As the authorities sealed the borders and prevented the exodus of migrant workers from the state, an under-construction housing society for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) came to life Sunday night.
The premises being constructed by the Vadodara Municipal Corporation (VMC) has heavy police deployment outside the gate, along with the presence of corporation officials. Entry and exit are strictly regulated, while men and women with their faces covered with handkerchiefs stand near the gate, insisting on resuming their journey back to their villages in MP, Rajasthan, UP and Bihar.
Rahulram Jat, 36, a native of Mahendrapura village in Bikaner, Rajasthan, started his journey from Surat to Bikaner on Sunday morning when he was stopped near Vadodara and brought to the relief camp after a directive by the Centre to seal all the state borders and asking the respective district administrations to provide food and shelter to the stranded migrant labourers.
Jat, working as an accountant in a travel agency in Surat, decided to return home after his mother passed away two days ago. “My mother passed away two days ago and I decided to walk back home. I didn’t know how long it would take, but I heard people were walking and so I started too. The business is running in a loss and no one knows when it will restart. My wife and my four kids live in the village and I want to go back to them,” Jat said.
Two brothers Vikas Rawat (18) and Sandeep Rawat (20) arrived in Gujarat on March 15 to work with a private firm in Ankleshwar. They were sent to work from their village Napakheda in Dewas by a contractor in Dewas. Their unit has been shut down since March 22 and their contractor has been out of reach, they said.
“We were provided meal by the firm where we worked. We fixed bolts. The pay was lucrative, which is why we decided to leave our villages and come here for better earning. The unit has been shut for seven days now and we did not have the resources to cook. We survived on biscuits, chips and such snacks. But now we don’t have money for food or pay the rent next month, so we decided to go back. We walked till Dahod from where we were brought back here,” they said.
There are a total of 434 flats with 250 one-BHK apartments, each measuring 49 square metres. On Sunday around 7 pm, the first batch of around 200 migrant labourers arrived at the relief camp from the Golden chowkdi on the city outskirts. By Monday evening, the number rose to over a thousand.
Deepak Kumar who arrived in the first batch said, “The rooms were not open yesterday. They were opened today. There was no electricity, no fans. We slept on the ground. They should have allowed us to walk back from where we had started instead of keeping us here. There was no food yesterday. Today, around 11 am, we were given tea followed by lunch. But we don’t want to eat or stay here.” Kumar started his journey from Surat where he worked as a contractual labourer to Gorakhpur in UP, a distance of around 1,200 km.
“The houses are ready and people can stay there. We have also arranged for lights now. There are no fans. Electricity is an issue but we are co-ordinating with the MGVCL for electricity supply here. There is a source of water on the ground. But no direct water supply in the flats yet. Toilets are there and drainage lines are functional as well. Other amenities will be provided soon. Every room is around 10×12 feet and we will ensure that three persons occupy a single room so that social distancing is maintained,” said city engineer PM Patel.
Most of the occupants complained that they were asked to board a bus and were informed that they will be taken to their respective villages or the state borders. However, they were brought to the awas apartments. “They have tricked us and brought us here. We were told that we will be taken to our villages but instead we were brought here. And now we are not allowed to walk out of this place. We don’t know for how long we will have to stay here,” said Balveersinh Chauhan who worked at a diamond unit in Surat and and started his journey on foot to his village in Nagaur in Rajasthan along with his wife and two children.
“The disease was spread by rich people who returned after vacationing in foreign countries. We had no role to play in it but we have lost our source of income, we can not go home and are affected the most for no fault of ours. How will they correct this for us,” Chauhan added.
VMC Commissioner Nalin Upadhyay said that the workers have been pleading with the authorities to be sent home. “We have made all arrangements for their stay and food. They will be here until the end of the lockdown but they have been asking us to allow them to go home. We understand that it is natural tendency but we are trying to make them understand that it is for their good. Food is not an issue,” said Upadhyay.
Upadhyay also added that the workers have been screened for basic symptoms of COVID-19 and will continue to be under watch. “We will give them medical support if needed, apart from screening them regularly,” he said.