Coronavirus Lockdown: 'No dignity in living like this, it is humiliating', migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh on why they want to leave Mumbai
Hundreds of such migrant workers in Mumbai walked in the blistering heat along the eastern express highway with their belongings on their head.
“If I have to die, I would rather be near my parents when I die. I don’t want to die here.”
Those were the words of Ramodar, an 18-year-old boy in Mumbai, desperate to go back home in Uttar Pradesh and see his parents. He worked as a carpenter in the financial capital of India. But the past 45 days under lockdown have been tantalisingly cruel for him. “I would get my hopes up of going home every time the deadline of the lockdown came close,” he said. “And every time the lockdown got extended. I want to see my parents. I don’t know anything else.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi first announced a three-week nationwide lockdown on 25 March to contain the spread of coronavirus. It has since been extended thrice. On 1 May, when the government prolonged the lockdown further to 17 May, Ramodar lost patience. “I have not earned anything for two months,” he said. “My parents have sent some money so I do not go hungry. But they are not millionaires. They are farmers working hard for every rupee. I cannot continue to take money from them. I feel guilty.”
Living in one of the slums of Bandra, Ramodar packed his belongings on Thursday morning and set off on foot. Except he was not alone. Hundreds of such migrant workers in Mumbai walked in the blistering heat along the eastern express highway with their belongings on their head. They wore a mask to protect themselves from the coronavirus. But the mask could not conceal their frustration, desperation, and helplessness.
“If the state is not going to arrange any transport, we will walk back home,” said the determined Ramodar.
On 29 April, the Ministry of Home Affairs had issued an order allowing the movement of migrant labourers stuck away from home.
In order to get back home, the migrant workers in Mumbai are supposed to collect a form from the local police station, fill it up with their details and destination state. The initial order also demanded the workers get a health certificate stating they do not have influenza-like symptoms. But when that led to further chaos, the state government said the workers would instead be screened before the journey. Once they submit their details, they are supposed to wait for the call from the police station.
But the workers have no faith in the government’s plan. “I stood in queue until 2 in the morning, just to submit my form to the police station,” said Ramodar. “There is no assurance when we would be able to board the train home. I do not trust anyone. We are poor people. Nobody listens to us.”
The workers he walked with vehemently nodded in agreement. “We could walk, we could hitchhike. We will see what happens,” they said.
However, Ramodar’s home is in the district of Basti in Uttar Pradesh, which is 1,500 kilometres from Mumbai. A simple search on Google Maps shows it would take him more than 300 hours to reach on foot. In other words, if he walked without a minute’s break, it would take him 13 days to see his parents.
But after just over three hours of walking, Ramodar and hundreds of others were stopped at Vikhroli checkpost. The police told them they are not allowed to pass, and that they should wait for the call from their local police station. But the workers were in no mood to listen.
“We sometimes get food, sometimes we do not,” Anup Kumar, another resident from Uttar Pradesh, tried telling the police. “We have to depend on charity for survival. We have no money. Please let us go.”
Kumar turned towards me and said, “Can you explain them the condition we are in? There is no dignity in living like this. It is humiliating.”
I asked Kumar what he planned to do in his village, for he migrated to Mumbai because there is lack of work back home in the first place. “I will farm, or work as a labourer in somebody’s farm,” he said. “I know farm work is also reducing. But I do not want to think about that right now. At least I won’t have to depend on somebody else for food in my village. We would cultivate our crops and consume them. We will manage. I will be around my people.”
The workers said they might consider coming back to Mumbai later. But certainly not for a while. “Is it not obvious to want to be with family during a disaster?” asked Ramodar. “Even if I got two meals a day, I would still want to go back. Why do I have to explain or justify my wish to see my parents?”
The exasperated workforce made their agonising case to the overworked police force. The police, though, had to follow orders. The workers sat down on the pavement, determined to carry on. A nearby flyover provided a bit of shade.
One of the policemen took out his lathi and planted it on the calf of one of the workers. The others started scrambling to avoid being beaten up.
I took out my mobile phone to shoot the proceedings. The police, realising a reporter is on the spot, restrained themselves from beating the migrant workers up. Two of the hostile police officers walked up to me and asked me to delete the photos and videos. When I refused, they mellowed down. "How are five of us supposed to control a crowd of 500? We don't get any joy in doing this," a policeman said. “They are not listening to us. You tell them to go back. They might listen to you. This happened yesterday as well.”
There was only one way the standoff was going to end. And it ended with migrant workers walking back to where they had come from. Dejected, they picked up their belongings and began their arduous return. The only option for them was to wait for the call from their local police station, and board a special train to get back home. The call better come soon. Because the workers are on edge.
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