In response to a Public Interest Litigation filed by activists Harsh Mander and Anjali Bhardwaj demanding that the government should order that all migrant workers to be paid their wages during the course of the lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the Ministry of Home Affairs on April 7 maintained that the state was “discharging scrupulously” all its responsibilities.

The government maintained that because of its relief package, “there was no necessity for migrant workers to rush to their villages”. It claimed that “their daily needs were being taken care of wherever they were working and the daily needs of their family members were being taken care of at their respective villages”.

The experiences of Sewaram* and Moinul*, two migrant workers in Delhi, shows up the hollowness of the government’s claims. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24 announced that a total nationwide lockdown would commence in four hours, both Sewaram and Moinul intended to leave Delhi and go back to their villages since their wages would dry up.

Sewaram managed to make it home to Uttar Pradesh’s Gonda district, nearly 670 kilometers away from Delhi. But Moinul had no way of getting back to Barishat in West Bengal, more than 1,500 km away. The story of their lives these past weeks demonstrates how India’s most vulnerable people have been left without any protection by the government.

Both Moinul and Sewaram own plots of land that are too small to feed the families. The majority of the young men in their villages, particularly marginal farmers and landless laborers, tend to work in cities, returning mostly during the harvest months. Their farms are tended by other members of the family, particularly women and elderly people.

In fact, 75% of all migrants in India’s cities are marginal landowners. Seasonal migration is critical to their livelihoods and to the landless as they combine their wages in the city with earnings from crops to make ends meet.

Struggling for food

Moinul is a garment worker who lives in East Delhi along with 16 others from his district. The workshop doubles up as their living space. Living at the shop floor is a common feature of migrant life: it gives contractors greater control over the labourers, forcing them them to work longer shifts. Contractors use the fact that they provide workers accommodation as the excuse to keep wages low.

Until the lockdown, Moinul earned Rs 450 per day. But then payments stopped as the economy shut down.

A rapid survey among migrant workers conducted by the Jan Sahas rights organisation at the height of the exodus that followed the implementation of the lockdown shows that 55% of the respondents earned between Rs 200 and Rs 400 a day. Though the government has urged employers to continue paying their workers during the lockdown, most that means little to vast majority of the casual workforce since they have nothing more than a verbal contracts with their employers.

For the first three days of the lockdown, Moinul and his coworkers pooled in their savings to buy food. But then it was over. The Jan Sahas survey shows that 66% of the respondents were apprehensive of sustaining themselves for more than a week, given the lockdown. Moinul heard of food being distributed by the government at a school nearby. But when he and his friends tried to get some, they were turned away: the meals were only for residents of Delhi, they were told.

A migrant worker in front of a closed shop in Delhi. Credit: Jewel Samad/AFP

Contrary to the government’s claims that all Indians were being looked after, 42.3% of the respondents in the Jan Sahas survey conducted between March 27-March 29 said that they did not have any rations left for the day, let alone for the next few days.

“We did not want to beg for as long as we could,” said Moinul. But when they ran out of food, they finally reached out to a group in Bengal called Gonotodaroki who in turn directed them onto the Karwan-e-Mohabbat relief team that led them to us. While we did provide them with dry rations for now, uncertainty looms large for Moniul and lakhs like him still stranded in the cities.

It is not surprising that lakhs of people from the adjoining states tried by any means to reach home.

Concerns go unaddressed

In its Status Report to the Supreme Court on the condition of the workers, the government wrote, “The migrant workers travelling barefoot or otherwise in large numbers inevitably and unknowingly defy the social distancing norm and put their lives and lives of others in danger.” The report seemed to suggest that the migrants were headed back so that they could cynically spread the virus to rural India.

When the government finally announced an economic package 36 hours after lockdown, it did not specify any steps to alleviate the concerns of migrant workers. There were no concrete assurances that food would be served or distributed. By then, Sewaram, a construction worker in Delhi, had already started walking home.

Inhospitable cities

Sewaram worked at big construction sites and specialises in making false ceilings. He was new in Delhi. He had been just sent from Mumbai by his contractor after Holi to work at a new site in Faridabad. He earned Rs 500 for eight hours a day, and as is common in this unregulated sector, managed to push himself to work four hours more for an extra Rs 250. The company provided accommodation for 14 workers in three rooms in Faridabad’s Sector 89.

But as soon as the lockdown was announced, the contractor switched off his phone and left. Sewaram and his colleagues did not receive their wages. They heard nothing about their rent being paid. They were left to themselves. With no jobs and no assurances about how they would get essentials, the 14 had no choice but to leave.

They were not the exceptions. As the Jan Sahas survey shows, several workers reported that they had been evicted from their informal settlements or labour camps, and have not been paid.

There seems to be repeated efforts by the government in its Status Report to portray that the humanitarian disaster of lakhs being on the move was merely an outcome of “panic” induced by “fake news”. There is an attempt to label people like Sewaram as “ignorant” or “gullible” workers who embarked on their long march home under undue “panic”. This is a clear attempt to hide the government’s lack of preparedness for the lockdown.

A migrant worker and his daughter wait to get food at a camp in Chennai. Credit: Arun Sankar / AFP

The march of despair

Sewaram and his co-workers decided to walk from Faridabad Sector 89 to Delhi’s Anand Vihar 35 km away in hope that they would find transport. But when they got to Haryana’s border with Delhi at Navada, they were turned back by the police. They walked through forests and wasteland for ten hours to avoid the police, a detour of 10 km.

At Anand Vihair, Sewaram and 100 others were bundled into a single Uttar Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation bus to Lucknow, making nonsense of the idea of social distancing. Though the transport service was meant to be free, Sewaram said he had to pay Rs 1,500 for the trip.

From Lucknow, the police hitched him onto a truck loaded with vegetables. Finally, 41 hours after he set out from Faridabad, Sewaram reached his home in Paigapur village in Gonda. Shortly after, the police arrived at Sewaram’s home and asked him to quarantine himself for the next 14 days.

Sewaram seemed quite agitated about the fact that while the lockdown has left them with no earning opportunities, the support from the government is far from adequate. He has been relying on friends to keep lending him Rs 100-Rs 200 from time to time. He claimed that he has received nothing except for 15 kg of grain from the public distribution system.

Burning their savings

Being a construction worker, Sewaram should have been a beneficiary of the financial assistance promised under the Welfare Fund of the Building and Construction Workers Act. Acting on the advisory issued by the Central government, as many as 18 states have given construction workers amounts ranging from Rs 1,000 to Rs 5,000. The UP government allotted Rs 1,000. But it appears Sewaram’s case is similar to that of the 94% respondents of the Jan Sahas rapid survey who did not have the necessary documentation to be able to receive this money. T

Sewaram grows sugarcane in his 3 bigha plot while Moinul grows paddy in his little over 2 bigha plot. Under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman scheme, the government decided to transfer the first installment of Rs 2,000 rupees by the first week of April. Neither Sewaram nor Moinul has yet received this.

As part of the coronavirus relief package declared by the government, Moinul’s family received a gas cylinder under the Ujjwala Scheme, n extra 5 kg of rice under the PM Garib Kalyan Yojna, and Rs 500 that was given to holders of Jan Dhan account. This amount of Rs 500 per month is lower than two days’ minimum wages for an agricultural labourer. In the absence of both income and adequate relief, these families are fast exhausting their meagre savings reserves.

No matter what the government tells the Supreme Court, Moinul and Sewaram are proof that much more needs to be done.

*Names changed at their request to protect their identities.

Sazid Ali, Shirin Choudhary and Anirban Bhattacharya all work at the Centre for Equity Studies.