It has been widely accepted now that the lockdown of the Indian economy on March 24, which was meant to tackle the COVID-19 crisis before it could morph into a fatal epidemic for the country, has had terrible repercussions on the labour force, particularly those employed in the unorganised sector.
This government decision has been a major failure in terms of the human cost and suffering it has resulted in. Like the sudden demonetisation Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced before, which was hailed as a masterstroke to curb the black economy of the country, this measure was promulgated as the only pragmatic solution to ward off the coronavirus crisis. However, like demonetisation, its unpremeditated nature and the haphazard fashion of its implementation only resulted in mayhem, destitution and misery.
It would not be wrong to say that migrant workers have been the worst affected by this decision. With the lockdown starting within four hours of its announcement and the nationwide transportation network also coming to a halt, these migrants had no option but to patiently bide their time, initially. However, when it became clear that there were no immediate job opportunities available, a large majority of the migrant community decided to return to their homes.
Since no transportation facility was available, migrants decided to return on foot, traversing thousands of miles in the scorching heat or pouring rains, and with very little or no food at all. Their plight has been etched in the media and will continue to be analysed, for it has been yet another instance of policy failure which has resulted in a catastrophe.
This article too, deals with migrant workers, but the ones who decided to bide their time and patiently wait in the places of their employment, rather than going back to their homes during the lockdown. While the travails of the returning migrants have been well-documented, the ordeal and hardships that the staying migrants have faced remain largely ignored.
Keeping this in mind, we interviewed a few migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, working as construction workers in the Mayur Vihar area of Delhi, who decided to stay back during the lockdown. The idea was to understand the reasons that made them stay back in their place of employment, how they survived during the lockdown and how they are sustaining themselves now.
On being asked why these workers decided to stay back and how they managed to survive during the lockdown without work, we were told that they had not anticipated that the lockdown would continue ahead of the initial 21 days. Also, going back to their village was not a lucrative option as there would be no jobs in the villages too. We were also told that some of their money was still stuck with the contractor. In order to ensure that the contractor did not fleece them of their hard-earned money, they had no option but to stay back. The contractor had also assured them that they would get their jobs back, once things came back to their regular course.
Vinod*, a migrant worker from Lakhi sarai district, Bihar, who is responsible for a family of five, said, “We were a team of 35 workers from Bihar and UP who were employed under the same contractor. While most of our friends and fellow workers decided to leave, a few of us stayed back because we never thought that things would get this bad. Also, we had a few thousand rupees saved, which we thought would be enough to survive for three weeks. We thought once the lockdown ends, everything will get back to normal. But it seems that things will take time to get back to normal.”
Another worker said, “We also stayed back because we had Rs 15,000-25,000 stuck with the thekedar (contractor). If we leave, there is no chance that we will receive our money back. How can we leave such a big amount like this? The thekedar assured us that should we stay back, he would give us our money.”
Faisal*, who hails from Baghpat, UP, added, “There is no job opportunity in the villages also. There are five members in my family and I am the sole bread-earner. They all stay in the village and do not have any jobs. We knew that even if we go back, we would stay unemployed. Also, we were little scared that if we return, we might spread the disease in the village. Though my wife is constantly worried and insists that I should come back because cases are increasing in Delhi every day, I assure her that I am fine here.”
We asked the workers how they managed to survive during the lockdown without any jobs, and were told that there were some small mercies that they were grateful for and which helped them sustain themselves. First of all, they had regular provision of ration from the government.
One of the workers who is fondly called Baba, because he is the senior most person in the group, and hails from Brahmpur, Bihar said, “I had to take loan from some of my friends to stay back. Every month I have to send money home. I have four family members back home who are dependent on me. I also have to take care of my brother and his family who live in the village.”
Since Baba has been staying in Delhi for the last 12 years or so, he has managed to get a ration card made. He was able to secure timely ration from the PDS shop, whereas Vinod and Faisal were dependent on the food packages being delivered to the resident migrants through the Aam Aadmi Party government. They also managed to secure some loans from friends and acquaintances who readily helped them in their desperate times. All three of them complained that despite the Delhi government’s orders to landlords to not demand rent, their landlord did not give them any waiver. However, when the situation became grim, their landlord allowed them to pay late rent and in small instalments.
