New Delhi: The image of hundreds of migrant workers at Mumbai's Bandra railway station a week ago had provoked intense reactions on social media. Many criticised the workers for violating the social distancing norms. What was the reason behind this rush of workers and labourers, many out of work due to the lockdown, to go back to their homes, some wondered.
News18 spoke to dozens of people, most of them semi-skilled workers, who used to earn between Rs 7,000 and Rs 10,000 a month working at factories that have remained shut for nearly a month now. Workers living with their families at industrial areas in Sahibabad, Gurugram and Shahdara said that their rations over the past one month had dwindled to nothing. Unless they reach their native villages, these people fear they along with their children and wives would die of hunger.
Five members in Saroj's family, including his three young children, lived on his Rs 10,000 a month income. He used to work at a brass polishing factory in Shahdara. His income was just enough for his family to last through the month. Since the lockdown, he hasn't earned anything. For some time after the lockdown was announced he got groceries on credit. But knowing that Saroj wouldn't be able to pay him in the near future, the local shopkeeper stopped the supply.
"I used to earn enough for my family to last us the month. Now there's nothing. We have food when rich people come and distribute it. Otherwise there's nothing. Nobody's ready to loan me any money," Saroj said. He comes from Buxar district of Bihar and is quite desperate to reach his village where he's sure he and his family will be able to survive somehow.
But what about the people who say that migrant workers shouldn't rush to their homes?
"How can anyone say that? They must surely be mad," Saroj says and walks away.
Manoj, who is his colleague at the factory, which hasn't paid full salaries to its workers, says that some of their friends from Bihar tried to flee to their state out of desperation. "But they were stopped at Ghaziabad. The police beat them up badly and told them to return. Since then we haven't had the courage to take up the journey. Someone told us 'call the police, they'll get you food'. We have been calling them every day. We've got nothing from the government so far," Manoj said. He comes from Uttar Pradesh's Ballia district.
Reema who comes from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, and lives in Sahibabad, is in an even more desperate situation. Her husband, Sinhaasan, used to earn his salary working at a garment shop. It's not just the lack of food and money that's hurting them. Sinhaasan fell ill a few days ago. He was diagnosed with typhoid. The Rs 2,000 Reema had borrowed from a friend to provide for milk and food for her children has now gone into getting medicines for her husband.
"Hum intezaar kar rahe hain. Jab gaadi khulegi turant bhaag jaayenge. Kuch nahi hai khaane ke liye. Saara paisa inki dawa mein kharch ho gaya (We are waiting. Whenever train services start, we'll leave. There's nothing to eat. Every paisa has gone into his medicines," Reema said.
Ram Ashish who lives with his family in Gurugram's Prem Nagar area says that as much as he would like to return to his home in Ballia he knows he won't be able to make that journey. "Our landlord has been kind to us till now. But that doesn't mean he won't ask for the rent. Before we leave, we will have to clear our dues. Where will we get the money for that?"
Sanoj who works as a painter and lives in the flat next to Ashish's says that they had no idea the lockdown would continue for this long. "I had just returned from my house in Ballia 15 days before the lockdown. I didn't even have time to earn anything before the government ordered the shutdown. I thought the lockdown would continue for a week or 10 days. If I knew this is what I was coming to, I would have given anything to stay at home with my family. Even today, I would take the first train out to UP."
But what about the social distancing norms?
"Yes, what they're saying makes sense. I understand this disease is quite contagious and very deadly," said Sanoj. "But till when will we sit inside our houses waiting for some organisation to give us food? The police doesn't allow us to step out also. Till when will we wait for somebody's generosity before we see our children starve to death in front of our very own eyes?"