‘Jobs that pay in the village don’t last long… City life is stressful but reassuring’
Pramod Rai, 40, Truck driver
Back home in: Danapur Diara, Patna, Bihar
Returned from: Kolkata, on March 27
On March 26, after the first phase of the lockdown was announced, Rai set off for his village on a truck along with 44 other men. The group completed the 700 km journey in 20 hours. “Throughout the journey, the thought of reuniting with my family kept playing on my mind,” he says.
“Unlike earlier, he did not bring anything for the family this time, not even the famous Kolkata sindoor (vermillion) or sandesh. He also did not bring clothes for the children,” says wife Seema, 37.
The job he left behind: Rai earned a living in Kolkata for 15 years, transporting grains and essential goods between local markets. For driving his truck for 18 hours every day, he earned around Rs 7,000 every month. “I sent Rs 6,000 home,” says Rai, who has studied till Class 6. His employer paid him Rs 5,000 for his work till March 22. “But I had to pay Rs 2,000 to a local dhaba owner before leaving, and Rs 1,000 was spent on the truck fare back home,” he says.
In the past month, Rai has been in constant touch with his truck owner in Kolkata, Ramashanker Yadav, to check if he still has his job.
Family: Wife, and four children (ages 2, 4, 5, 7). Rai’s two brothers, Vinod and Subodh, work in Kolkata and Haryana respectively and haven’t returned home since the lockdown began. Rai’s family and his brothers’ families — 10 members in all — share the three-room brick house they built a few years ago with their pooled savings.
“Together, the three of us own one bigha of land, from which we get about 250 kg of wheat a year,” says Rai.
Money in hand: Rs 2,000. “When he arrived at the quarantine centre at the village high school, he gave me all his savings. With that money, I bought ration for three months, but I don’t know how we will manage after that. It has been a month since he returned from the centre, but he still hasn’t found a job. He spends all his time with the children or playing cards,” says Seema.
Rai says there are very few opportunities in agriculture either in the village. “This region (the Ganga riverine belt) remains flooded for four to six months every year and that is why we grow only one crop here — either wheat or maize,” he says.
Expenses: Seema says the lockdown and her husband’s situation have made her realise the value of education. “I want all my children to study in private schools as government schools do not offer proper education,” she says. The couple’s eldest son Rohit, 7, goes to a private school. “I pay Rs 300 per month at the school. It is tough, but I want all my children to study well so that they don’t have to face hardships,” says Rai. “We have spent Rs 800 on buying pulses, spices and noodle packets already. I have only about Rs 1,200 left now.”
Sitting on the cot with his father, Rohit talks about how he is learning alphabets now. Like other grown-ups in the village for whom Kolkata has always been a preferred destination for the men of the village, Rohit hopes to go to the city too. “Our forefathers also worked in Kolkata. It is closer home than Delhi and Haryana. We feel at home there,” says Rai.
Seema says she loved how Rai described the city, during his visits home once or twice a year. “I was hoping to see the Dakshineswar temple, but he never took us,” she complains. “Maybe I can plan the trip once coronavirus is over,” says Rai.
But Seema isn’t convinced. “He doesn’t even remember our wedding anniversary. I will believe him only once he takes us there,” she says.
Savings: None, no debt.
What next: “Setting up a dairy is an option but we don’t have cooperatives to buy milk at a good price,” says Rai. “There are jobs that pay Rs 300 a day, but they don’t last more than 10-15 days… Village life is peaceful but has a lot of uncertainty. In Kolkata, life was reassuring.”
‘The work was gruelling but I could buy ice-cream, clothes once in a while’
Dinesh Kharadi, 24, labourer at a chemical factory
Back home in: Dungarpur, Rajasthan
Returned from: Himmatnagar, Gujarat, on May 3
On May 2, after being stranded for a month on the premises of a chemical factory in Himmatnagar, Kharadi left town with nine other labourers without informing his employer. It took the group over a day to cover the 100-km distance to Dungarpur district on foot.
The job he left behind: For the past two years, Kharadi helped manufacture copper powder for making power cables at the factory. He was paid Rs 300 daily for a 12-hour shift. After the first phase of the lockdown was announced, work dried up and he did not receive any salary for April. “My cousin worked at the factory and he encouraged me to join. I earned about Rs 9,000 every month, of which I sent back Rs 6,000-7,000,” he says
Looking back on his life in Himmatnagar, Kharadi says he doesn’t miss much. “Gruelling work hours is the only thing I remember,” he says. “I had an ice-cream occasionally. Sometimes I bought clothes from the local market.”
Family: Wife, three children (ages 6, 4, and 2), sister and father. The seven-member family shares a two-room kuchcha home. His father owns two bighas of land on which they grow maize. However, due to scarcity of water, Kharadi says, the crop hasn’t been sown yet. “Now that he is here, we don’t want him to leave again. He can find some mazdoori (daily wage work) here,” says father Chunilal, 45.
