Unseen warriors of COVID: Hit by second wave, Mumbai's invisible migrant workforce waits to be prioritised for vaccination
A majority of the migrant workers in Mumbai are unaware of the COVID-19 vaccination drive. They neither have access to the internet nor valid address proof to register for the vaccine
Editor's note: As the second wave of coronavirus infections ravages parts of India, millions of front-line workers and citizens are caught up in the middle, providing their services to distressed families on one hand while trying to cope themselves on the other. This is part of a series profiling the stories of these people.
Mumbai: With over a thousand migrant workers residing in the shanties adjoining the Mithi River, Kurla’s LBS Road is one of the busiest areas in the suburbs of Mumbai. The inhabitants of the city are dependent on the cheap labour sourced from here, for their day-to-day survival.
At 7 am each morning, a number of migrant labourers gather at different naakas (checkpoints) of the LBS road in search of work. They arrive in two shifts, day and night. One such spot where the labourers gather is the Ansari Kaata, where trucks carrying construction material are weighed before they leave for the city.
Those in charge of the trucks hire a few labourers from the huge crowd and take them around the city for work at different sites. For the labourers, more trucks arriving at the Kaata meant more opportunities for work.
However, with lockdown restrictions in place, the number of incoming trucks have drastically decreased and the crowd at Ansaari Kaata is also gradually getting smaller. Amidst this, a feeling of isolation is deepening among those migrant workers who decided to stay back and work.
Over a month after the night curfews were extended into lockdown like restrictions in Mumbai, migrant workers, who are yet to recover from the blows of the 2020 lockdown, are now facing the double whammy of managing to survive each day and also saving up to arrange tickets to return to their home state.
No access to food
"In the previous lockdown we received food from different sources, some people including our seth (employers) used to help us. But, this time all are tired and no one is helping also. Main problem is daily food,” says Shaukat Ali, a 50-year-old migrant worker from Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh.
"During iftaar, most labourers here do not have any money to end their fast also. Those who can manage, buy fruits and eat. Others end their fast with just water and dates,” he adds as he speaks about what the workers are going through as they look forward to Ramzan Eid on 14 May.
While the One Nation, One Ration card scheme to facilitate the migrant workers to buy subsidized ration from the Public Distribution System shops is in effect, there are implementation loopholes and many migrant workers are still forced to buy ration at regular prices. Additionally, many of them do not have ration cards to avail the benefits.
“For one man, we get 5kg of rice or dal for Rs. 5, for one month. How will we manage that much for the entire month? We don’t get anything other than that. We also need other spices, right? Should we just eat baby food, khichdi of dal and rice? Either you give us more money for our work or increase the quantity of ration,” says Naseebdar, a 35-year-old worker from Bahraich, UP.
While the Maharashtra government had started Shiv Bhojan Thalis in January 2020 to provide free lunch for unorganized labourers and migrant workers, not all have benefited from the scheme due to the limited locations of the Shiv Bhojan hotels.
On 1 May, the government crossed the four crore mark in serving subsidized lunch under the scheme, but many are still unaware of these hotels.
“There are no hotels by the government here. We just take parcel from here and there, where will we even sit and eat? How far will we travel for the hotel? We need something here,” says Sukaee, another labourer at the Ansari compound.
Most of the labourers here do manual jobs such as loading and unloading furniture or construction materials and other unskilled works. The labourers reiterate that these days they get work for just one day through which they earn something around Rs 500 and the rest two to four days have to be managed with that money.
“Work has also stopped now. This month I have just earned my food. No savings. Have to clear debts of ration and hotel too. We manage to send 500-1000 from our savings to our homes back. That too is uncertain. Some months we cannot save, so we have to take debts to send money,” says Syed Ali, a 42-year-old worker from Uttar Pradesh.
On being asked about other expenditure, he says, “We sleep on the footpath, so no rent. People who stay on rent, even if they are staying for 10 days, will have to pay full month’s rent. It’s a matter of everyday survival.”