“We were at home for almost three months without any work. We got a ration kit every month during the lockdown period. The kit included rice, wheat, dal, oil, masala, sugar and soap. It was very helpful. That helped us to survive. It was given to those who had a ration card or Aadhaar card.”
The workers were appreciative of the AAP government and its efforts. “We are glad that someone was thinking about us also. Otherwise who thinks of poor people during such crises?”
Since the primary reason why these workers decided to stay back was because their money was stuck with the contractor, we asked them if they received their dues from the contractor during the lockdown period. “Yes, we received our money in instalments that was stuck with the thekedar. But several workers left without taking their money. The thekedar assured us that we should stay back, and he will give us job and our money when things will get normal. But this assurance was not for everyone, but only for few of us. That is why many left. The thekedar also suggested that we eat less during the lockdown. He asked us to eat namak roti (salt and chapati) for some days when we asked what we will eat if there is no job and money.”
On being asked what was the current status of their work, now that the lockdown has been lifted and the economy is slowly restarting, the workers told us that there is a severe dearth of labour supply. Since they are bound to the contractor to finish the construction project that they were working on before the lockdown, their working hours have gone up by almost two hours every day as the contractor has been unable to hire new workers. However, their wages have remained the same.
Faisal said, “Since things are gradually opening up now, we resumed our work slowly. But there is a shortage of workers. Earlier the work was done by 7-8 workers. Now, only three of us are doing that work. We are working two hours extra almost every day. Our work is double but the pay is same.”
We asked the workers how they are taking care of their health, given that COVID-19 cases are increasing in the city every day. The workers told us that they were doing basic things such as wearing masks and washing their hands with soap and water, if it was available at the construction site. The workers were finding it difficult to wear masks while working, as the heat was making it stifling to breathe.
Also, as they were getting limited ration during the lockdown and had no extra money to spend on other healthy items, they had no option but to reduce their diet. When asked whether they were aware that one way to fight the coronavirus is to build immunity, the workers said, “We are aware, but we have limited money which we can’t spend on immunity building food. We would like to request the government to include some of immunity building food in our ration kits.”
Towards the end of the conversation, we asked the workers what they thought of their future. All three workers told us that they would continue to stay in Delhi. But, if the government imposed another lockdown in the city, which was rumoured for a while, they would have no option but to go back to their villages.
“The construction of this home (where there are currently working) started before the coronavirus began, so we have to complete this work. But we are not sure that after this work ends, we will get new work quickly,” Baba concluded.
From the conversation, it was clear that the contractor asked the workers to stay back as the construction work was already underway. He needed some labour to complete that work because there was pressure from the owner’s side as well. Though he assured the workers of jobs and wages, we were doubtful that he would be able to provide any further jobs to these three workers after this particular project was over.
While the migrants were supportive of the lockdown decision, they were not happy with the way it was announced. They felt it was very abrupt and unplanned, which led to chaos and confusion.
There are certain things that can be learned from the accounts of Vinod, Faisal and Baba. First, the government must continue to feed its population of migrant workers as they are completely dependent on this relief measure to fulfil their dietary requirements. Also, certain food items which can help improve immunity, such as seasonal fruits, curd, variety of pulses, cerelac and milk for children etc. must be provided to these workers. Second, the government must ensure that landlords do not force their tenants to pay rent when they are not in a financial position to do so. Appeals must be made to them, with the assurance that the rent would be paid at a later date or in instalments. Anyone found mistreating their tenants on this account should be penalised.
Finally, the Central government needs to realise that making policies that seem effective on paper is not enough. Their sound implementation on the ground is even more necessary. Policies like demonetisation, lockdown etc. may help the government bag popular votes, but their irresponsible and unplanned implementation as well as the cold response of the government in the aftermath of its chaos only begets trouble, particularly for the economically and socially marginalised strata of the society.
Neha Bailwal and Taniya Sah are doctoral researchers in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi.