Return ticket

As the crowd on Platform Number 1 of the Ludhiana railway station turns into a crush,Ravinder Pandey,his wife and their two children get into a tighter...

Published: February 1, 2009 11:27:43 pm

Ludhiana

‘I’m not sure if I’ll come back this time’

As the crowd on Platform Number 1 of the Ludhiana railway station turns into a crush,Ravinder Pandey,his wife and their two children get into a tighter huddle. It is a cold morning so they don’t mind snuggling up but Pandey nervously watches over his possessions—a table fan,a small sun-mica table,an iron trunk and a bundle of clothes. They have a long journey ahead and Pandey knows it will be a difficult one. After 13 years at a hosiery factory in Ludhiana,he just lost his job and is going home to his village in Azamgarh,Uttar Pradesh,with all that he ever owned—or earned.

“We’ve had tough times earlier too,but this time I’m not sure if I’ll ever come back,” he says. Pandey had to pull his children out of school and with that,all the dreams he had for them were cut short. Despite the gloom,Pandey is counting his luck—he has a patch of land back home and plans to take up farming. “Most people I know (who have lost jobs) don’t even have that. But I don’t know if my family can survive off that land,” he says.

Ludhiana’s steam-press factories,hosiery mills,automobile centres,embroidery workshops and woolen apparel companies employ around three lakh migrant labourers from Bihar,Uttar Pradesh and other states. The economic slump,falling export orders,a weak winter and frequent power cuts have driven many of these migrants out of their jobs. Trains to Uttar Pradesh,Bihar and Madhya Pradesh are packed with people who are headed home.

As the public announcement system at the station declares the schedules for Howrah Mail,Jansewa Express and Kisan Express,hundreds of people pile in—men,women and children,with their unrealised ambitions stuffed into ragtag bundles.

“Madamji,jab kaam hi nahi hai,to logon ka kya karenge company wale,” says Ram Salat. Salat worked with a steel rolling mill for 10 years but was laid off along with three of his friends—all of them from a village in Ghazipur,UP—and now they are all on their way back. “These are tough times. I am not even sure if we will find work back home,” he says.

Before the tough times set in,many of these men had hoped to make the city their home. Vinod Tewari says he had to report for work at his factory,Gupta Automobiles,at 8 a.m. every day but had no work to do. He is now going back to Patna with 12 of his colleagues—all unsure about their jobs. “No orders,no power,everything is packed up. We were even willing to take pay cuts,but there is no work,” he says.

But Tewari prays the bad times won’t last too long and has locked up his room here in the hope that he will come back. “But I will have to pay the rent,I don’t know how…,” Tewari says,his voice drowned by the shrill whistle of the train as it announces its departure.

– Parul Khanna

Patna

‘I hope someone in my village employs me to work on their farm’

The 30-hour journey from Mumbai to Patna has left Mohammed Asgar tired. He now has another train to catch—to Katihar district,and then,he will be on a bus to his Ajamnagar village. In a few hours,he will be with his wife and children. But as Asgar sits clutching his rexin bag,he doesn’t look like a man who is waiting to get home. He has lost his job in Mumbai and has to break the news to his family.

“The last six months have been tough. I used to get Rs 110 a day for cutting iron rods. Now that the construction business is down,I don’t get work every day,” says the 28-year-old.

Asgar had planned to take his wife,son and daughter to Mumbai but now his dream lay shattered. “I hope someone in my village employs me to work on their farm or that I get some job in Patna,” he says.

Asgar says several of his friends have come home from Delhi,Mumbai,Ludhiana and Surat and have started looking for jobs here. “A friend of mine has started a small provision store in his village. He was earning Rs 100 a day in Surat but lost his job,” says Asgar.

About half a dozen trains from Mumbai,Delhi and other cities pull into Patna station every day,all packed with people coming home. But strangely,they all seem hopeful. At its worst hour,the economic slump seems to have played the role of a leveller—suddenly,Bihar,it seems,is holding out hope.

Rajesh Kumar,who got off the Jansadharan Express from New Delhi,is a mason who now hopes to work in his hometown Nawada or in Patna. “I used to get Rs 200 for a day’s work in Delhi. Even if I get Rs 170 here,I will be happy. With all the construction work in Patna,I hear this city is good for masons,” says Kumar.

As per a rough estimate,Patna’s realty sector employs over one lakh people. Over 5,000 apartments have come up in Patna in the last three years.

Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi says,“Growing employment opportunities in the state through road projects and welfare schemes have either helped young people to stay back in Bihar or have caused reverse migration.”

According to a study by the Overseas Development Institute,a UK-based organisation,over 30 lakh people from Bihar live outside the state. However,there has been no study on reverse migration.

– Santosh Singh

New Delhi

‘Don’t ask me about the future. I have none’

Dhirendra Kumar is going home,but he knows it isn’t going to be easy. In 24 hours,he would meet his wife and children in his native town of Darbhanga in Bihar,and he would have to tell them he had no job and that difficult times were here. So far,he has kept the news from his family. “I am ashamed and I don’t know what to tell them,” Kumar says as he waits for the train at the New Delhi Railway Station.

Six months ago,when Kumar came to Delhi,like thousands of other migrant workers,he hoped for a better life for himself and his family. In a mega city that is undergoing an infrastructural makeover,there would be no dearth of jobs,he thought. He came with modest skills but with a motivation that the hard life of the city couldn’t suppress. But then came the slowdown,and everything changed. Thousands of migrant workers in the manufacturing sector have been affected by the economic slump and factory closures across industries have forced them to return home. On January 6,when Kumar’s employers told him they didn’t need him anymore as their little factory unit at Mongolpuri—where he worked as an electrician—was closing down,he was shattered. For a couple of weeks,Kumar roamed about the city,tools in hand,trying to find another contractual job. But there was none. So on January 21,Kumar,unshaven and tired,bought a general class ticket to Patna,from where he would take a bus to Darbhanga. He wanted to buy some toys for his children and something for his wife but he had no money left. “I wasn’t able to save much. My wages were a little higher than the minimum and now I have lost my job,” he says. “I don’t know what I will do. Maybe I’ll take up farming or something.”

