Taking shelter in make-do camps at an exhibition ground in Hyderabad, distressed migrant workers, stranded due to the nationwide lockdown, are now reconsidering their plans to go back home, and demanding jobs from the state government as curbs are gradually eased.
Walking into the huge temporary shelter in Nampally,a few elderly men can be seen sleeping while holding on to their minimum belongings, some lazily chatting away in groups, some seated in a circle playing cards, and a few others aimlessly strolling. With signs of normalcy returning in the city, as businesses and offices prepare to open, almost everyone in the shelter is seeking a job opportunity in the city after a failed chance to go back home.
From nearly 1300 inmates in the last week of March, the shelter is left with less than 150 persons at the moment. Languishing in the temporary shelter run by NGOs with the state’s assistance, migrant workers reiterate that they are neither beggars nor prisoners and demand that their livelihoods be restored by the government if they are not going to be sent back.
All of them wear an identification thread around their neck–a blue-coloured plastic token with ‘GHMC’ inscribed–to distinguish them from the outsiders.
“Everything is open, are the hotels and eateries open?” asks Baburam, a native of Lumbini in Nepal. Staring at the uncertainty looming large over people like him, he says he is not sure if he should go home now.
Baburam, like other migrant workers here, lost his job when the lockdown was announced. He was the main chef at a Chinese fast food joint in Tirupati, close to the Tirumala temple. The 40-year-old, like many others, wanted to head back home and could manage to reach only till Hyderabad before he decided to stay put and wait for government assistance to go home.
“At least 10 people left for Nepal in two batches yesterday and the day before. Some went via Delhi, some via Patna. I have to go via Gorakhpur,” he says.
The journey in itself, if and when arranged by the government, is making him unsure about what to do.
“The train will take me to Gorakhpur, then it is a three-hour bus journey to the border. They will keep me in quarantine for 15 days. Then it is a 50-km journey to Lumbini and again I will be kept in two weeks quarantine. That is one month wasted again. Here, things seem to be returning to normalcy,” he adds.
Hotels, restaurants, bars, pubs, and marriage halls do not figure in the list of businesses permitted to operate in Hyderabad. Most of the people at the shelter have worked in the line of catering, tent-house, fast-food and eateries, hotels, bars, and restaurants.
Echoing Baburam’s views, Vishal, from Baglung in Nepal, says he does not want to go back because he has nothing to take back home to his family. Vishal was a chef in a restaurant in Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh, 360 km away from Hyderabad.
Days after the lockdown was announced, he started walking on the highway, hitch-hiked on trucks, and managed to reach Hyderabad. He went to Shadnagar, 50-km away from Hyderabad, to meet an old acquaintance. As luck did not favour him, he returned to Hyderabad. He was sleeping on the railway platform in the night when some thieves frisked him for money.
“I managed to run away from them and reach this shelter. To keep myself safe, I had to sell my smartphone worth Rs 13,000 for Rs 3,000. Now, I cannot reach my family back home,” he says, dejected.
“I do not want to go back empty-handed. Though I go home only once in 2 years, I take gifts with me for my parents and relatives. People including neighbours will scrutinize you. I don’t want all that. Please let me know if you have any job for me,” the 26-year-old asked.
A couple of days ago, a local contractor or businessman had come to the shelter seeking workers for his business. Visits of such people have increased of late and the workers stranded here are hopeful of finding jobs in the coming days.
VG Gandhi, who worked in catering business, and hails from Hassan in Karnataka says: “Only people from Bihar, UP, Odisha, and Jharkhand, etc were taken back in trains. We are about 100 people from Karnataka and Maharashtra stuck here. If we are not going to be sent back, at least let us have some livelihood. How long do we simply sit here,” he asks.
Some of the inmates had left the shelter on their own in search of livelihoods, while some were sent out after they created a ruckus in the camp. Others still returned after not being able to work in construction sites.
“Everyone cannot work under the harsh sun for hours. It takes something to do that,” points out Gandhi, 54, while asking if any jobs were available for him outside.
“It is true that we get food here and it is safer than outside. We have a place to sleep and bathrooms to use. But how long do we stay put here? We miss the freedom to go out or do things of our choice. We are not beggars or prisoners. It is our helplessness,” adds another angry middle-aged man refusing to tell his name.
He points out that there was a television for inmates initially which was later removed. “We have nothing to do. We do not know what is happening outside. We hear that governments are doing everything for the rich while overlooking the poor. Tell me, how many migrants have contracted the disease here?” he asks.
When contacted, Radharani Motheram, in-charge of the shelter, tells indianexpress.com that only 380 people were registered as inmates at exhibition grounds and around 110 are left at the moment. They are waiting for their turn to return, she says.
Admitting that many of them do not want to return, she says “Some people have come forward to give them work. We are working on it and will do it in phases. Let’s see how it works out.” She, however, denies that 1300 people were given shelter at the beginning of lockdown, calling it a floating crowd.
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