12, Jun 2020 | CJP Team
Construction labourer Dilip Rana and 10 of his co-workers had migrated from Odisha to Mumbai around 15 years ago. They lived near Nariman Point and worked at construction sites in South Mumbai, earning around Rs 450 as daily wages. However, they got paid at the end of each month, and lived together as a community as it was cheaper than taking a room each.They worked hard all day, cooked and ate together, a brotherhood of sorts. Then the national lockdown struck, like a thunder bolt from the blue and all work stopped.
A month passed living on whatever they had managed to save, just enough food to survive. Social distancing was impossible in their cramped living space, and all they could do was wash hands regularly and keep their mouth and nose covered.
In April, Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) volunteers engaged in relief work all across Mumbai reached them and coordinated with the Mumbai City Collector to ensure urgent ration supplies to Dilip Rana and the other migrant workers from Odisha. But there was no scope of work restarting, with the lockdown being extended further, and 45-year-old Rana soon realised that it was best to return home to Odisha. However, his choice of transport was different than most. “It was getting very difficult for us to survive in Mumbai, so we decided to go back home, by truck. There were 50 people in the truck and we sat beside each other without any social distancing,” he remembers the desperation everyone was feeling, but there was no choice.
After the lockdown, many migrant labourers were forced to choose between two extremely difficult options; continue to stay in expensive cities where expenses kept mounting and income sources dried up, or go back home to their families in their villages, but face an uncertain economic future. While CJP has supplied rations and essentials to thousands of migrant labourers who both stayed on and some of those who left, our challenge is now, in a post lockdown solution, help find short and long term solutions, with them. Our series Migrant Diaries brings to you stories of the ordeals they were forced to face as they took an arduous journey back home, and some stories of those who stayed back. Please donate now to help our migrant brothers and sisters. CJP hopes to evolve collective solutions and programmes with them, in the coming weeks.
He is now back home in Tukla, Odisha and is now under quarantine. When CJP volunteers called to check on him, he was only too happy to chat with the people for whom he had developed a fondness. Rana is waiting for the end of quarantine when he can go back to his wife and three daughters. The eldest had completed class 10, but was forced to quit school after that, as the family could no longer afford it. That is perhaps his biggest regret. The second daughter goes to an Anganwadi and the youngest is only two-and-a-half years old. “My youngest daughter has some medical issues, doctors have said that once she is a teenager they will have to perform a surgery,” he says, already worried about that as well as the wellbeing of his ageing parents. “My parents also stay in Tukla, Odisha but they stay in a separate house,” he explains.
Initially, when the lockdown was announced, Rana, like other migrant workers also thought it would get over soon, and the government would have everything in control. “But, once the second lockdown was announced, the biggest concern for us was food supply, and I was also worried about my family because I was not with them and I knew Coronavirus was spreading fast.”
He remembers how CJP volunteers arranged ration kits twice, but that was also not sufficient for the group of 11 labourers. “So, I requested money from my wife. She sent Rs. 4,000 in April and Rs. 4,000 in May. When we had to leave Mumbai I needed more money and she was the only one I could reach out to. I needed Rs. 8,000, which she borrowed from someone on interest and sent to me,” he said.
Rana was also worried that he had not heard from the government if they had been given place in the Shramik Special trains being run by the Ministry of Railways. “We had even filled the emergency travel forms, hoping that our State and Central governments would make some arrangements for us to go back home. But even after 15 days after filling the forms, none of us got a call from the police station. Our money and rations were running out fast. I was scared of getting infected with Coronavirus, so I decided to go back home by whatever means of transport I get.”
The group of 11, decided to leave Mumbai in batches. “Five people left one night, and then the remaining six of us left the next day. We could not find any trucks leaving from Mumbai and the local police also stopped us at different points,” he said they had to escape like thieves. “We began hiding from them, and moved slowly and steadily until we reached the Mulund check post,” he recalls. It was then they heard truck owners shouting the names of their destinations.
“Some trucks were going to Nagpur, some to West Bengal and some to Odisha. So we hired one truck from Mulund check post, then we contacted the rest of the group who had left the night before and realised they have already reached Nashik, on foot!” Rana was shocked and said they were coming on a truck, to get them, “I told them that we have hired a truck, and we will soon reach Nashik and pick you guys up.” The truck owner had charged Rs. 4,500 from Mulund, and the group picked up from Nashik was charged Rs. 3500.
“During the journey our only concern was to reach home safely. I am thankful to the NGOs and all the people who gave us food, water, biscuits in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. After Madhya Pradesh we ate food at our own expense from highway dhabas,” he recalled seeing a caravan of people returning home, “There were many trucks and buses full of people going back to their homes. We even saw some who were walking home. It took us two nights and three days to reach Orissa”.
He remembers that as the most unusual journey he had undertaken so far, “In the morning we used to freshen up at a river or pond, and after eating something resumed our journey. Around 1 PM we would stop for a quick lunch and drive on till 8 PM when we had dinner. At night we drove on till we found a safe place around midnight and took a break to sleep till 4.30 AM. This was our routine for three days.”
After reaching Odisha border, Karia Road the group was taken to the Police Station where their Aadhar Number, Mobile Number, Village Name was recorded and they underwent a medical screening before being sent to their respective villages by bus. They were put under quarantine at the Panchayat School. “My family visited me once, but they were not allowed to come close, so I told them not to come again,” said Rana adding that the quarantine center was not “that good” but he was grateful for the food, “We get three meals and bananas, which is more than I expected.” He, and the others, have already undergone the Covid-19 test, and the report is awaited. “Once the reports come negative, then we will be allowed to go home,” Rana is optimistic, even though he knows an uncertain financial future may unfold.
The future seems too far away for now, he has bigger money problems even now. “From January to March there was no regular work anyway, and then the lockdown was suddenly announced. The boss gave me Rs. 1,000 only. Usually I earned Rs. 12000 to Rs. 14000 per month and I would send Rs. 8,000 back home to my wife. This lockdown has cost me the loss of Rs. 40,000 to Rs. 45,000 and add to that Rs. 16,000 which my family had sent me to survive in the lockdown,” his stress is obvious, “Will the government repay me the money I have lost due to the lockdown?”
“Now that I have reached my village and will soon be allowed to go home, my only request from the government is to at least repay our expenses, because we don’t know when we will start working again. It is very risky to go out now, and with no money it will be very difficult for us to survive. Whatever we had managed to save over the years my wife was forced to send me when I was in Mumbai, so the government should do some arrangements for the poor,” says Rana.