A week before India went into lockdown, a group of nine people, all relatives from Tulapatti village of Bihar’s Supaul district arrived in Punjab, looking for work as daily wagers. One of them was Babu Mandal.
Even as migrants, including those from his native district and state, started returning home citing lack of job and earning, the 42-year-old Mandal and his entire group decided to stay put. He was in Punjab to earn some money during the wheat harvesting season and then during the paddy transplantation season, and he was not going to return empty handed to his family at Talupatti.
With paddy transplantation season getting over in Punjab, Mandal and his relatives booked bus tickets for July 6 to return home. However, Mandal won’t be boarding that bus now.
On Saturday, his body was cremated as a “suspected Covid patient”, a day after he died while complaining of fever, cough and breathlessness.
He had fever, cold cough and breathing trouble as well. On July 3, he was brought in Barnala’s civil hospital and he was about to be shifted to Rajindra Medical College, Patiala but he died. As already mentioned that Barnala has no tertiary care hospital and it is 100 km away in Patiala.
“The symptoms he had were similar to that of Covid patients. We have sent samples for testing. His body was cremated as per the Covid guidelines by our health staff. His report is likely to return by Sunday,” said Dr GB Singh, Civil Surgeon, Barnala.
After reaching Punjab in March, Mandal and his relatives had initially moved to different areas. Mandal, as per his relatives worked in fields during wheat harvesting season, in mandis during procurement season, and later, from June 12 onwards, in paddy fields of Barnala’s Sekha village. Mandal fell sick three-four days ago. On July 3, he was brought to Barnala’s Civil Hospital. He died while he was about to be shifted to Rajindra Medical College, Patiala, some 100 km away.
His relatives, who had also been working in the fields of farmers at Sekha village, have been told to stop the paddy transplantation work till the time Mandal’s Covid report doesn’t come in. Mandal’s paternal uncle, Ashok Mandal (55), said, “I have been coming to Punjab since early 80s when we used to get Rs 6 as daily wage. Agar gaon mein rozgar ho, toh kya zarorat hai yahan aane ki. Garib aadmi hain, roti kamane ke liye aana padta hai har sal (We wouldn’t have come here if we had employment opportunities at our village. We are poor people. We have to come here every year to make the ends meet).”
“Like other years, this year too we arrived here in March to work as daily wagers in towns and later in wheat and paddy fields before returning to our village in July. This year we got little work related to construction, but we got work in fields and mandis. While I worked in Patiala, Babu worked in Ludhiana and his brother Dyanand worked in Jalandhar. All of us later came to Sekha village as we have been coming here for the past several years for paddy transplantation,” he added.
Jagraj Singh, the farmer in whose tubewell house they all were living in while working in the paddy fields said,”They transplanted around 40 acres of my land and worked in the farms of two or three other farmers in the village. It is too hot these days and I think Babu fell ill due to excessive heat. Now we are waiting for his Covid report.”
Dayanand confirmed that all of them were to leave for Bihar in next two days. “I am not able to come to terms that my brother is no longer with me. His wife is under great stress in village. He has four children — two sons who are in class 6 and 9 and two teenage daughters. One daughter is hearing and speech impaired. Gaon mein thodi si zameen hai. Agar kharcha pura hota to kya zarurat thi yahan aane ki. Garibi lati hai pardes mein. Yahan saalon se aa rahen hain. Ghar mein bacche khush ho jate hain jab unki zarurat poori ho jati hai, yahan ke kamaye huye paison se. him toh curfew mein bhi yahin rahe. Humein paisa kamana tha (We have a small piece of family land in our village. Had we been able to meet our expenses through that land then where was the need to come here. We have been coming here for the past many years. Children feel happy when we are able to fulfill their wishes with the money earned here. We didn’t go back during the curfew because we had come here only to earn some money).”
Mandal’s nephew and few others are also part of group now waiting at the tubewell room for his report. If Mandal’s report returns negative, they will leave on Monday.
During lockdown, more than 8 lakh people from Punjab returned to their native places in trains and buses while nearly 1.17 lakh (official figures) have come back. During paddy transplantation, many farmers brought workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in buses.
Asked if they will continue to come to Punjab, Ashok Mandal said replied in affirmative. “What other choice do we have. We need to feed our families. Life must go on.”
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines