Covid-19 attacks the lungs, but we are worried about our empty stomachs: Migrant Workers Without employment or income, their lives seem to be in a permanent lockdown

18, Jun 2021 | Mohammed Ripon Sheikh

The lockdown may be easing in some cities, and extending in some, but nothing is the same anymore for those who can only eat one meal a day. In this little hamlet deep in West Bengal, the morning azaan from the mosque, and the sounds of the first train rushing on the tracks nearby, wakes up Surmara, Bipul Mal and Aziz. The light of the mourning sun is yet to reach their backyard, when they are all set to travel from one village to another for work. 

“That was our routine before the year 2020 unleashed the Coronavirus and turned all our lives upside down,” recalled Bipul, Aziz and Surmara, who had just moved to Chennai to make more money just before the lockdown. However, they had been working for barely three months, when the sudden lockdown was declared. The three were caught unawares, like lakhs of other migrant workers across India.

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The childhood friends had been born and raised in North Ramchandrapur village of Paikar police station in Birbhum district. Their small village sits on the banks of the river and gets badly damaged by floods every year. They see their homes get inundated with flood water and even wash away. Bipul asked, “How long will it continue like this?” His voice pained and face turned towards the sky as if to push his tears back, he said, “I have left everything to fate.”

The storms that lash the northeast corner of West Bengal, result in massive losses every year, for those who already have so little. The river water rushes in, and houses get destroyed, standing crops are also severely damaged. The locals say they are afraid to cultivate the land as they are helpless and unable to face the torment of nature. So many were forced to pick up masonry skills. They then have no choice but to migrate to other states to earn money to help their families survive the ravages of nature back home.

However, once the lockdown was announced, Aziz, Bipul, and Surmara were under a virtual house arrest in Chennai for a month. They eventually made their way back home. But the situation at home was as bad, if not worse. After coming home and being unemployed for some time, they found work as contract labourers on someone else’s land but again everything stopped when the next lockdown was announced.

I asked them if they want to go out again after the lockdown when everything is better? Aziz said softly,

“What will I eat if I don’t work? I had to cry for a piece of bread, when I was in Chennai. I survived only on rice shared by my friends. I cannot forget those cursed days.”

Then there are the women who live in the same village and fend for themselves, as their husbands are still working in other states. I met Hasina Bibi, Sampa Maal and Rejo Maal who asked me if I have heard anything about the government announcing more lockdowns? “When everything had stopped, the contractor asked our men to return home. But the ticket price had skyrocketed. They could not afford to buy a ticket originally worth Rs 1,000 rupees for Rs 3,000,” said the women.

“We are poor people who have sent our husbands and children to work in far-away places, in the hope of earning more money. We are mortgaging our domestic livestock such as ducks, chickens, cows, calves and even our jewelry to survive, but in the current situation, everything seems to have become miserable.”

With schools still closed their children’s education has stopped, and odd jobs that helped them tide over have also stopped. Whenever she talks about how she will feed her family, Hasina’ eyes tear up. “Our men, the migrant workers, have endured so much hardship, oppression and humiliation. If they leave the big cities, they will not be able to work in their own state. I haven’t seen the faces of my husband and children for so long,” she says.

The women want the state government to treat them “humanely” and “arrange work in our own state, then maybe we don’t have to go away,” said Hasina, whose husband is yet to come home. “I hear that Covid-19 attacks the lungs, but we are worried about our empty stomach,” said Hasina adding, “Instead of a handful of rice, we only got assurances.”

Many hundreds, if not thousands of migrant workers are still “stuck in different states”, say the women who are left behind. “Our men left West Bengal to find work in Delhi, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Haryana, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu,” they say, disappointed that the politicians they had voted for did not support them in any way. It was NGOs who delivered emergency rations etc.

They recall seeing news reports of thousands of workers walking home with their wives and children and say they are “praying to God that I don’t have to watch that scene again.”

This report is part of CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program, and has been written by researcher Ripon Sheikh, who is travelling around rural Bengal, tracking and documenting social and cultural movements of indigenous people.

Meet CJP Grassroot Fellow Mohammed Ripon Sheikh

This young man, who has graduated with a B.Sc degree from Burdwan University, loves trivia. Sheikh’s passion to research and seek “unknown information about World History” has earned him many medals and trophies at various University and state-level Quiz championships, and youth festivals. Sheikh is a born orator and a natural community leader. He has the potential to represent his community, state and country at a global level one day. His immediate goal, however, is to find a job so he can support his parents.

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