On Friday afternoon, Bandra Terminus in suburban Mumbai seemed to be its usual bustling self. Scores of people lined up to buy themselves tickets to places in western and northern India. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except for the fact that many of the passengers had coverings around their faces: some wore construction masks, some had medical masks and some used colourful handkerchiefs.

In the crowd were several people who said they were leaving Mumbai because their work had dried up as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. On Friday, with Maharashtra reporting 52 cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray ordered workplaces in Mumbai, Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad and Nagpur to remain closed till March 3. The economic impact of the shutdown on India’s financial has yet to reliably be assessed, but over a dozen people who Scroll.in interviewed at Bandra station said that they had already begun to feel the blow since the beginning of the week.

Can’t fight hunger

“Work just disappeared,” said 17-year-old Vishal Kumar Maurya, a plumber who was wearing a black motorbike rider’s mask as he waited to buy a ticket to get back home to Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh.

Maurya said he had come to Mumbai six months ago and had been working in the Andheri area. Most mornings, he would sit at a street corner in the Seven Bungalows area where contractors came by to hire workers for the day. He earned between Rs 500-Rs 600 most days, the teenager said. But since Tuesday, work had evaporated as panic set in about the coronavirus.

Vishal Kumar Maurya. Credit: Naresh Fernandes

Besides, as other workers noted, the “labour nakas” in the city at which workers gather in the mornings to seek employment were being discouraged by the police, who have been dispersing crowds when they swelled to more than 10 or 15 people.

Having failed to obtain work for three days and hearing about many other workers leaving Mumbai, Maurya decided it was time to head home. “A virus we can fight but hunger we can’t,” he said.

Need to return to work

Echoing Maurya’s sentiment was Lalit Chauhan, 35, who was heading to Rajsamand in Rajasthan. Over the last decade, he has come to Mumbai for extended periods on several occasion to drive an autorickshaw. His latest stint started four months ago. He rented a room in the Aarey Colony area of Goregaon and earned Rs 450 on a good day. But his earnings had been declining through the week. When they fell to Rs 200 on Thursday, Chauhan packed up his belongings.

“I don’t even understand what this disease is, but it is powerful enough to eat up our earnings,” he said.

Outside the station, tile-layer Bikram Singh, 25, waited with friends who were all trying to get back to Bikaner in Rajasthan. Singh had worked in Mumbai for two years, his latest job being at a construction site in Andheri. He earned Rs 10,000 a month, he said, but work on the project stopped three days ago, forcing many of the workers to head home.

“I hope they find a cure to this disease soon,” he said. “We all need to return to work.”

Work drying up

The mood was equally glum in the country’s capital, where a group of daily wage workers sat by a road in the Jangpura neighbourhood of South Delhi. Among them were masons, painters and plumbers. All of them said work had dried up. “People are scared of corona,” said Uma Shankar Singh, a mason who had migrated to the city from Bihar. “They don’t want anyone to come into their homes.”

On Friday, the Delhi government announced that all malls in the Capital will be closed and asked private sector companies to let their employees work from home till March 31. The city had already ordered all schools to remain shut till the end of the month.

Sonu, who goes by a single name, said he found work after four days when a house-owner hired him to do some plumbing work. But while he was still working at the house, the owner who was watching TV, decided to ask him to leave. “He watched some news on corona and said ‘beta, baad mein aana.’” Son, come later.

By then, Sonu had managed to replace the shower in the man’s bathroom. Pointing to the old shower fixture he had brought back, he said, with a weak laugh: “Now I hope I can sell this to the kabaddiwala and make some money so we can all drink tea.”

Work had started declining a few days ago, said the workers, but after the prime minister announced a “janata curfew” to be held on Sunday, they fear things could get worse. “The government must provide us food, otherwise we will go hungry,” said Uma Shankar Singh. “When I tried to buy vegetables yesterday, they were selling for Rs 50 for a quarter kilo.”

Government benefits

Sonu asked what use the Jan Dhan accounts the government had made them open were, if it could not transfer money into it. As of March 11, just over 38 crore accounts had been opened under the Modi government’s scheme for financial inclusion. “We have heard Yogi sarkar [the government of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath] is sending money to workers in UP,” said Singh.

Unlike rural workers, many of whom have received government payments under the National Employment Guarantee programme, urban daily-wage workers are poorly linked to government schemes. This would make it harder for governments to make cash transfers to them.

The workers in Jangpura said some of them had labour union identity cards but none of them had ever received any government benefits.

“At this rate, our families would be lucky to have even salt and roti to eat in the coming days,” said Singh. He suggested that the government should at least ensure food is distributed among the poor.

‘Can I drive my taxi at home?’

Food is also a concern for Gurupodo Bhuiyan, a migrant from rural Bengal who plies a cycle rickshaw in Kolkata. “I depend on school kids. I drop them to school in the morning and then pick them up at home-time,” explained Bhuiyan, wearing a mask. “My earnings have collapsed after this corona hit.”

Gurupodo Bhuiyan. Credit: Shoaib Daniyal

The West Bengal government has ordered every educational institute in the state to close till the end of March, severely denting Bhuiyan’s earnings. “Coronar agei, na kheye more jabo,” Bhuiyan said heavily. Starvation will kill us before corona.

In the busy Ballygunge area of the city, Ajoy Das’ earnings from this tea-and-cigarette shop have dropped by half. “There are no office workers passing through anymore,” Das complained. “If they sit at home, they will have tea at home.”

People staying at home has resulted in a massive earnings cut for Bhogendra Jha too, who drives a traditional yellow cab in Kolkata. “Since yesterday, I have had only one bhara, passenger,” said Jha. “The government has told everyone to stay at home. How will that help me? Can I drive my taxi at home?”

Shambhu Sharma, a bus conductor suffers from the same problem: a lack of commuters due to the partial shutdown announced by the West Bengal government. “I have been standing here for five minutes, waiting for people,” Sharma winced. “At this time, on a Friday, my bus would have been packed. But you can see how empty the vehicle is. The government just announced that offices should shut – but is is we who have to suffer.”

Shambhu Sharma.

Realising how grave the issue of lost livelihoods due to the coronavirus shutdown could be, experts have urged Indian governments to help informal workers. Activists from India’s Right to Food campaign have suggested that each worker should be given at least Rs 3,000 per month for the period of the crisis.

The Working People’s Charter, a labour rights group, urged the Modi government to create an emergency fund of Rs 50,000 crore to provide social and economic support to workers in the informal sectors which would be used, amongst other things, to provide cash transfers.