As Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a national lockdown on March 24 and asked Indians to stay home in order to contain the spread of the coronavirus, it triggered an exodus of migrant workers from the cities. With all work halted and public transport shut, they set off on desperate journeys, aiming to walk back to homes hundreds of kilometres away. But Gaurav Kumar was not one of them.

He stayed back in Badmalik village in Haryana’s Sonepat area, far from his home in Bihar’s Vaishali district. The 26-year-old works as a painter and usually earns Rs 10,000 a month. He stays in a house with about 25 other workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

As work had dried up, their landlord agreed to exempt them from paying rent, which is Rs 2,500 per person. But that did not solve the problem of food. Kumar said he has barely 2 kg of wheat flour and rice left, the gas in his small cylinder is about to run out and he has about Rs 900 left as savings. “The problem is that most of us sent money back home during Holi,” he said. “We did not know what was going to happen.”

For three days, Sankar Mahto and 42 other colleagues from Godda district in Jharkhand had lived on salt and water. The group of daily wagers stranded in Mumbai’s Ulhasnagar were not able to make it back home amid the nationwide lockdown.

Their rations have run out and so have their savings. “We do not even have one rupee,” said Mahto, who earned Rs 500 per day before work stopped two weeks ago. “For three days I have been making so many calls. I have called on 100. They keep saying they will help us. Will we get help after we die?”

In Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district, 24-year-old Anirudha Pradhan has assessed that he only has enough food to last a day for him and his 12 colleagues who came from Jamshedpur and Chaibasa district in Jharkhand. The gas in his cylinder will run out in the next two days as well. The group has calculated that all their savings put together amount to just about Rs 130. “There will be no food from tomorrow,” he said.

“No one has a single penny,” said Pradhan.

Daily bread

Since the nationwide lockdown was announced on March 24, both the Centre and states have announced measures to ensure food reaches thousands across the country. The Centre, to begin with, said it would provide extra subsidised food grain over the next three months to over 80 crore people covered by the National Food Security Act.

States announced their own measures. Punjab said it would deliver 10 lakh packets of dry rations to daily wage labourers and those working in the unorganised sector. These would be distributed at slums and other places where such workers were gathered.

Andhra Pradesh promised to deliver free food to ration card holders in the state. Kerala announced the home delivery of food kits to the poor, even to those who fell outside the public distribution system. Families above the poverty line will get 15 kgs of rice for free, said Mridul Eapen, a member of the state’s planning board.

“The state has also started serving cooked meals at 1,059 community kitchens that cover six corporations, 87 municipalities, 125 urban areas and 831 panchayats,” she said. “From these, food was home delivered to 31,821 people.”

The Uttar Pradesh government will reportedly rope in restaurants and religious institutions like temples and gurudwaras for community kitchens that distribute food to daily wage labourers. The Delhi government has launched hunger relief centres at schools and night shelters, which could feed four lakh people, it claimed. Now, Maharashtra has said it will create 163 centres to provide food and water for migrant workers.

But these schemes may not actually reach migrant workers, the most precarious of Indian citizens. For many of the measures that depend on the public distribution system or other social security schemes, they fall through the cracks.

No information

Before the lockdown, the grocery store next to Gaurav Kumar’s house in the Sonepat village would allow him to buy on credit. But that has stopped. “They want everything in cash,” he said. “No one is ready to give me even Rs 50. Why is the chief minister not doing anything?”

Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Khattar had announced that his government would provide below poverty line families with free rations for the month of April. But Kumar’s ration card is registered in Kolkata, where he had spent a few years as a child. Even if there was a ration shop nearby, he thinks, he would not be able to get food.

Khattar also announced that daily wagers could register with the deputy commissioner of their district on a portal that would be launched on March 27. Those found eligible and with bank accounts would be provided assistance of Rs 1,000 a week. Kumar has no bank account. Besides, he has not even heard of Khattar’s offer.

