Another Mass Exodus of Migrant Workers Likely if Delhi's Lockdown Persists

With a large number of units in the unorganised sector closing down and few providing residential facilities to workers, many have already started leaving.

New Delhi: As the Delhi government announced a six-day lockdown from Monday to combat the spread of COVID-19, a large number of migrant workers began leaving for their home towns and villages – bringing back memories of a similar crisis in March 2020. Workers fear that the lockdown will be prolonged and that they will lose their source of livelihood and their housing.

The only difference this time is that the roads are open, and buses and trains available. Also, past experience has made workers realise that most of them will have to return for work sooner or later.

Social workers working with migrant labourers said private bus operators have been making a killing as the demand for seats far outstripped the availability. “The bus fares have been hiked four to five times by the operators. The workers, especially those leaving with their families, hardly have those kinds of saving to make their way back home,” said Chandrajeet of Migrant Labour Support, whose organisation had last year helped thousands of stranded workers reach home by arranging buses for them.

A key difference between last year and now, he said, was that “this time people are more aware that if there is be an extended lockdown, my employer will not pay me and my landlord will ask me to leave. They had experienced all these difficulties last time.”

Most workers, he said, have also realised that they will have to return to Delhi NCR for work as there is no proper work for them back home. “So some of them have surrendered their rooms but are not carrying all their goods back. They are pooling up and using a shared rented room among 8 or 10 of them to leave their heavy belongings behind. This way they are also saving on the transportation costs.”

Unorganised sector worst affected

A large number of workers who left Delhi on Monday said they were doing so because they were unsure about being able to eke out a living in a lockdown. One of them, who resides in Uttam Nagar in West Delhi, was quoted recalling how last year after the lockdown many were forced to walk on foot all they way to their homes. He said this time. the conditions appear quite similar and since he was not sure about getting food or water, he will leave for now and return when things normalise.

Many of the leaving workers also accused the Delhi government of not giving them enough advance notice of the “short lockdown” before announcing it. One of them, who was engaged in painting work at construction sites and was leaving with his family, said due to the lockdown his employer has discontinued his services, forcing him to leave.

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As reports of workers again making a beeline for the Anand Vihar bus terminus began coming in, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal appealed to them to stay, saying the lockdown was a “short”one. He also assured them that his government will take care of all the workers. However, the appeal appeared to have little impact. A primary reason for panic unleashed by the six-day lockdown is that most of those leaving right now are engaged in the unorganised sector, which is likely to be hit hard by the closure of units and markets.

Private buses resorted to gross overcharging

Though most social groups are still busy helping COVID-19 patients find hospital beds, medicines and plasma donors, Chandrajeet said his organisation has come to the aid of those who are keen to return to their home towns but have little money. “We bought a man a ticket to Varanasi for Rs 2,500. Normally the rate is just Rs 500-600 but the private operators are overcharging.”

The social workers said the overcharging by bus operators was rampant. “The biggest issue in Delhi right now is that the bus fares have increased three to four fold. Earlier, the fare for Patna or Muzaffarpur in Bihar was Rs 800 to Rs 900. Now that fare has been increased to Rs 3,000. Similarly, private buses that charged Rs 400-500 for Lucknow or Kanpur are now charging Rs 2,000.”

On the reason for most workers taking buses, Chandrajeet said this was because train tickets were not readily available. “Only those who had booked them earlier are able to leave by trains. For others there is also no access to the platforms or trains without tickets. Also, the train service to these states is yet to reach the earlier full strength. There are also no special trains to ferry the workers home.”

Migrants wait to board trains to their native places during COVID-induced lockdown to curb the recent spike in coronavirus cases, at NDLS Station in New Delhi, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. Photo: PTI

The social worker said chaos was also witnessed at some of the railway stations as some workers tried to board the trains without proper bookings. “Yesterday, it was brought to our knowledge that some people tried to force their way into trains leaving for Uttar Pradesh and Bihar from the Ajmeri Gate side of New Delhi railway station. There was some chaos because of that. But such instances were few.”

As far as trains are concerned, Chandrajeet said, it is workers from Mumbai who are mostly coming to Delhi by them as the lockdown in Mumbai has been on for some time. “Since there are few direct trains to Bihar or UP from there, they take trains to Delhi and then from here take buses to their native places. There are also cases of workers forming groups of 40-50 and chartering buses for direct travel from Maharashtra to their native places.”

Workers leaving Delhi have minimal savings

People leaving the city, he said, have little savings with them and are therefore finding it difficult to shell out thousands of rupees on travel for their family. “These workers do not have so much money. We are getting calls for help. We have not started sending them by chartered buses. Right now we are hoping that this lockdown will not go beyond 10-12 days. So we are urging the workers to stay back. We are offering them rations in the meantime.”

However, he said, for people who are desperate to return, his organisation was making arrangements.

While private buses ran packed and even had people sitting on the roofs, the Uttar Pradesh sent it additional buses, providing relief to those who were getting left behind. “On Monday night there were around half-a-dozen non-scheduled buses of the UP government which came in to pick up the people who were unable to leave,” Chandrajeet said.

He said most of the people who left by buses primarily took two routes – one that goes via Kanpur and Varanasi to Patna and the other that goes via Lucknow and Gorakhpur to Muzaffarpur.

A longer lockdown would aggravate the situation

On the nature of businesses that have been impacted by the short lockdown, Chandrajeet said, “Around 95% of businesses do not provide on-site stay facilities for workers” and it is the employees of these units who are now uncertain about their future and leaving. “The on-site manufacturing units are also just about 5% of all manufacturing units and so a vast majority of workers are impacted by the lockdown.”

Chandrajeet said what is being witnessed right now is the beginning of an exodus. “Right now those are leaving who feel they may lose their job and cannot take the risk of staying back. Others have not been rendered jobless so far. That is why if the lockdown would persist the impact on the working population would worsen.”

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On the reasons for the workers leaving so soon, Chandrajeet said, is that “most of the workers who had left with their families last time had first returned on their own to assess if they would get their jobs back. A large majority of them had managed to land a job, albeit in some cases they had to settle for a lesser role or wage. For example a ‘raj mistri’ or mason picket the job of a labourer, a `master’ tailor settled for an ordinary tailor’s job or they took a 30-40% cut on the wages they were drawing.”

However, by February-March this year, most of these migrant workers had also brought their families back. The fact that many of them want their children to do their schooling in Delhi, as the national capital offers brighter prospects, also played a role in this.

Chandrajeet, said of the nearly 1,000-1,200 workers, for whom his group had arranged tickets for coming back to Delhi, around 400-500 had returned alone initially. “Later, they brought their families too.”

But now, with the second major wave of COVID-19, he said what is being witnessed is the beginning of an exodus. “Right now those are leaving who feel they may lose their job and cannot take the risk of staying back. Others have not been rendered jobless so far. That is why if the lockdown persists, the impact on the working population will worsen and a situation similar to last year’s will emerge.”