AT THE best of times, Matadin Dhankar of Madhya Pradesh’s Morena district feels like an outsider in Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad where he works as a marble artisan, soldiering on hundreds of kilometres from home with the singular objective of ensuring that his late brother’s children get a real education. Now, kept forcibly in a municipal school in Pimpri that has been turned into a shelter for migrant workers who were stopped from walking or boarding trucks towards their native villages, he says he feels like a prisoner and a failure, and has been contemplating killing himself. “I have fallen at their feet so many times asking them to release me. My children are hungry at home, what is the use of being saved from this disease if my children die? Mujhe seene main goli de do (Shoot me in the chest),” he said over phone.
From across rented rooms, municipal schools and other places where migrant workers who could not make it out of the city or state are stranded without work or wages, accounts are emerging of desperate calls for help, grown men breaking down over the phone, women having sleepless nights, lost appetite, bouts of rage and a foreboding.
Dhankar, in his late 40s, is a skilled worker and earns Rs 800 to 1,000 a day, though work dried up about 12 days ago. Their one bigha of land is fallow, and his nephew’s BSc degree and niece’s Class XII education are underway. His group of friends was at Mulshi naka last week, trying to find transportation to Indore, when police teams carted them back to Pimpri. In the melee, he was separated from his friends and is now the loner in a group of men from Rajasthan.
Among the women at the shelter, Urmila Pal from Satna in MP, who is here with her husband and eight-year-old daughter, says she has sleepless nights thinking about her elder son and daughter, aged 13 and 10, back in the village. Construction workers, the Pals would return every four months to restock supplies for the children and her parents-in-law. “My children are starving, they have run out of groceries and the ration shop won’t give them anything without our thumbprint. Our phone also needs to be recharged, so I can’t even speak to them,” she said.
Dhankar and the Pals detest the daily noon and evening meal of khichdi. “In any case I don’t feel like eating,” Dhankar said. The men and women are using common toilets, another concern. While there is drinking water, there is no tea on most days.
Chandan Kumar of the Angmehnati Kashtakari Sangharsh Samiti, an umbrella organisation representing construction labourers, casual labourers, waste-pickers, domestic workers, head-loaders and others, recounted the workers’ extreme anxiety and stress to government officials on Wednesday evening. “Some of them have pregnant wives or children back home. Some are depressed. I fear that they may try to take an extreme step, at least one or two of them mentioned they wished they were dead,” he told The Indian Express. In Mumbai’s Santacruz, Pavan Kumar from Adilabad in Telangana begins to sob over the phone. “I am scared of falling ill and dying while my wife and child are so far away,” he said. He is among a group of about 10 from Adilabad who made distress calls back home before officials in Telangana stepped in and helped them contact organisations.
Brinelle D’Souza, faculty member at Tata Institute of Social Sciences’ Centre for Health and Mental Health, says the impact on these migrant workers’ mental health will be tremendous and will be apparent over the course of the long period before industry revives. “Even if they are provided food and shelter, there are greater hardships. They have formed networks that have been disrupted now, their support groups disintegrated, they have run out of money to charge phones, and they are extremely distressed that their children are hungry,” she said. Back in Pimpri, Dhankar says all he wants is a ticket home, one he will pay for.
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