Money in hand: Rs 300. “When he returned home, there was hardly any money. I walked for 7 km to go to the bank and withdraw Rs 2,000,” says Jija, 22, Kharadi’s wife. It was part of the Rs 2,500 the family got from the state government when their daughter turned one. “We wanted to spend the money on her, but now we are using it for our survival,” she adds.
Kharadi says he has been struggling to find work since his return home. “I can’t afford to sit at home. I know how to paint and will try to find something to do here,” he says.
Expenses: The family, says Kharadi, needs at least 50 kg of wheat (around Rs 20/kg in the market) and oil worth Rs 1,500 every month. “For now, we just have 10 kg of wheat which was given by the government. We are trying to stretch it to two weeks. We have no money left and soon we may not have enough to eat,” says Jija.
Of the Rs 2,000 that she withdrew from the bank, the family gave Rs 1,000 to repay a loan that they had taken from a neighbour. Another Rs 700, says Jija, was spent on buying grocery items “We have Rs 300 left,” she says.
None of the couple’s children attends school, but Kharadi says educating them is his only dream. “I don’t want them to be labourers,” he says.
Savings: None. “My father has around Rs 50,000 in his account, collected over several years. He is out of work now too. My wife and I have no savings,” says Kharadi.
Debt: None; repaid loan to neighbour.
What next: “I am not sure about going to any city for work anymore. I spent the last few days in Gujarat without money. I didn’t have any food to eat, and my employer didn’t help,” he says. “But there is hardly anything to do here either… But I am afraid to speak to my employer in Gujarat. I left without informing him.”
‘I bought a mini Taj Mahal replica during one of my Mumbai trips… It reminds me of my room there’
Ravi Maurya, 25, factory worker
Back home in: Mahuli village, Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh
Returned from: Kalyan, outside Mumbai, on May 3
Since 2015, Maurya has been working in Kalyan at a factory which dyes cloth. When the first phase of the lockdown was announced, he set off for his village with a group of men but was caught by police and kept at a shelter home in Nashik. On May 2, Maurya was among the 847 migrant workers who returned to Lucknow on a special train. “I only had Rs 500 then, of which I spent Rs 370 on the train ticket,” he says.
The job he left behind: At the factory, says Maurya, he earned Rs 11,500 every month. “I would send my wife Rs 4,000 every month. She kept half of the money and gave the rest to my mother,” says the 25-year-old. “I got only half my salary for March, and haven’t received any money from my employers since,” he adds.
While his wife Veenu, 23, is happy that her husband has returned safely, “it has been very difficult to ensure food for the family”. “For almost two months now he has not given me any money. We have been living on roti and dal. We have some land on which we grow wheat, sugarcane and sometimes vegetables. The wheat we harvested recently wasn’t very good, but we ground it and are using it to make chapattis,” says Veenu.
Family: Wife, parents, and two younger brothers. The family lives in a crumbling two-room kuchcha house and all members work on a two-bigha field owned by Maurya’s grandfather. “We are growing some vegetables on the field now,” says Veenu.
Since Maurya is still in quarantine, he can’t go. “My wife and I are responsible for providing lunch at home, while my parents pay for the items needed to cook dinner,” he says.
Money in hand: “Right now, I have no money with me. My grandfather doesn’t share the money that he earns from the produce of the field with us, only gives us food grains,” says Maurya.
He had come home for Holi, and says he spent all his savings — around Rs 3,000 — on the celebrations. “I thought I would earn when I resumed work, but then after the lockdown was announced, we didn’t even have enough food, forget salary,” he says.
Expenses: Maurya’s wife spends about Rs 2,000 to purchase grains, pulses, vegetables and oil for the family every month. “We mostly eat meals without vegetables now… Sometimes, we just have salt or chutney with roti,” she says. “Earlier, if I managed to save some money, I would buy make-up items like bindi, kajal. Now, we don’t have money for food, so I don’t buy them anymore. Earlier, I would also give Rs 200 to my father-in-law, who has been saving up to get the house repaired; not now,” she adds.
Savings: None, no debt.
What next: “After my 14-day quarantine ends, I will look for jobs. I have heard that the government is trying to arrange work for migrants,” he says. “I don’t have many dreams. If I get the job, I will be able to stay with my wife and won’t even have to pay rent… I can also get my house repaired sooner,” says Maurya.
While he doesn’t want to return, he has brought a miniature Taj Mahal souvenir as a reminder of this time in the town. “I had bought it during a trip to Mumbai. It reminds me of my room there… But life in the village is much better,” he smiles.
