On Tuesday, when a tempo arrived with food by an NGO for 5,000-odd migrant labourers stuck without work in Varachha in Surat, Kamlesh Yadav was among those who queued up. Later, he took a photo of the “overcooked” khichdi and sweet kadhi, a Gujarati staple, and sent it home.
Yadav, 30, says his wife, who lives back in Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh with his parents and their two children, broke down. “We don’t have such khichdi. We usually eat dal and rice and vegetables. She insisted I return home. But how can I go, with no transport?”
Surat has seen at least two instances of violence by migrant workers desperate to get home, apart from a few minor protests. While depleting cash is one reason and the desire to return home in the face of the coronavirus pandemic another, being forced to depend on food that they are not used to eating has also pushed many to desperation.
Yadav talks of his previous night’s dinner, a brinjal dish with rotis. “We found it very spicy. There was no tomato or potato in it. We threw the sabzi and had the rotis alone.”
Yadav came to Surat five years ago and worked in a powerloom factory before it shut in the lockdown. He says they don’t have any supplies to cook own food, and the two messes in the Varachha area have also run dry.
Dharmendra Nishad, 26, says that after they came out on the streets to protest, an NGO organised lauki (bottle gourd) curry. “It was watery and the potatoes were half-cooked.” From Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, Nishad said, “To survive, we eat what we get. But how long can we have such food?”
Akshay Pradhan, 23, from Ganjam district in Odisha, said, “At daytime, they give a vegetable with chapattis and for dinner, khichdi and sweet dal. I stopped going after two days. We are not used to eating sweet dal.”
He talks wistfully of the mutton curry he and his room-mates prepared on March 19. “We had bought the meat from Laskana village. Generally we have meat four times a week. We also have fish.”
Assistant Commissioner of Police, A division, Surat, C K Patel said, “We have come to know about the food issue, and that was one of the reasons they wanted to go home.”
With many calling a helpline set up by it for migrant labourers with complaints regarding food, the Odisha government asked Gujarat on April 14 to look at the possibility of supplying dry rations instead of cooked meals.
Pankaj Haladhar, 42, from Bajarguma village in Nayagarh district, working in a textile unit in Bamroli in Vadodara, said, “I have a ration card, but it is with my family in my village. We were told that even with an Aadhaar card we can get dry ration, but the dealer refused saying we don’t belong to Gujarat. Our meals are not fixed anymore. If someone distributes food and we are able to reach on time, we eat, otherwise we skip. The community kitchen is far off and we are scared to go since police are everywhere.”
Nitin Bhanudas Jawale, the Odisha-cadre bureaucrat appointed by Gujarat as nodal officer for Odias stuck in the state, said 85% of the issues raised in the 3,701 calls they had received, mostly concerning food, had been resolved. “There is some confusion regarding the availability of dry ration… we are trying to resolve that as well,” Jawale said
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