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‘We just want to go back home to our family,’ migrant workers desperate for the lockdown to end

Hemani Sheth Mumbai | Updated on April 07, 2020 Published on April 07, 2020

On a normal April afternoon, the dusty road that runs parallel along the Gandhinagar-Ahmedabad highway would be dotted with kiosks and pushcarts selling sugarcane juice, a staple along the route during summer. On this particular afternoon, the highway looked completely empty, the State’s capital city a ghost town.

What was visible was a single cot with a makeshift shed behind it with a few plastic sheets that acted as makeshift beds. The cot belonged to Sunny, a migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh who had travelled to the city in February as usual with hopes of reaping profits out of his sugarcane juice kiosk in Gujarat’s scorching heat, like he had done every summer for the past 30 years. Instead, this year, he was met with a 21-day nationwide lockdown owing to a global pandemic with not a single penny to spare to get him through it.

Sunny had set up quite a profitable little venture of selling sugarcane juice to commuters on the highway during summer. He had been setting up the juice kiosk every year from February to mid-June, making a profit of ₹10,000-₹15,000 a month during this period. This year, he had brought along three more men from his village near Varanasi in UP.

“Sunny Bhai had an extra machine that we could use to set up another kiosk. He had called us here to help him run the two kiosks and earn more profit. We spent all our money on stocking up sugarcane for the kiosk thinking we would earn some extra money and send it back home. Forget the profits, we now sit here all day waiting for the lockdown to end. We will just have to see the sugarcane that we spent all our money on rot or be eaten up by neighbourhood cows,” rues Sher Bahadur, one of the three men who accompanied Sunny to Gujarat.

The men are among the thousands of migrant workers and labourers who have been stranded in the State without a roof over their heads amid a “harsh” 21-day nationwide lockdown.

 

The state government had offered to assist the workers with food and essentials, warning them against going back home. The move had come after media reports surfaced a couple of days into the lockdown depicting migrant workers from across the nation making their way home on foot, walking hundreds of kilometres without food or water.

“We had thought of walking back home but Sunny Bhai had advised us against it. The government provides us with meals twice a day. We are four people. There’s a common water pump a couple of streets away. It’s the municipality’s common water supply pump. The Municipal Corporation supplies water through that pump once a day. We fill our buckets and we make do with what we have,” says Sher Bahadur.

“The food is often not enough for us so we try to use our stock to make some sugarcane juice for ourselves, so we can sleep on a full stomach. But sometimes when the policemen come and see us operating our machines they warn us against it and threaten to take away our machines,” he adds.

 

The men are now banking on the lockdown to end by April 14, hungry, broke and desperate to make their way back home.

“We will go back home as soon as the lockdown is over. At least, we will be with our family. We will make do somehow back home,” one of the men finally speaks upon being asked whether they intended to stay and work at the kiosk once the lockdown ends.

“I know a few people in the city. They don’t wish to help us with shelter for now because they are afraid we will infect them. Maybe once the lockdown is over, they will at least lend us some money to get back home to our family,” said Sunny, despair evident in his voice.

“For the first couple of days after the lockdown, the residents from the nearby neighbourhood used to give us food and water. It suddenly stopped. I think even they are afraid of catching the virus from us now,” Sher Bahadur added.

“We will die of hunger if the lockdown is extended. We do not have a single penny. There is no other option. Even if the lockdown is lifted, we are not going to earn anything. We will definitely have to bear more loss this season because of this situation. The moment we arrange some transportation, we will go back home,” he said.

India arguably has the greatest internal migration rate amid its workforce. According to the Economic Survey of 2017, over 10 crore people had moved to bustling cities from their villages with hopes of earning more for their families.

The very people who constitute 20 per cent of India’s workforce have now been left out in the cold with no shelter over their heads as the population struggles to combat a global pandemic taking the world by storm. The inability to make ends meet and fear of the unknown had led to a mass exodus of migrant workers across the nation.

Though unprepared, the Centre has been making attempts to manage the situation as they sealed state borders restricting all movement. The Supreme Court had further directed state governments to ensure supply of food, water and other essentials to the stranded migrants.

Various NGOs and good samaritans have been pitching in, coming to their aid with food and shelter.

However, thousands of workers are still staring at a bleak future, stuck in a limbo between sealed off borders counting days till the lockdown ends.

Published on April 07, 2020

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