29, Jun 2020 | CJP Team
Makar Behera, who works as a skilled mason in Mumbai, was sure he would not go back to his village of Biripali in Bolangir district of Odisha, even though many others were leaving town in droves in wake of the Covid-19 lockdown. For the 48-year-old father of four staying in Mumbai was the only way to make sure his children’s education did not get affected.
No, they are not studying in Mumbai, they live in Odisha with their mother. Behera lives and works in Mumbai and sends money home for them. “This is why I thought going back to the village was of no use. At least in Mumbai I can earn something and send money back home,” he says feeling relieved that his work has resumed, now that construction activity has been allowed.
“I came to Mumbai 30 years ago, soon after my parents passed away. Someone from our village worked here and he told me to come to Mumbai too. I was scared because I knew no one in the city, but I also realised that staying in Odisha was not going to help me much. To earn well and live a good life I had to come to Mumbai,” says Behera explaining why he chose to come to the city of dreams in the first place. “I have been working with the Painterior Company that undertakes repairs and renovations of buildings. I am a skilled mason and earn around Rs 750 rupees per day, in a month I make almost Rs 22,000. I send Rs 15,000 back home,” he says adding how a good part of that goes to fund his children’s education, “I want them to have a good life.”
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.
Behera’s elder son is studying for a Master’s degree in Arts. The second child, a daughter, is studying for a Bachelor’s degree in Arts. “My two younger daughters are in class 12 and class 8. By god’s grace they are good in studies, so that’s why I work hard for them,” says the proud father. His younger brother, his wife and two daughters stay with Behera’s family too. “My brother had also come to Mumbai for work but he didn’t like it and went back. I then helped him to open a paan shop,” said Behera who usually goes back to the village when monsoon hits Mumbai, to return only in November. “It rains heavily in Mumbai and our work also gets affected. The monsoon in Odisha is even worse, so I prefer to be with my family in those months,” he explains.
However, the schedules were a bit different last year. “I came to Mumbai in July 2019, because in May 2019 my eldest daughter got married,” said Behera who had taken a loan of Rs 1,00,000 from a landlord in Odisha for wedding expenses. “I have paid back Rs 50,000 and have to pay the balance Rs 50,000. That is why when I came back, I worked at Alibaug and then at Cuffe Parade, the work was going smooth until the lockdown was announced,” recalls Behera who was with 30 other migrant workers at the construction site.
“It’s a 20 storied tower and requires a lot manpower. We migrants prepare our own hutments near the construction site using aluminum roof panels and cook our own food. So, I don’t stay at a particular place, instead I and live where I work. Sometimes the site is located outside Mumbai,” he says. “After the lockdown was announced our work totally stopped, we had some money with us so we brought our ration but soon it got over,” he recalls the early days of the lockdown.
Behera says the contractor did give them some rice, pulses and oil but it did not last even a week. With a crisis looming, his fellow migrants and Behera heard of the ration distribution campaign of Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) and got in touch with our volunteers. “We got a ration kit which included everything we could want. It helped us a lot and was so much that still we have some pulses left. I am very grateful to CJP,” he said with a laugh that even now at each meal the group blesses the volunteers as they begin eating.
However, they still remember feeling hurt at being shunned by the ones who were living next door. “It was very hurtful that the people who stayed in Jupiter building didn’t provide us anything, not even a single meal. It would not be difficult for them but the rich don’t care about the poor. I really thought they would ask us to leave the site but thankfully, it didn’t happen as our boss told them that migrant workers don’t have any other place to stay,” he said adding that they have to undergo thermal screening every day and their ‘rooms’ are also sanitised, though Behera didn’t seem to mind that too much.
When the government kept extending the lockdown, the migrants felt restless and just wanted to go back to the village. “We even filled the emergency travel form but didn’t receive any call from police officials. Then our boss and a few people from the building requested all of us to stay where we were, because the situation was only getting worse,” he says. “But 14 people left by truck at their own expense and 12 more went on a bus arranged by Mumbai Central IAS officer Sarika Jain, who is originally from Odisha,” says Behera recalling the initial exodus.
After much consideration, Behera and four others decided to stay put. “The main reason for staying back was that all the Odiya migrants from different parts were travelling back in large crowds. There were chances that they would all be quarantined together, putting everyone at risk of infection,” Behera explains their rationale. Behera spoke to his wife and son and even they thought it was best that he stayed put in Mumbai.
“Luckily, our work has resumed. I work with four helpers who mix the cement while I do the masonry. We are getting our daily payment so we have brought enough ration for the next 15 days. I have also learned that many migrant workers are coming back to Mumbai, and am now convinced that I made a good decision by not going home,” he says sounding relieved. Even though the work situation is stabilising, Behera is worried that Covid-19 cases are increasing in Mumbai, and fears another lockdown. Meanwhile, home is where Behera’s heart is, and he is already looking forward to his planned next trip soon. “Once this work gets over, I will go back to my village,” he says.