Firstpost wrote to cabinet minister Nawab Malik, whose office is in LBS Marg, appealing for providing the labourers with ration and other assistance. Malik said the appeal is sent for enquiry at the labour department, food and civil supplies minister and the municipal corporation.
Cannot afford transportation costs to leave the city
Many of the migrant workers, in anticipation of a complete lockdown, left the city right when the state government announced the night curfews. Those who stayed back, now desperately want to return in the face of another two weeks of stricter restrictions.
However, this time there are no Shramik Special trains to facilitate free transport, instead, workers are forced to pay extra charges to arrange confirmed tickets of buses and trains.
"To leave the city, you need a ticket of Rs 3350 now. If you don’t have money to buy the ticket, you are stuck here. For the bus, it’s 3500 and extra for luggage. We all want to leave, but, if we don’t have money to travel, how will we go? We don’t have work also, so how will we earn money for tickets?” says Naseebdar.
“In a bus seat of 4 persons, 10 people are forced to sit. How will we complete a journey of 36 hours like that? It takes four days to reach our hometown,” he adds.
Raj from UP, who does not wish to say his full name and estimates his age to be 18 years, says, “I came here in 2019. Stayed during the 2020 lockdown, worked and followed all the lockdown rules. I thought I will leave in 2021. Now, how will I go?”
Most of the migrant workers Firstpost spoke to are from UP, MP, Bihar and Jharkhand. All they want is for the government to provide them with some kind of free or subidised transport facility to return to their homes.
On COVID-19 Immunisation drive
Migrant workers are not considered frontline workers under the Centre’s plan of COVID-19 vaccination drive. As the state gears up for vaccinating people in the age group of 18-45-year-olds, a majority of the migrant workers are unaware of the drive and have no access to the internet or valid address proofs to register for the vaccine.
On being asked whether there was any campaign or survey conducted to educate them about the COVID-19 vaccine, Syed Ali says, “While the police fines them even if their masks are down for a few minutes, but there has been no such campaign here. No one comes here. Not even the BMC or media.”
While some are averse to the vaccine, some say they will definitely get vaccinated if they are given access to it.
In June 2020, the state government had announced that it will unveil a new policy for registration of migrant workers in the city to form a database, which will be helpful in providing them with access to various welfare schemes. However, many workers are unaware of such registration or surveys.
Firstpost spoke to a few migrant workers (inter and intra-state), who work as helpers, registered under the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) for the ongoing Metro construction project in the city. The MMRDA works in collaboration with private contractors to hire labourers for menial jobs.
There has been no efforts from the contractor’s side to facilitate vaccine awareness and registration for workers above 45 years of age.
“Our contractor asked us if we wanted to take the vaccine and that they will be getting it through the government. But, when we said no, they did not ask us after that,” says Panchkula Ganesh Dhurandhar, a 50-year-old worker from Buldhana district in Maharashtra.
Migrant workers working under the state construction projects are registered, have an identity card and have everyday work even during the lockdown unlike the unorganised labourers at the Ansari compound who are now the most vulnerable and isolated groups in the city left to survive with no actual source of income or food.
When asked about what they would want to convey to the government, they say all they need right now is some assistance with procuring ration and transport facilities to return back to their states in the coming days.
An official from the Maharashtra Labour Department, who wished to remain anonymous, said “There is no panic like the previous year. We have help desks and nodal officers at every main railway station to address the complaints of those leaving the city, so transportation is not a problem.”
The official elaborated on assistance provided to those workers who are registered under specific private contractors or authority.
However, when asked about measures planned for workers who do menial jobs and are not formally registered, the official said, “Our welfare schemes for unorganized workers have not yet begun and are in the process.”
The labour department has also received requests for immunisation of migrant workers from civil society groups. But, there have been no directives issued in that regard yet, either from the Labour Commissioner or the Health Department.
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