‘Never saw even a film there but city gave a chance’
Ajay Manjhi, 23, construction worker
Back home in: Chota Amra, Saraikela district, Jharkhand
Returned from: Hyderabad, on May 2
For the past three years, he had been working as a ‘metal bender’ at the IIT Hyderabad expansion project. On March 21, work at the site stopped and, around mid-April, the workers got agitated and some violence ensued. While Manjhi says he wasn’t part of it, the incident made him long for home. “I just wanted to get back,” he says. On May 1, he boarded the Shramik Special train organised by the government for migrant workers to return home.
The job he left behind: At the IIT Hyderabad project, Manjhi earned Rs 400 per day (about Rs 11,000 every month). “We paid Rs 70 daily for meals and stayed in makeshift tin sheds. We didn’t have to pay rent. I only spent Rs 400-500 per month on soap, shampoo etc. I never even saw a film, I saved all the money,” says Manjhi, who discontinued his education after Class 5 because of lack of funds.
The 23-year-old says he chose to go to Hyderabad “only because it offered opportunities for a better life”. “A neighbour who worked in Hyderabad told me that the job would get me good money. I jumped in,” he says. “Hyderabad offered me the opportunity to earn and save some money. That’s all. We were happy, until the lockdown. Tab mazdoor hone ka asli matlab pata chala (We realised the ugly reality of being a migrant worker),” he adds.
Manjhi says he received his wages for February and March, and his company promised him payment for the lost work days in April as well. “I am in touch with my contractors. They said they will let me know when work resumes,” he says.
Family: Parents, an older brother and his wife and daughter, and a younger brother. The family stays in a two-room pucca home, and his parents and brothers work on the three bigha land that they own. They are now preparing the fields for sowing paddy.
Money in hand: Rs 1,000 when he returned from Hyderabad.
“In March, he sent us Rs 25,000, which we have been using for agriculture work and to sustain ourselves. My son has provided for us for long, but I don’t want him to go back to the city again… The government needs to give us some support,” says Manjhi’s father.
Expenses: The family spends about Rs 200 every day on buying groceries. Manjhi’s niece attends the local government school, so they don’t have to pay any fee.
Savings: Rs 60,000, no debt.
What next: “I feel good to be back home, but that is not enough. If I am unable to go back, life will be very difficult for us. In the meantime, I may have to work under the MGNREGA, but the job pays only about
Rs 200 per day, and the wages are often delayed by a month. I could also sell vegetables here or go to Ranchi to work as a daily wage labourer,” he says, adding, “One day I hope everything returns to normal again.”
‘I’ll find work here or leave when it opens up. We will not starve, I’m sure’
Kamlesh Sahu, 27, construction worker
Back home in: Nandgaon, Raipur, Chhattisgarh
Returned from: Hyderabad, on April 4
In the first week of April, Sahu returned to Nandgaon from Hyderabad, about 780 km away, hitch-hiking and walking most of the way. “I took lifts from truck drivers carrying essentials, and walked when I couldn’t find anything. At the Odisha border, I was put in a government vehicle that dropped me at the Chhattisgarh border. I sneaked in undetected at night,” he recounts. “I didn’t want to be put in a quarantine facility. I walked all the way to be with my children. I don’t want to leave them,” he adds.
The job he left behind: Sahu earned about Rs 5,000 working at construction sites in Hyderabad. He managed to send home most of the salary. “I am the eldest in my family. I have two younger sisters, both of whom need to be married. My father died five years ago, after which I had to take up a better paying job outside the village,” he says.
Family: Mother, wife, two daughters (ages 6 and 3), and two younger sisters. “My wife also worked at construction sites in and around our village and in Raipur to supplement the family’s income. Since the lockdown began, we have all been at home,” he says. Sahu lives in a two-room kuchcha home with his family.
Money in hand: No cash. “We have Rs 4,000 in my mother’s bank account. It is the pension that she receives under a government scheme. The money will be used for my sisters’ weddings,” he says.
Though he worked in March, Sahu says the contractor did not pay his wages. “When I call the contractor, he abuses me saying that he will not pay the money because I left without telling him… I will now find work here or go with my wife when she starts working. We will not die of hunger, I am sure,” he says.
Expenses: “Recently, we received rice from the state government and some salt. We still had to buy the sugar… We have some potato and tomato growing in front of the house. We have been eating that till now,” says Anusuia, 25, Sahu’s wife. “I had told him not to go so far in the first place… but he wanted to earn some extra money,” she says.
Anusuia is also concerned about her crumbling home. “The house needs to be repaired, but we can’t do it now. We need the money for food. Once I start working, we will fix it,” she says.
Savings: Rs 4,000 (mother’s pension).
Debt: None. He recently paid off a loan of Rs 3,000 with a heavy interest. He had taken the money to carry out his father’s last rites.
