‘Hum log toh mar jayenge (We will die)’: this was the refrain among migrant workers stuck in Maharashtra, after they heard Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s announcement that the lockdown will be extended to April 30 in the state. Many said no state agency had reached out to them even once since the lockdown began on March 24.
“We are feeling helpless. We are not even requesting the government to start public transport for us. Please ask them to just give us passes to go home, we will manage,” said Triveni Yadav, a 42-year-old worker from Hazaribagh in Jharkhand.
Yadav, who usually works at construction sites in the city, is staying in an 8×8 sq ft room along with seven others in Dharavi, which has seen a surge in coronavirus (COVID-19) cases, including one more death, on Saturday.
Yadav said he and the others will either die of hunger or of the infection since they also used a common toilet, shared by thousands of others living in the area.
The group called up a government helpline based in Ranchi for help, but were instead given the phone number of Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit organisation working with migrant workers. Deepak Paradkar from the organisation said he received more than 70 distress calls from migrants daily.
“We are trying to reach out to groups through direct cash transfers or by coordinating with vendors for ration, but many are living in small rooms with access to common public toilets, which has increased the fear of the virus in them,” Paradkar said.
The Mumbai Police has called in five companies of State Reserve Police Force (SRPF) to the city, which means a total of 600 personnel. A senior officer said it was in case of any law and order situation, especially if large numbers of people, including migrant workers, began walking home.
With many migrants saying they will not be able to endure the shortage of food and their present living conditions beyond April 14, the officer said efforts were on to ensure that food reached everyone.
“If there is anyone who is struggling to find anything to eat, they can just call 100 ― the police helpline ― and we will ensure that they get food,” said Mumbai Police spokesperson Pranaya Ashok. He added that he received calls from migrant workers belonging to Kolkata, and ensured that food reached them whenever they contacted him.
State and district authorities, however, have not been able to reach all. “We were hopeful that the government will give us some time to go home. There is no ration here. Food is distributed by some organisations every day but it is never enough. Itni bheed ho jaati hai, lagta hai kahin bimaari na lag jaaye (it gets so crowded that we fear contracting the infection),” Yadav said.
In similar rooms at Dharavi and Chunabhatti in central Mumbai, over 1,000 migrant workers from Jharkhand are stranded with dwindled savings and no ration.
District authorities and city MLAs said they were attempting to reach out to people through food and ration distribution, but with numbers running into lakhs, the effort was never enough.
More than 18,000 migrant workers from Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, working in units at Khairani Road, said the only government agency they had seen in the last three weeks was the police, who were enforcing the law to ensure nobody ventured out.
“I only have Rs 200 left now. It will not last for more than a few days of ration. We somehow managed for 15 to 20 days. The government said there will be cash transfers into Jan Dhan accounts or ration distributed to all. Nothing has happened. If we are sent home, we will survive by eating roti and salt at least. If I die here, my children will not even get to see me,” said Ajay Tivari, a worker at Khairani Road in Sakinaka.
The Bombay High Court on a PIL last week told the state government to ensure that food, shelter and medicine are provided to those stranded. It also directed district service legal aid authorities to step up their efforts. An official of the DLSA in the city said they had not received any grievance so far but efforts were on to coordinate between stranded workers and the government.
A BMC official said cooked food was being provided in various areas as well as in relief centres for migrant workers.
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