Even if he did have money, stepping out of the house is fraught with danger. These days, the neighbourhood grocery stays open for just four hours, from 7 am to 11 am, Kumar said, drawing large crowds from the neighbourhood.

That is if he can make it to the grocery shop in the first place. “If we go out then the police beat us,” he said. “They do not even ask us why we are out. It is not as if we are out to roam around. We all need things.”

Gaurav Kumar with 25 others in Haryana. (Photo credit: Gaurav Kumar)

Slipping through the cracks

Migrants like Guarav Kumar are registered as ration beneficiaries in faraway home states. A pilot project of the “One Nation, One Card” scheme was launched across 12 states in January this year. It was to enable public distribution system beneficiaries to get their share of rations in any of these states.

But to avail of benefits under this scheme, Eapen of the Andhra Pradesh planning board said, migrant workers would have to obtain a collector’s letter, an affidavit declaring that they were not procuring rations from elsewhere and a copy of their Aadhaar card.

At a time when the government wants people to stay at home, it is not clear how they are to reach community kitchens or relief centres, acquire collectors’ letters and affidavits. In state after state, migrant workers spoke of being met with police violence as they tried to go out to get food.

Which means that for days now, countless migrant workers, those who heeded government instructions and did not try to rush back to homes in other states, have gone hungry.

Living on salt and water

Sankar Mahto, who is stranded in Mumbai’s Ulhasnagar area is the only earning member of his family, which consists of his parents and six siblings. In Ulhasnagar, he lives in a room that he shares with 10 others. None of them dare to venture out. “The police beat up one of us when he went out to buy vegetables on March 27,” he said.

On March 29, Mahto got a call from a stranger who identified himself as Rupesh Srivastava. He said the group could collect rations the next day from a location nearly 10 kilometres away. A few members of the group walked the distance and managed to get back rice, wheat, pulses, salt and oil on a tempo. It would last them about 10 days, Mahto said. “We will have to find another solution after that,” he said.

‘No food from tomorrow’

Anirudha Pradhan, who earns Rs 450 per day working as a plumber, came to Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district barely 20 days back. In Jamshedpur, he worked in a Tata Motors factory fitting battery parts for automobiles. The work paid him around Rs 190 a day but the slowdown in the automobile industry had set in by last year. By December 2019, work had come to a complete halt, he said. “We were told to sit at home because of the slowdown and some of my friends came to Guntur so I came as well,” Pradhan said.

In Guntur, Pradhan pays Rs 1,000 in rent for a room he shares with the 12 others. The landlord will come to collect his dues in a few days. Pradhan and his group do not know how they will pay. “If we knew this would happen then we would have run away home,” said Pradhan, whose family, including his nine-month-old baby, lives in Jamshedpur.

From his room, he said, the streets looked deserted. “We cannot even see a cycle, nothing except police,” he said.

The grocery shop next to his rooms is open for an hour every morning, he said. Even if the group wanted to buy groceries, stepping out would be a risky task. “We are very scared of the police,” he said. “They speak in Telugu here so it is difficult for us to understand them.”

‘We have to die anyway’

In Delhi, the government’s food distribution centres only became operational on March 29, Dipa Sinha said. “There is a great demand for cooked food,” she said. With kitchens opening in schools, it has taken some of the pressure off, according to her.

But not everybody has found relief. Shivani Valmiki, from Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh, has lived in Delhi for 20 years. While she works as a cleaner, her husband is a daily wage construction worker. The couple and their four children live along the Kapashera border in South West Delhi. The family has been out of money and rations since last week. They depend on infrequent meals offered by neighbours.

Valmiki said that she did not have a ration card and there was no nearby night shelter where the family could get cooked meals twice a day.

“The children are always asking me to cook something but there is no money at all,” she said. The family decided to stay put in Delhi instead of travelling to their home in Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh. “We have to die anyway,” Valmiki said.