When work came to a halt in Hyderabad, Raju and his wife decided to walk back home with their three-year-old daughter. Home was Budbuda village in Madhya Pradesh’s Balaghat district – 700 km away.

“It will take us about 10 days to reach, but at least we will reach home and face the difficulties together with the family,” said Raju, 25, who came to Hyderabad in February to work on a construction site.

On March 22, the city had shut down to observe the 14-hour “janata curfew” announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But the one-day “curfew” turned into a lockdown as Telangana government extended it till March 31, stopping all transport including inter-state buses. By March 24, the entire country went into 21 days of lockdown.

The Central government directed all public and private enterprises on March 23 to pay wages and salaries during the lockdown period. Telangana government issued an order to this effect the same day. But conversations with migrant workers reveal most employers completely disregarded the government order, failing to pay them for the lockdown period.

The builder of Rajalingam Colony in Boduppal, where Raju worked, met the workers and paid them their pending wages on March 22, declaring his inability to support them further.

Raju used the money to buy food for his family. A week later, as the money started running out, they decided to walk back with 12 others.

But they could not go very far. Late in the evening on March 29, they were stopped by the police in Kompalli, a fast growing residential area in the newly formed Medchal-Malkajgiri district next to Hyderabad city. The police herded them into a large wedding banquet hall called ARM Gardens. More than 400 migrants have been living here under police watch.

“We were told food will be provided here,” said Kanhaiyalal, a migrant from Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh. “We got in to have food before continuing, but once inside the gates were locked and we were not allowed to leave.”

In Medchal-Malkajgiri district, 31 km from Hyderabad, 49 migrants are being housed in a shelter home run by a non-profit organisation in Bogaram village. Unlike the wedding hall in Kompalli, which is locked all day, the shelter only closes its gates at night.

But the workers living here are also restless to leave.

Many of them have read unverified messages circulating over WhatsApp, speculating that the Telangana government could lift the lockdown for five days starting April 15, before imposing a two-month closure. The messages have ignited hope that they may finally be able to get back home. “A one-week window would be good for us to return home,” said Omprakash, a worker from Chandrapur district in Maharashtra, who has been staying at the Bogaram shelter.

This may be a false hope – Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao has, in fact, urged the Centre to extend the lockdown beyond April 15, saying the economy could be revived later but lives needed to be saved now.

Migrant workers at the marriage hall in Hyderabad.

No wage payments

Lakhs of labourers throng Hyderabad city to work in building and road construction, brick kilns, malls, hospitality industry. They come from Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

The joint labour commissioner L Chaturvedi said 8.5 lakh workers employed with active enterprises were registered under the Building and Other Construction Workers Act in the state. A recent district survey had identified 3,35,669 migrant labourers in Telangana. But Chaturvedi was unable to clarify whether this population overlapped with the registered workers or was an additional resource.

The lockdown announcement has hit these workers extremely hard.

The contractor who employed Omprakash offered to pay advance wages but the workers decided against accepting the money since they were uncertain of future work.

“Our contractor had given us an advance of Rs 6,000 when we reached the site on March 11,” said Omprakash, in his early thirties, who had come to Hyderabad along with five men from his village Rajoli in Maharashtra. With the daily wage set at Rs 500, this advance covered 12 days till March 23.

When the lockdown was announced, the contractor gave 20 kg rice to 14 workers, including Omprakash’s group, asking them to stay on until work reopened. He offered to make another advance payment but said it would be deducted from future wages. But the workers felt this was risky. As the rice began to run out and “with no further work in sight”, they decided to walk back. It would have taken them four days to reach their village in Maharashtra, Omprakash estimated. But the journey was cut short.

The police took them to the shelter run by Ankuram, a non-profit organisation, in Bogaram village. Sumitra, the founder of Ankuram, said the shelter offered refuge to victims of domestic violence, but the organisation had agreed to host the migrant labourers on the police’s request.

Of the 49 migrant workers living in the shelter – all male – 44 were from Betul, Madhya Pradesh and five from Maharashtra. The men were free to saunter out during the day. They had been given dry food rations which they could cook on their own.

“Cooking by ourselves keeps us busy and also allows us to make the food we like,” said Jitesh Premwah from Rajoli village in Chandrapur district, Maharashtra.

Omprakash (second from left) with his companions in the shelter in Bogaram village.

Forcible detention

In contrast, at the marriage hall in Kompalli, migrant workers were kept locked up all day and night behind impressive ornate wrought iron gates. Volunteers from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad were supplying food here. They proudly showed us two large vessels filled with rice and sambar.

But the migrants insisted they did not want free food, they wanted to go home. “We are not used to eating rice two meals a day, we are roti eaters,” said Bajirao Nesar, apologetically. He belonged to a village in Balia district, eastern Uttar Pradesh.

More than 430 migrants – men, women and children – were living in the premises, policemen posted outside said. About 200 people were from Uttar Pradesh – Gorakhpur, Meerut, Bareilly, Varanasi and Lucknow districts – while another 200 belonged to Madhya Pradesh – Ujjain, Balaghat, Seoni and Bhopal districts. Another 30 were from Jharkhand.

As we entered the marriage hall, we saw a few boys hurriedly slip through the gates, their heads bent to avoid eye contact with anyone, briskly hitting the road with backpacks on their shoulders. Inside, men and women stood arguing and yelling at each other. A huge crowd gathered around us. All of them had one single refrain: “Hume ghar wapas jana hai, uska bandobast karo.” We want to go back to our homes, make arrangements for it.

Some of the migrants complained that the police had beaten them up to keep them from meeting the district collector when he visited the hall that morning. A worker showed injury marks on his thigh.

A policeman dismissed the allegation. “We are just three of us, dealing with 430 of them,” he said. “Whatever grievance they have, let the higher authorities decide what to do. We are doing our job.”

A worker alleged the police beat him, leaving injury marks on his thigh.

Small cultivators

Inside the sprawling compound of ARM Gardens was a large open structure built under a canopy, a separate cooking area with outsized hardy stoves and a wash basin along the wall with multiple taps. Most migrants workers were scattered in small groups. Some young men had passed out in exhausted sleep on the green-carpeted floor in the central area, with backpacks under their heads. Others stood around in huddles. Children devised ways to play.

Among those sheltered here was Raju’s family.

He and his wife had come to Hyderabad in February, bringing along their three-year old child, leaving behind two older children with Raju’s elderly parents. They had come as part of a group of 50 people.

Many small cultivators from their region set out twice a year to work in the cities for two-three months to supplement their meagre farm output with cash income. Raju, for instance, owns less than three acres of dry farmland in his village, which barely yields enough grain to sustain the family’s food requirements.

Had the coronavirus pandemic not struck, Raju and his wife would have returned home by mid-April with about Rs 50,000 in their pockets. But this year before the lockdown began, they managed to earn just Rs 35,000, a part of which had already been spent on buying food. They are worried they will not be able to invest in the next cropping cycle on their farm, let alone repair their house.

“We do not want anything,” he said. “If at all anyone wants to help, please arrange a bus, so we can reach home.”

In the shelter home in Bogaram village, the men were resigned to their circumstances and willing to stay till April 14. But even they were concerned about their families back home and were eager to return in time for harvesting.

Omprakash and his five companions from Maharashtra did not own any land. But they felt they could get work during the agricultural season in and around their village. “We would rather be closer home and work, than be so far away,” he said.