THEY STAND close to each other, bags slung over shoulders, noses pressed against the glass. They watch flights land and take off, passengers in PPEs being ferried in buses. “Bhai,” an airport staffer breaks in. He has been tasked with maintaining social distance at the Patna airport. And his voice is gentle: “Are you going for work? Is the situation bad at home?” Then, to make them smile, he confides: “I haven’t been inside an aircraft, either.”
Beginning May, a huge influx of returning migrants, unable to sustain themselves in locked-down cities, walking kilometres, starving in trains, reached the succour of home in Bihar. But then, with no work, and the lockdown affecting the rural economy as well with falling agricultural prices, they are leaving again. The cities are slowly reopening, and the companies, in real estate for instance, are desperate for their workers to return.
Manish Kumar is from Bihpur in Bhagalpur, a district that has been the focus of a series by The Indian Express to understand how the fight against Covid, and the unlockdown, plays out in a small town.
Kumar says he spent four days in May on a train from Delhi. Now, he will spend two hours on a plane back, the ticket paid for by a real estate company. “I don’t know the company’s name, and I don’t want to go. But the children are hungry at home,” he says.
Early last week, Kumar got a call from a contractor, Yogendra Singh. Singh told him that a group of 10 men were being flown to Delhi, from where they will be taken to a construction site in Haryana’s Manesar. He was calling “as a favour”, because Kumar’s wife was his cousin, and she had dialled him, desperate for her husband to find work. The other nine are from Kishanganj.
“This has started for the past two weeks,” says Singh. “For years, I get calls when people want to arrange for labour in Delhi and Haryana. This time, they said work needs to start quickly because they have to meet targets. They are paying for the tickets, and it is the first flight for these workers.”
“Have to meet targets” is a line the workers are familiar with. It means long hours of backbreaking work, perhaps one meal a day at night, roti and dal, maybe pickle. They have been told that arrangements will be made “on site.” “This usually means mats on the floor, and at the most, a fan and a bulb where we sleep. We know that even payments will not be on time, and not until the work is over. But we have been told that the company will give Rs 300 a day,” says Murari Lal, from Kishanganj.
Before March, Lal lived in a shanty in Gurgaon, working on a construction site. When the lockdown was announced, his income dried up. The shanty was on rent, and food for money was running out. Every time he stepped out to find work, he had to evade the police, and count himself lucky if he received a food packet from an NGO distributing relief.
Besides, he was afraid. And all he could think about were his wife, two daughters, and his old mother at home. “I spent days trying to find a way home and finally left on a truck to see them. But now, I am returning to save them.
There are no jobs in Bihar. Even in the village, there are expenses. How long will my children eat PDS rice and salt? How will they buy vegetables? The monsoons are here and we will need a new roof. How will we buy fertiliser and seeds? The city has Covid, I know, and the village doesn’t. But no father wants his children to go hungry,” he says.
All across Patna airport, groups such as these are waiting for flights — to Delhi, Bengaluru, Hyderabad. Often, they are asked questions by other passengers, masks firmly on their faces: Where are they going? Is this their first flight? Are they excited to travel in an aircraft for the first time?
The initial response is to nod in unison, or for one to respond, “yes, there is happiness”, afraid to disagree. But one man in the Kishanganj group, older than the others, is unable to stop himself. “What happiness? If I never get to sit inside a plane my entire life, I would not care. No man can be happy if his wife and children are unhappy,” he says. Another voice, braver now, snaps: “What will we do with the plane…eat it?”
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