Migrant workers and daily wage earners across India are increasingly going hungry during the coronavirus pandemic and suffering under the country's strictest lockdown. Living in large, overcrowded, often unhygienic areas, with limited access to basic needs, these people are far from being able to maintain social distance, and are among the most vulnerable to the deadly virus.
To help put this into perspective, what happened outside Mumbai's Bandra West railway station on Tuesday afternoon was an alarming indication that the challenges the migrant workers have been facing over the past few weeks, have only got more extreme.
It’s a situation that NGOs and aid volunteers are extremely concerned about.
"A lot of them have also been told that they would not get paid for the days they wouldn't be coming to work," says Juveca Panda, who along with Poorna Patel Soni and Namit Soni, began a fundraising campaign 'Together We Can: Spread Love Not Corona,' in association with a Mumbai-based NGO YUVA to support vulnerable families across four cities in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region-- Vasai Virar, Mumbai, Navi Mumbai and Panvel-- in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
Juveca says even before the outbreak, many migrant workers were left totally jobless, owing to the panic and paranoia around the pandemic.
"We surveyed a lot of vulnerable communities in Bandra East, Malad and Kharghar, and found out that many of them were already asked to not come to work because the employers started panicking in terms of how the novel coronavirus would transmit. And, these migrant workers started panicking and a lot of them already didn't have access to rations anymore. One of the bigger issues was the ration card linkage to Aadhar. Most of the linkage to the Aadhar card is quite poor. So many of them don't even get the ration that they are supposed to. Therefore, a lot of them were already going without food for a couple of days," Juveca tells us.
Juveca elaborates on how they are prioritising their capacities to respond to the crisis, adding that their initial surveys immensely helped them identify the worst-affected areas.
"Since we had already identified all of these areas and the communities, we immediately started getting dry ration kits together and distributing to these areas. Since we started about three weeks ago, we have done around 6,200 dry ration kits till date. So each of it will last the family of five, and initially we started with ration kits which were for two weeks. Now we have moved to monthly rations because the lockdown has been extended.
"In addition to that, what we also started doing a week into relief work is we realise that the essential service providers like police personnel and the government health providers were very overburdened, and a lot of them were working for days on end, not going home and having proper meals. So, we partnered with Blue Sea Catering and they actually opened up its entire venue in Worli and set up a kitchen to create meal boxes. We started doing about 9,000 daily meals between the police force and the government hospitals as well. Soon after, we also started getting relief requests for migrant laborers in areas where there was no access to food or water," she says.
Currently, a skeleton crew of the campaign is involved in the care and feeding of the stranded migrant labourers in Kharghar, Navi Mumbai and Bhiwandi, Thane.
"Bhiwandi's Powerloom factories have a lot of migrant labourers from Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. Since none of them had any notice and borders were closed, they were unable to go back to their homes. Most of these guys earn about 300-600 rupees in a day. And now without these basic wages as well, they are just stuck. A bunch of them are living in one room together and unable to access anything. There are almost five to six lakh migrant workers stranded there right now," Juveca says, while explaining how the current situation is impacting the daily wage workers.
They have set up another kitchen at Navi Mumbai's D Y Patil Sports Stadium to send out 12,000 freshly cooked meals per day to the stranded labourers.
"We realised that this was something that we needed to immediately cater to. We have also started catering meals to another group of stranded migrant laborers on one of the construction sites in Kharghar. Now we are doing about 12,000 meals per day from DY Patil to all the stranded migrant laborers.
"Today, we are at around 85,000 meals for the stranded laborers that we have done till date. We really scaled up relief work because we realised that there were a lot of people who were not getting the relief that they required immediately. It's quite heartbreaking. We have raised about Rs 1.5 crore as of today and we are looking to continue fund-raising so that we can sustain these relief efforts," she concludes.