For Kumar and his family,joblessness will possibly mean living below the poverty line. As the jobs dry up,the trains swell. Trains to Bihar,West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh are leaving packed as workers like Kumar are heading back home. For two years,Dharamnath Gupta worked 14-hour shifts at a bottling unit in Gurgaon. And out of the meagre wages he earned working overtime,he managed to send money to his family in Ara,Bihar. At Rs 80 a day,the job didn’t leave him with much savings—or hope. But he knew that back home in Ara,life was worse.

Gupta was laid off on January 15 without notice. Sitting in the Jan Sadharan Express,where a ticket to Patna cost only Rs 188,Gupta looks dejected. With an ailing father and three children to provide for,the job loss was a big blow. He had not wanted to leave for home. But a near-starvation situation had left him with no option. “And now I am going back with empty pockets,” Gupta says. “Don’t even ask me about the future now. I have none.” For a couple of days after he lost his job,Gupta tried in vain to find another. Four days later,with little money in hand,he took a bus to the New Delhi Railway Station and reconciled himself to returning home. He will come back,he says,when the situation is better.

– Chinki Sinha

Pune

‘The city has broken my heart. I will never come back now’

Mannu Yadav wants to be sure. He has looked up the train schedules several times and has already asked the coolies thrice about the train to Bilaspur. The Pune-Bilaspur Express is a weekly train and Yadav can’t afford to miss this. If he does,he will have to stay back in Pune for another week—another week without a job.

“For the last two years,my family and I had been working at a construction site in Akurdi in the city. When the project got over last month,we found work at another site. But the builder abruptly halted work and we were left with no work,” says Yadav. For the next one month,Yadav turned up at various construction sites in the city,hoping to find work but there was none. He finally decided to go back to his village,Chauranga,in Raipur,Chhattisgarh.

Every Friday,the Pune-Bilaspur and Pune-Lucknow trains,the two main trains to the northern states,depart,their general compartments crammed with people leaving the city. The economic downturn has hit every sector in the city,but realty,it seems,has taken the hardest knock. Around 40,000 residential units were sold in Pune in the last fiscal but now,these half-finished buildings wait behind tattered veils.

Eight months ago,there were close to 50,000 migrant construction workers in the city. These workers come from Bihar,Uttar Pradesh,Chhattisgarh,Gujarat,Rajasthan and Orissa.

“There is no way to put a figure to the number of migrant labourers who are leaving Pune,but the general feeling in the industry is that the number is already down 20 per cent,” says Nitin Pawar,general secretary of Bandhkam Mazdoor Sabha.

At the station,children wail,parents yell across to them and people curse as they stumble on iron trunks and stoves. But through all this,Shyamsundar—another construction worker who has lost his job—sits lost.

“Bahut asha se aye the. Is shahar ne dil tod diya. Ab nahi ayenge vapas… (I had come to the city with a lot of hope but it has broken my heart. I will never come back now),” he says.

– Siddharth Kelkar

Bangalore

‘Our employers have told us to take a break. I will come back in a month’

In the 1960s,when public sector units were first established in Bangalore,labour contractors flocked to the city railway station to find people with some semblance of a school education to herd to the new factories. These days,at the city’s two major railway stations,masons,carpenters,plumbers and sundry workers are boarding trains to return home to states like UP,Bihar,West Bengal,Orissa,Assam and Rajasthan. As the economic downturn kicks in,migrant workers who were the backbone of the construction,real estate and infrastructure sectors in the last five years are feeling the pinch.

The outflow of migrant labour from Bangalore is still a trickle—every week,over the past two months,an average of 200 people have headed back home on the dozen-plus trains reaching northern and eastern states. The local railway staff point out that unreserved compartments on weekly trains like the Gorakhpur Express are filled with migrant workers returning home these days. “I have been waiting for two-and-a-half months without a job. I have not been able to pay my rent. There is no point in waiting anymore,I might as well go back home,be with my family and do some work there,” says Rajat Sharma,a 36-year-old carpenter from Begusarai in Bihar as he waits on an unreserved seat on the Howrah Express,at the Yeshwanthpur Railway Station in Bangalore.

Sharma is heading back home with five other residents of Bihar—all carpenters who made anything between Rs 8,000 and Rs 10,000 every month until two months ago. “The job market is bad for us. I don’t really know whether there will be any work back home. We just have to wait. It was good in Bangalore till now,” says Sharma.

According to his contractor Rajesh Sharma,also a native of Begusarai,who has been living in Bangalore for the past eight years,the total number of carpenters deployed by him in the city has tanked from a high of 70 two years ago to a mere 12 now.

“We were doing a lot of work for big builders but these days payments are getting stuck everywhere and I can’t pay my men. There is no new work coming,” says the labour contractor who brought many friends from his home district to work in Bangalore.

The following day,the story on the Howrah Express is similar. Ali Mohsin,a 28-year-old mason from Murshidabad in West Bengal,is returning home with three friends,all of whom have been laid off. “We have been in Bangalore only for six months. But now our employers are telling us that they have too many workers and have told us to take a break for a few days,” says Mohsin,who used to earn Rs 160 a day. He is now going home to his wife,children and parents. “I will come back after a month and look for work again,” he says,before clambering onto the train to join his friends who are holding a seat for him in the unreserved compartment.

– Johnson T.A.

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