Thousands of migrant labourers trudging through roads leading out of Mumbai towards North or East India have regularly been described as those fleeing hunger. But other crucial driving factors behind the exodus have been harder to grasp: the fear of looming economic insecurity and the psychological urge to be with kith and kin during times of crisis.
With every increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in Dharavi, Triveni Yadav receives a call from his family back home in Jharkhand, worried, pleading him to return home safely as soon as possible. “They read that the cases here are rising and knowing the conditions that we live in, no matter how many times I assure them of my well-being, they feel sooner than later, the virus will get me,” said Yadav, a construction worker, currently living with seven others in Dharavi in a small cramped room. Their concerns are not exaggerated as they have to continue to access public toilets used by all in the area. The infected cases in Dharavi alone reached 180 on Tuesday.
On Sunday, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray during his webcast switched to Hindi from Marathi and addressed workers like Yadav: that they should tell their families that they were safe where they are. “I give you my word that the Maharashtra government will take you to your homes…when the crisis ends. I believe that when you go back to your homes, you should go back happily and not out of fear,” he said.
Caught between their worried families and the restrictions on travel, workers stranded here are left with counting uncertain days. With peak summer, in the cramped spaces where they live (many live in their work units with asbestos sheets), workers say time has come to a standstill. “We are usually so tired after work that sleep comes easy. Now, days and nights are all the same. We cannot step out too much as the police keep patrolling. Inside the room, someone is talking on the phone with his family, or discussing news about the virus. It is difficult to find any escape, which can provide some hope,” said Diwakar Kumar, a migrant from Uttar Pradesh.
Many said that they do not have money left to fill talktime on their prepaid phone connections.
Rahul Sapkal, assistant professor, school of management and labour studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, said that the small and medium scale units, where many in the unorganised sector work, may not have the capacity to recruit workers back immediately due to factors including impact on export and slowdown of the economy. For workers stranded here, every day spent also adds to their expenses, including paying rent. “We pay Rs 1,000 per person as monthly rent for the room shared by 14. We could not pay for April and have requested our landlord to take the money next month. If the lockdown continues, it will be difficult to seek more time,” said Mohsin Shaikh, a resident of Malda in West Bengal, who works as a construction worker. His current place of residence in a settlement in Behrampada is also marked as a containment zone but social-distancing remains a distant reality as it is densely populated.
“When the lockdown was imposed, social-distancing and quarantine were advised keeping in mind the middle and upper middle class population, who can afford to do these. The exodus of migrant workers, which began before the lockdown, was not factored in at all, which reveals a caste and class divide. We are still not factoring their emotional quotient in the policy. The authorities need to understand that the workers who are trying to reclaim their share in the city are an important segment of democracy, our society. Their needs cannot be ignored,” Sapkal said.
Civic officials said that ready-to-eat food packages, ration and community kitchens are set up to reach out to workers, so are Shiv Bhojan meals priced at Rs 5. Activists and workers in the city, however, said that assistance did not reach many even once during the lockdown. Swati Narayan, a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Development, said it is unjust to not allow workers to return home and be kept stranded in an undignified manner without access to PDS and cash transfers.
“Maharashtra has done little compared to other states and the central government has done even less. In Jharkhand for instance, didi kitchens were started at every panchayat and cash transfers for workers have been initiated. We are in a state of collective trauma but this has revealed that the authorities have not been able to empathise with people from the labour class,” she said, adding that while the Centre announced Rs 1.7 lakh crore relief package, which is about one per cent of the GDP, the biggest exclusion were the migrant workers.
Many countries have announced packages totalling over 10 per cent of their GDP.
Narayan also said that there is a need to plan how the massive rush of workers wanting to go home when the lockdown eventually lifts will be managed. “There could have been a staggered release with transport facilities like trains filled 1/10th of their capacities, taking workers home. At some point they have to go back and if it is done in a haphazard manner, everyone will rush to leave at the same time, putting themselves at risk again,” she said.
From Monday onwards, some restrictions were eased in the state, with around 3,000 industrial units seeking permission to resume work. But as it excludes Mumbai and Pune, workers stranded in the city are not very hopeful of things returning to normalcy. Many also depend on getting work from labour nakas in various parts of the city, which will not resume till the lockdown ends.
“Waise bhi, pehle ghar jaana hai, kamaana toh zindagi bhar hai. Agar bachenge nahi, toh ghar walo ko kaun dekhega (We want to return home first, we have our whole lives to earn. If something were to happen to us, who will take care of our family members),” said Virendra Yadav, who is stranded in Saki Naka. Many like him are the sole bread-earners of the family.
Also, since the impact is collective, many who depend on each other for minor borrowing of money know that there is no safety net now. “Everyone is in the same situation. If I were to fall ill, others here do not even have the money to assist me with my hospital visits or medicine cost,” said Shakib Ansari, a construction worker from West Bengal, residing in Bandra.
iCall, a telephone and email-based counselling service, has started a dedicated helpline for psychosocial support during the crisis. The helpline has received calls from stranded workers seeking information on food, shelter, transport as well as some expressing anxiety about the well-being of their family members back home or job insecurities. “Whatever is unfolding around the individuals, in terms of their livelihood, the disruption that has happened is having an impact on their psychological health as well. This also has to be accounted for while doing development work or health work,” said Aparna Joshi, the project director of iCall.