JYOTSNA Bhandekar, 28, from Sirkala village in Mul tahsil of Chandrapur district, is longing to meet her son Naitik (4) and daughter Vaishnavi (7).
Sitting in the courtyard of her landlord Satyam Reddy at Narsapuram village in Kotagudam district of Andhra Pradesh, under a tarpaulin shed stretched across bamboo poles, she says, “We left them under the care of my elderly in-laws. Every day, they call us up and cry, asking us when will we return. Now, they have extended this lockdown to May 3. Can you please talk to someone and help us reach our children”.
Jyotsna and her husband Naresh (34) are among the 23 persons from her village who had gone to the Andhra Pradesh village to work as chilli-pickers on Reddy’s field. They got stuck due to the nationwide lockdown imposed to contain the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) in March, and recently extended to May 3.
“If we had known that there was going to be a lockdown, we would have rushed back to our village last month,” she says. “Here, it’s getting hot… the government has given us 12 kg rice about eight days ago and only Rs 7,500 for 17 persons, which we divided among ourselves… it’s only Rs 350 per head when they had promised Rs 500 per person. They said the rest of the money will be given later. We have no work left to do now. Why can’t we go back…?”
That’s a common refrain of every one of the hundreds of chili-pickers from Vidarbha districts like Chandrapur and Gadchiroli, Marathwada’s Nanded and even of some from Madhya Pradesh’s Balaghat district, who are stuck in the chilli fields of AP and Telangana hundreds of kilometres away. Many of them are done with chili-plucking and have been left to fend for themselves in the open fields, braving both the hot summer and occasional showers.
The Indian Express had earlier highlighted the plight of many of these workers, who had decided to listen to government directives to stay back, but eventually remained neglected.
“We may not contract coronavirus, but we may die of a sun stroke or mosquito bites or even snake-bites. We can’t even have a sound night’s sleep,” said Samit Burande, another migrant worker in Jyotsna’s group.
At Meghetanda village in AP’s Mehboobabad district, 38-year old Sharda Kamdi is facing a similar situation. “My daughter Deepali (18) and son Deepak (15) are back at Gadbori village of Sindewahi tahsil with my husband Satyawan. When will I be able to meet them again,” she asks.
Sharda is currently staying in an open field that belongs to landlord Balubhau, along with her fellow villagers. Till Monday, she had received no help from the government.
“We got 12 kg rice, a glass of wheat flour, a glass of daal (pulse), 250 gm edible oil, 250 gm salt, half kg of onions and potatoes, and a spoonful of turmeric, along with a bathing soap and another for washing on Tuesday,” she said. Asked if she got the promised amount of Rs 500 per person, she replied in the negative.
In most villages, locals have kept the migrants away in the fields and allow them inside only to fetch some essential grocery items. None of those The Indian Express spoke to said the state government had arranged for their stay in village schools.
Social activist Paromita Goswami, whose NGO Shramik Elgar has been in touch with the migrant farm labourers and trying to help them, said, “We are also feeling helpless for the poor people stuck there as arranging any decent help for them has become very difficult under the circumstances. I think the government should try to at least bring back the women by arranging bus transport. If needed, they can be isolated in Chandrapur, tested for COVID-19 and then allowed to go to their villages…”.
Chandrapur District Guardian Minister Vijay Wadettiwar and Maharashtra Chief Secretary Ajoy Mehta didn’t respond to calls and messages.
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