder of Aajeevika Bureau, an organisation that has worked with migrant workers since 2004, “It was the most central story of the year. The story of a large workforce betrayed, promised, left with nothing.”
Manzar and his colleague Ravi Guria met 200 workers from 17 villages and conducted 60 in-depth interviews. Themes of callous employers, landlords who didn’t think twice before evicting poor tenants, police brutality, and a state that’s seemingly unconcerned about its working-class backbone reoccur frequently in these conversations.
Some workers, like tailor Saddam Hussain from Saidanpur in Uttar Pradesh who returned to his village from Hyderabad, are more eloquent than others. “I don’t trust anyone anymore,” says Hussain. “Trust is when I can seek your help and you can seek mine.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Hussain adds that he’s startled by the lack of empathy for migrant workers. He’s disappointed with everyone from his long-term employer who didn’t help, to villagers who asked the weary migrants not to drink water from the hand pump because they would get the Coronavirus.
As for fear? “I was not scared,” he says. “How do you expect a poor man to experience fear? I could have died sleeping on the highway, or the scarcity of food could have killed me, or possibly the virus could have killed me during the journey. I cannot afford to think about it; regardless, what difference will it make?”
Manzar and Guria found that 74% of employers didn’t pay wages; 80% of landlords didn’t waive the rent; 24 percent experienced police brutality; 45% didn’t find a government quarantine facility. Nobody blamed the government. Half of the workers they interviewed said they wanted or needed to go back to work.
“Some said they wouldn’t go back because they were fearful of the virus, some because they didn't want to go through this again, and some because of the pain they felt because of the way they were treated by their employers,” says Manzar. “Others said we are well aware we will die if we don't go back.” Other surveys conducted recently have had similar findings.
Hirawan Kumar, from Dhanauji, Bihar who, like his father before him, has worked at a paper mill in Pushpathur, Tamil Nadu for 15 years, narrates the story of how his supervisor presented workers with the mandated Rs 1,000 relief money for a photograph. After the photograph, the worker had to hand over the relief amount to the contractor who was hovering outside the frame. Some 200 workers from Bihar demanded the company pay their dues and let them go home. “That evening the contractor visited me; he threatened me with two slaps and ordered (us) to not leave.”
Eventually, they did leave but Kumar says he will likely return because there are no jobs in Bihar. “I cannot afford a third meal at the moment; any unforeseen expenses will starve us to death. No one in the village or outside is willing to hire, how do I pay for my family… No poor man can live through the virus, he is starving regardless.”
Aajeevika’s Khandelwal says that daily wages have plummeted by 40% and the number of work-days available to daily wage workers in cities has fallen too. “We’re so caught up in counting Covid numbers we’re not having the discussion on how we can change things for workers.” Instead, Khandelwal points out, several states used Covid-19 to push through labour law amendments that favour employers.
Khandelwal says the Adivasi workers from south Rajasthan with whom Aajeevika works have made the journey to and from their employers in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad and Surat more than once during the pandemic, as their workplaces ebb and flow in response to the virus.
“The exodus of people was not a new issue, it was an amplification of what already existed. The only new element was the walk back. Hunger, alienation, joblessness are part of our economy. Despite the citizen consciousness around it this time and the national outcry, it’s over, things have moved on.”
Aajeevika will launch a campaign in Ahmedabad demanding access to PDS rations for all inter- and intra-state workers at the lower wage rungs for the next six months. “Think of it as a bailout to revive the workforce and the economy. If you want Indian labour to be cheap, you must subsidise housing, food, healthcare, and transportation,” says Khandelwal.
Manzar says he was struck by the bravery of migrant workers. “Everyone was treating these people like victims but when I reflected on my journey I felt they are not victims, they are inspirational figures. Many were younger than me.” The single word on interviewee Hussain’s tee-shirt serves only to confirm what Manzar is saying: STRONG.
Mohammad Arbaaz Khan, an electrician and tailor from Bhitiarwa, Bihar who returned from Aurangabad, has been the sole earner of his family since he was 20 years old. He told Manzar that his employers gave him food but he returned because he knew his family wouldn't be able to survive without his earnings. “I am the only hope for them… they depend on me.”
Says Manzar, “At the age of 20, if my family were dependent on me, I would die of the burden.”
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.
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