Gopal Mandal, a mason from West Bengal, has been living in a school building in Kerala for more than two weeks now. Mandal and a bunch of migrant workers like him have Ernesto “Che” Guevara for company, looking at them from a graffiti on a wall — perhaps an artwork by a student — during a lockdown that seems never-ending to them.
Sprawled on a row of benches inside a classroom, all of them have been spending their days as well as nights mostly staring at their mobile phones, waiting for that one call that would take them home thousands of kilometres away.
As one more anxious night turned into a morning of hopelessness, Mandal makes a frantic call to a Trinamool Congress leader in Gosaba, a deltaic island in the Sunderbans region of West Bengal, pleading to be rescued from the makeshift camp.
Mandal’s new companion — the celebrated Argentine Marxist revolutionary — had once said that “liberators do not exist. The people liberate themselves”. It’s perhaps the same human determination to liberate oneself from misery that prompted thousands of migrant workers across states to walk their way back home hundreds of kilometres away after the Union government decided to lock down the country, with a short notice of four hours, from the midnight of March 24.
Many like Mandal thronged bus stations, hopped onto whichever vehicle they found — some even inside container trucks carrying essentials — creating sights that rekindled memories of post-Partition migration, one of the largest ever forced displacements of people in the world. But only a few could ultimately reach their home.
Over 24 lakh migrant workers, according to one estimate, are currently stranded in some 50,000 camps scattered across the country. A large section of them are from Bengal. According to 2011 Census, nearly 5.8 lakh people migrated from Bengal looking for work between 2001 and 2011.
Call of desperation
“Dada amader ki hobe (brother, what will happen to us),” he asks in utter desperation, waking up this normally late-rising writer, through an unusually early morning call, all the way from Kerala.
He makes similar calls to Gosaba legislator Jayanta Naskar and local panchayat leader Animesh Mandal, urging them to “do something” so that he could be with his family — wife and two children.
“Whenever I drift into sleep, the image of my children’s faces jolts me up,” he says.
With the government now deciding to extend the lockdown period, his restlessness is only increasing.
Similar frustration is already triggering unrest in some places. Migrant workers in Surat on April 10 resorted to violence over the possibility of extension of lockdown beyond April 14. Over 80 workers were detained as they pelted stones, blocked roads at policemen and indulged in vandalism.
“Why have we been abandoned? Is it just because we are poor? They (government) can at least run special trains to take us home,” Mandal says with a lump in his voice, echoing the sentiments of thousands of stranded workers.
Mandal says he has been sheltered at a classroom in SMV Govt Model Higher Secondary School, Thiruvananthapuram, by the Kerala government with 11 others. The sprawling school complex, cut off from the outside world, is housing around 800-1,000 labourers from across India, according to Mandal’s estimate. Among them, they share four toilets, which have not been cleaned for days.
The condition of the toilets in particular, as has been evident from some pictures of the camp forwarded by him, does not make a very pleasant early morning viewing.
He genuinely fears the squalid environment could be a hotbed for infection. That apart, Mandal has no other complaints about the arrangements made by the government.
“The state has opened 4,603 relief camps on March 27 that have housed 1,44,145 migrant labourers, officially called guest workers, according to the office of Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan,” the state’s ruling CPI(M) posted on its Facebook page on March 28.
“Food, masks, soaps, sanitisers have been made available in all those camps, and in the coming days, more educational institutions will be taken over for these purposes,” the party had claimed quoting Vijayan.
Mandal, however, claims initially they were given soaps, toothpaste and sanitisers. “Now we regularly get rice, pulses, potatoes, tomatoes, onions and chillies to cook our food.”
“It’s not that my family back home or I am starving here. We are getting rations. But we need more than just two meals. Nobody understands the pain and anxiety of a family separated during a crisis. Neither I am able to send them (his wife and children) money nor be with them to share the hardship together,” he says, bearing out another dimension of the human tragedy the COVID-19 epidemic has triggered.
Mandal’s plight, however, appears to be a lament for a lost dinner ticket compared to many others from the same Sunderbans region locked up in Mumbai.
In Bhagat Singh Nagar 1, Goregaon, a COVID-19 hotspot, around 30 people are reportedly cramped in a rented room, once used as a garment factory.
“If any one of us gets infected, it will be just a matter of time before all of us catch the virus,” says Sajad Ali, 33. “But even if we are lucky to escape the virus, we will surely die of hunger.”
Ali, Prasanta Baragi (30), Hridoy Mandal (33) and others cooped up in this COVID-19 high-risk zone do not have the luxury of a government accommodation like Mandal and others in Kerala nor free ration. Since March 22, none of them have earned a single penny.
“In another 10-12 days, we will have nothing to eat. We are already rationing our intake,” Ali tells The Federal over the phone.
Running out of luck
“Bengal has many workers — semi-skilled and unskilled — working in different parts of the country. Due to the complete lockdown in the country in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers from Bengal could not travel back and are stuck in different places,” West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee wrote to her Maharashtra counterpart Uddhav Thackeray on March 26.
“We have received information that many such workers… are stuck in your state too. We are getting SOS calls from them. They are generally in groups of 50-100… Since it is not possible for us to reach them with any help, I take the opportunity to request you to kindly ask your administration to provide them with basic shelter, food and medical support during this period of crisis” she said in the letter.
But since West Bengal government earlier opted out of the Centre’s ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ scheme, these migrant workers are not eligible to avail rations provided by the Maharashtra government. As of now the scheme is smoothly running only in 12 states. Many food security experts believe that the crisis triggered by the lockdown could have been minimised to some extent if the ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ scheme was functional across the country.
While the West Bengal government has announced a one-time grant of ₹1,000 to people working in the unorganised sector, the amount, the workers point out, is too less. On top of that only those working in the state will get it.
The Centre has also announced relief package under Prime Minister Garib Kalyan Yojana to “alleviate the financial pain faced by migrant workers, farmers, urban and rural poor and women.” But workers like Ali, Mandal and Bairagi are only vaguely aware of it, and are also not sure how to avail it.
The government has actually hiked regular wages under MGNREGA from ₹182 per day to ₹202 per day. But this can only be of any help to these workers once things are back to normal and work resumes. They now need immediate succour to sustain them. Without any income, these workers are forced to dig deep into whatever little savings they had set aside all these years.
“In a month, we earn ₹14,000-15,000. But since none of us anticipated this lockdown, just like every other month, even in March we sent a large portion of our earnings home,” Ali points out, saying he has an ageing mother, an unmarried sister, two children and wife back home who depend on his earnings. “With me, they will also starve,” he says.
Only two months ago, Ali’s world was different. He was full of hopes as Indiabulls had sanctioned a loan of ₹25,000 for him to start his own venture.
“With that money I purchased three sewing machines last month and set up my workshop in one corner of the room. To start with, I also got an order of ₹12,000. But then suddenly this lockdown happened, completely ruining me,” he adds.
To address the plight of stranded migrant workers, Odisha-based Citizens’ Action Group (CAG) on Corona has appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to set up a National Task Force to oversee interstate coordination, monitoring and resolution of issues pertaining to them.
With no future to look for, Ali too, like Mandal in Kerala, yearns to go home.
“From there we can make a fresh start.” Ali’s roommate Hridoy Mandal and neighbour Prasanta Bairagi couldn’t agree more.
Back in Sunderbans, the administration is worried how it would quarantine thousands of migrant workers once they return home. “All the gram panchayats have been asked to make arrangements to quarantine at least 15 people each,” says MLA Naskar, as his phone started ringing again — possibly one more migrant calling, one more person crying for help.