Excited at the prospect of being home well in time to see his son turn one on May 3, Manas Raut didn’t think too hard when a friend and fellow migrant from Odisha said a transporter was willing to load 60 of them into a bus and drop them in Dhenkanal district, over 1,600 km away from their little rented rooms in Rabale, Navi Mumbai.
For one, he felt, the lockdown could end in other states — even if Maharashtra and Odisha had already announced extensions — and they could get closer to home. And then, there was the possibility that the Prime Minister could announce their repatriation when he addressed the nation Tuesday. However, after 60 Odia workers pooled in Rs 2,500 each and made bank transfers totalling Rs 50,000 to a transport company over Sunday and Monday, it emerged that they had been defrauded.
“We visited the Rabale police station on Monday evening, the man is now refusing to refund our money,” said Bijaya Dehuri. “We were not going to break any law, the transporter said Rs 35,000 was for getting official passes for each passenger. Now he’s refusing to do anything till we pay the rest, and everyone is telling us no such pass is available.”
Manas and Bijaya are among at least 60 people from Dhenkanal, including about 20 from a single village, living together in Rabale and working at various factories in the nearby MIDC industrial complex. Working on welding, cutting, moulding, dyeing and other machine tools, the men earn between Rs 250 and Rs 450 a day, paid at the end of the month.
“Those who had worked 20 or so days in March got paid, but money runs out fast,” said Manas, adding that the group had decided to put off paying rent and were accepting packages of groceries from a local volunteer. “All of us have wives or children or ageing parents home, how long can we be kept like this?” he asked, referring to the Prime Minister’s speech on extending the lockdown till May 3.
His farm land in Odisha is routinely overrun by wild elephants, and two men were caught in a rampage just days ago, but he prefers that to the uncertainty of the prolonged lockdown and inability to be with his family. “That’s why those who didn’t have cash actually phoned home and got money to pay for this bus ride home,” he said.
Matadin Dhankar of Madhya Pradesh’s Morena district, who has now spent three weeks at a Pimpri government school turned into a shelter for migrants, is losing patience. “There is no news about us who are stuck hundreds of kilometres from home, how long are we to stay imprisoned? Weren’t we supposed to be released today?” asked the marble artisan.
He said that other problems have arisen at the shelter, including inadequate food and the daily serving of khichdi to “roti-eaters”.
Bilal Khan of the Ghar Banao Ghar Bachao Aandolan said those who stayed back face fresh challenges, including running out of cash, having to make rent money, inability to buy cooking fuel and lack of access to potable water for cooking. “Their desperation is going to rise after the Prime Minister’s speech today,” he said.
Khan has been spending mornings distributing relief material and cooked meals in Navi Mumbai and in the eastern suburbs of Mumbai.
Shweta Damle of Habitats and Livelihood Welfare Association has received three letters from migrant workers over the past couple of days, all urging for intervention by the central and state governments to undertake their repatriation. “Every minute feels like 24 hours,” said one signed by Ramsnehi of Uttar Pradesh. The letter bears ten signatures, and says it would be an act of compassion to arrange to send them home. Damle says new questions have emerged about migrant workers who didn’t try to walk home but followed the lockdown and are now trying to arrange trucks and buses to get home. “Will they face criminal action? Those who walked were stopped and quarantined, but so many are now getting even more desperate. What will be the legal fallout?” she asked. Damle says she came across one group of workers from Jharkhand stuck here and willing to pay Rs 90,000 to get home. Hers is among various organisations that will petition Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray to find a way to repatriate them.
Chandan Kumar of the Angmehnati Kashtakari Sangharsh Samiti said he has been receiving phone calls from migrants offering to pay for the return journey, all expectant about the end of the lockdown on Tuesday or Wednesday. “Our PIL has also made a prayer that the state use assistance of the Army and the NDRF to repatriate these workers home, this is beginning to be heartless. I fear for the mental health of these people locked up so far from home,” he said.
Kumar said activists are looking forward to announcements on Wednesday that may provide relief to the poor, and to the post-April 20 relaxation of lockdown in some areas.
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