How the COVID-19 lockdown changed the course of a migrant worker's life
On the night of March 28, Manjunath S. Lamani, a migrant worker from North Karnataka working in Kerala’s Kannur, set out to return home on foot. Lamani was a native of Belur in Haveri district, which is about 400 km far from Kannur.
Soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown, the stone quarry he had been working in stopped operations. So, Lamani thought it was better to return home. The sudden shutdown triggered a wave of other similar migrant workers who wanted to return home. Many chose to walk back home since public transportation had been suspended.
A day before he left with his co-workers from Karnataka, another group of migrant workers had left Kerala and reached the inter-state border in Virajpet, Kodagu. The state had arranged buses for them to return home from Virajpet.
Lamani, 33, followed their footsteps. He walked nearly 15 hours and reached the border. However, unlike the other group, he was unlucky.
Stopped, isolated in hostel
The Karnataka government that arranged for transport for the other group stopped Lamani and others walking along the border and told them they could not go further.
The government, however, arranged for stay and food at a government school hostel. Since their basic needs were taken care, Lamani, who had initially thought he would somehow manage to go home once he reaches Karnataka, stayed back at the border without creating a ruckus.
Lamani, who had been visiting Kerala frequently over the last 15 years for work, says he is facing such a crisis for the first time. All he had was a bag full of clothes and a bedsheet.
He lived in the dormitory along with other migrants, nearly 60 of them. “I landed in Kannur early in March. While we had heard about the COVID-19 pandemic before we left our hometown, we thought it was only a problem associated with China. However, once we reached Kerala, the COVID-19 cases started to rise and it worried us,” says Lamani, who spoke to The Federal over the phone.
Migration, a compulsion
With recurring droughts and being a second-generation agriculture labourer who owned no farmland, working in a neighbouring state was lucrative for Lamani.
Kerala faced a labour shortage and attracted workers from other states. Lamani had to feed his three children and a wife back in the village. “If my children are to have a better future, I have to earn money for their education,” he says. Had he stayed in his village, Lamani would take up agriculture labour work, earning ₹250-350 per day.
But in the stone quarry, he earns ₹750 plus two free meals a day. He would go home once in every two months. He lived with 10 other migrants, four from Karnataka and six others from Assam. “Our expenses were limited. Except for rent of ₹500 each and money for a one-time meal at night, we did not have to spend much. We took home a lot of our earnings,” he adds.
Every time he travelled to Kerala, he went up to Mangalore by bus and then took a train to Kannur. This time, with all the public transport services suspended, he took the other path of reaching Kodagu and then going back to Haveri. He and other migrants stayed for almost a month in the school.
Tough journey, new life
Lamani killed time watching videos on others’ smartphones and playing cards. He somehow managed to stay there for the entire duration until the government, on April 24 night, arranged buses for stranded migrants.
For Lamani, the pandemic changed his life temporarily. He does not wish to go back to labour work in another state for at least four months. He says he will lease a piece of land and cultivate corn or maize. “My return home came as a surprise to my family members,” he says.
“The government assured us twice that they would arrange buses for us. But they failed. So, this time, I had not informed my family,” Lamani says. “My children are happy to see me after two months and I have no plans to return to Kerala any time soon.”