Dalpat Singh, a 20-something casual labourer employed through a contractor at a chemical manufacturing unit in Boisar, Maharashtra, left his cramped home not far from his factory at 4 am on Thursday. By 9.30 am, he and his group of about 15, all migrant labourers, had reached the bridge across the Surya river near Tawa village on the Mumbai-Gujarat highway, having covered nearly 35 km, walking non-stop, having had to skip even the morning cup of tea.
Mopping his brow and shifting his little backpack, the kind used by college students, from one shoulder to another, he made it clear he didn’t want to stop and chat.
“We’re getting a bus from Gujarat, somebody said buses are running today,” he said. They were hopeful of boarding a bus from somewhere near Bhilad, another 75 km away. If the tip about the bus was off the mark, they would have to walk about 700 km more to get home in Rajsamand, Rajasthan.
Working under a contractor providing labourers to units in the Boisar MIDC and Palghar region, the youngsters earn Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 a month, depending on availability of work and shifts. “Things were bad since March 15-16, but since this Monday, we have been unable to get even basic supplies to cook and no restaurants or even tea stalls are operational. Most of those working with us left for their homes yesterday, not many plan to stay back,” Dalpat said.
A straggler in the group said it didn’t make sense anymore to pay rent when the likelihood of units closing down and work being unavailable in coming days are now very real. “In any case, we couldn’t have lived here during the 21-day lockdown, it’s impossible without any kind of arrangements for food,” he said.
Only a fraction of the thousands of small units dotting the Boisar-Palghar belt offer accommodation to labourers, and the large majority lives in informal housing around the factories. The pharmaceutical units are now the only ones still operational, and an estimated 3,000 workers from this belt alone are migrant labourers now undertaking the gloomy journey back to their native towns and villages, walking in the absence of any transportation services across district and state borders during the lockdown and not very hopeful of hitching a ride.
Praful Makwana, who has run Kwality Process Equipment Private Limited for more than 20 years in Palghar and Vasai, said his is a rare facility that accommodates its non-local labourers, all of them on the rolls.
A manufacturer of capital equipment for chemical industries, Makwana said SMEs in the region are most certainly facing impending closure, having to service business loans while the facility remains shut. “So it’s natural for labourers who are not covered by things like provident fund or other employment benefits to leave for their native places, because of the uncertainty ahead and the continued expense of living here while not earning anything,” he said.
“Most of the informal labourers live in slums in groups. Only a very small percentage may have purchased their own accommodation if they have lived and worked here for a long time.”
On the highway, Ramesh Dokphode and his wife Devka were still cheerful after walking 30 km from a brick kiln where they were indentured labourers. The couple belongs to Veti village on the Kasa-Jawhar road, another 12-15 km away. “The kiln is shut, so the owner didn’t want to foot our food expenses for the next 21 days,” Devka said.
She doesn’t know much about COVID-19, but she wrapped a handkerchief across her mouth anyway, mainly to keep the dust out and also because others walking on the highway were doing so. She also doesn’t know anything about special flights that brought home Indians stranded abroad. “We’re almost home,” she said brightly. “But we’ll have to start looking for work again.”
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