What next: “I will do any job here, take loans and pay them off… But I will not go back,” says Sahu.
‘If I don’t return to Hyderabad soon, my employer will replace me. He hasn’t called me yet’
Gajraj Yadav, 26, delivery boy
Back home in: Chithari village, Chhatarpur district, Madhya Pradesh
*Returned from: Hyderabad, Telangana, on May 7.
It took Yadav two days, and two train journeys and a bus ride, to reach his village. He wanted to buy clothes for his children, like he always did, before leaving Hyderabad but couldn’t. “I could not buy anything because the markets were closed due to lockdown,’’ he says.
The job he left behind: Since January this year, the 26-year-old had the “permanent job” of supplying water cans to homes, for which he earned Rs 300 per day. Since the lockdown, he had no work in Hyderabad. “In April, my employer gave me some money, but that got over soon. On May 5, when I set off for my village, I had no money. I even had to vacate the room that I shared with five others,” he recalls.
Family: Wife, two children (of ages 6 and 4). Though Yadav and his younger brother Bhupat Yadav (23) own a five-bigha land in the village, on which they grow wheat, chana and pea, he says it’s not enough to support the family.
“Chhatarpur district does not receive enough rainfall and the irrigation facility is also poor. What we grow is barely enough to meet the family’s needs,” says Bhupat, adding, “Agar ghar chalta to bahar kyon jaate (If we earned enough, why would we leave the village).’
Money in hand: Nothing. “Earlier, I would send Rs 8,000 home every month. I could never save more than that. The rent was very high in the city. I split the Rs 5,000 rent for my room with five other people, but even that was a lot for me,” says Yadav. “Bhupat inspired me to take up the job in Hyderabad. He saved a lot of money delivering water jars in the city before returning to Chithari.”
Expenses: Rs 5,000 per month on grocery, electricity, mobile recharge, and EMI on a loan.
Debt: Yadav had taken a loan of Rs 1 lakh from a bank for his sister’s wedding. A part of that amount, he says, was given to the groom’s family. However, he says, he is relieved that he did not take the loan from a moneylender as that would have permanently chained him. “I don’t remember the interest rate or the remaining amount, but I am happy that the bank has not called me yet for missing my instalment,” he says.
What next: “I want to return to Hyderabad when the lockdown is lifted. I don’t think my employer will wait for me if I don’t return soon. He will find someone else to replace me. I haven’t spoken to him and he hasn’t called so far,” says Yadav.
‘I won’t stop my son from going outside Bengal to work. Dying of hunger worse than dying of infection’
Abdul Azim, 24, Hawker
Back home in: Dunigram, Birbhum, West Bengal
Returned from: Baraipar, Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh on May 5
On April 28, Abdul set off for his village on a cycle from Baraipar village. It took him eight days to complete a 720 km journey to reach his village in Birbhum district. “When I reached my home, my parents took a while to recognise me. My skin was burnt from the sun,” recalls Azim.
The job he left behind: From 8 in the morning till sunset, he drove a van around Gorakhpur, selling plastic items. He earned between Rs 400 to 500 every day. “I have been doing the job for the past two-and-a-half years. I paid Rs 300 in rent, spent about Rs 50 every day on food, and sent Rs 5,000 to my family. Since March 22, however, there has been no business since Baraipar residents did not let hawkers enter the village. After all my money was exhausted, I borrowed Rs 8,000 from a relative in Baraipar, bought a cycle, and returned home,” says Azim. “Unlike earlier, I also did not bring any presents for family members.”
Family: Parents. His younger sister Jamila Khatun, 18, got married few months ago, but has been living with the family in the their kutcha house since the lockdown. “I work in the field as a supervisor, not a labourer, and so I only get some rice and vegetables for the job. My son is the only earning member of our family. We got some ration from the PDS shop, but that will soon run out,” says Shabuktagin, 55, Azim’s father. His mother, Rakina Bibi, 45, is a homemaker.
Money in hand: Rs 4,000. “I have spent half of the Rs 8,000 I borrowed on buying a cycle, food, medicines etc. If I don’t find work soon, things will get very difficult for my family,” says Azim. His father shared his concerns. “We won’t be able to celebrate Eid like the previous years. I have to look for some work for my son soon. Already, many people are looking for work and the competition is tough,” says Shabuktagin.
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Expenses: “We usually spend Rs 4,000-4,500 on food items, and Rs 1,000 to buy medicines for my parents. With my sister back home now, the expenses have increased.” He says.
Debt: Rs 8,000
What next: “Azim says he wants to return to UP once the lockdown ends. “If I get the opportunity, I will move to a bigger town or a city. I cannot sit idle for long,” he says. “I will not stop my son from going outside West Bengal. There is fear about contracting the coronavirus, but dying of hunger is worse than dying of an infection,” says his father.