Ajeeta Mehta is relieved to have made it back to Bihar’s Rohtas district after spending two months with depleting income and food stocks in a village in Haryana’s Gurugram district.
Mehta, 24, worked as a contractual worker at Minda Industries in Manesar, which supplies motorcycle parts to Maruti Suzuki and Hero Honda among others. Like all other industries, it had come to a halt when the nationwide lockdown began on March 25.
On April 12, when Scroll.in spoke to Mehta and three other auto-component industry workers, they were gripped with anxiety about their job security and future income. Mehta’s company, for instance, had paid him only Rs 5,000 of the regular wages of Rs 7,500 for the month of March. Many others had gone without wages.
The workers said they were running out of savings and food. They wanted to go back to their villages in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, but were unable to since all modes of public transport had been suspended.
On April 29, the Centre announced that it would run Shramik Express trains for stranded migrant workers. But the workers discovered that getting a berth on the Shramik trains was no less than winning a lottery.
Of the four workers Scroll.in spoke to in April, only Mehta was able to go back home – on a truck, and he was the only one who received his salary of Rs 8,100 for the month of April on May 16.
A survey of 100 migrant workers done in May by Safe in India, a non-profit organisation that focuses on safety concerns of workers, found that most workers are still stranded in Haryana. Three out of four workers surveyed were yet to receive their salaries for April. Fifty percent of these workers accepted the non-payment of salaries as fait accompli.
“Their uncertainty about jobs, about lockdowns, differing state responses to their migrants, having lost whatever little trust they had in their employers, does not help them or indeed the Indian businesses,” said Sandeep Sachdeva, one of the founders of the organisation.
From Haryana to Bihar
Mehta lived in Nawada Fatehpur village in Manesar. On May 14, he heard from his friend, also a migrant worker living in the vicinity that some them had paid truck drivers to get them to their home states.
Mehta contacted the the truck driver on May 14 at around 9 pm, who told him that his truck would be leaving in an hour. The truck driver hailed from Ballia district, Uttar Pradesh had come to Haryana to deliver some goods and offered to drop migrant workers off at Ballia, Mehta said. “He [the driver] thought why should the truck go back empty,” he said.
But leaving was not a simple affair. When Mehta’s landlord heard he was heading back home, he locked him up in his room along with his roommates, demanding that they pay their share of rent for April and May, even though the lockdown had stripped them off their savings.
The Haryana government’s order on April 2 directing landlords to waive rent for migrant workers and students for the period of one month seemed to have been overlooked.
“He [the landlord] was going to snatch our mobile phone,” he said. “I told him that I will go home and transfer the money to him but he did not agree.”
Mehta said his mother and younger brother in Bihar were able to send him some money to pay a total of Rs 4,200 for both the months, including an extra Rs 100 for electricity.
He left his house at around 10 pm on May 14 after paying off the landlord. He travelled in the truck with 30 other workers. The driver charged them Rs 2,200 each for the ride.
“Those who had [money] gave but those who did not have gave Rs 500 or Rs 1,000,” he said.
On the way, Mehta said he saw several migrant workers walking on the roads, trying to make their way back home. “They had left all hope,” he said.
After he reached Ballia on May 16, he spent the night with a friend, and borrowed his cycle the next day and rode around 105 kms to Rohtas district in Bihar. He reached his village on the night of May 17 and was sent to a gram panchayat school to complete the mandatory 14-day quarantine period.
At the quarantine centre, Mehta said that a team of doctors came once or twice a week to check their temperatures. He said he stayed with 45 other workers who had come from different states like Maharashtra, Kerala and Punjab.
“Some came through cars…others came through trains,” Mehta said. “They all said they wanted to reach home anyhow.”
His mother came to the quarantine centre twice everyday to give him food and milk. “She is just happy that both her sons are back in Bihar,” he said, referring to his 22-year-old brother who worked at a cement factory in Gujarat and hitchhiked his way from there till Rohtas district. His brother reached on May 20 and was at another quarantine centre located about a km away from the school.
On May 31, the last day of his quarantine, Mehta said that he was tested for the coronavirus and that the results were negative. He would be sent home on June 1. “I feel good that I am back,” he said. “I reached home safely and that is the main thing.”
He said he planned to spend some time with his family, work to plaster his house and then look for work as an agricultural labourer.
“It will be good if I can find work in Rohtas itself,” he said. “I thought I will be better off here. There is no one asking me for money.”
Back to work
Meanwhile, in Haryana, after weeks of complete closure, Gurugram officials started to ease the lockdown starting April 20, allowing at least 1,000 industrial units to resume production.
Despite this, industries are functioning at very low capacities because of low demand, said Vinnie Mehta, director general of Automotive Component Manufacturers Association of India.
“Only 8% to 10% work capacity utilisation is taking place at an average,” Vinnie Mehta said. “There is already an existing inventory in the system. If the manufacturers produce more, it only adds to the inventory blocking working capital, because sales are not happening.”
Among the three workers who started working, Surendra Shah, 35, said he first went to his factory around two weeks ago. He is employed by RDC Steel and Allied Services in Manesar, Haryana, as a power press operator on a contractual basis. The company makes motorcycle parts at its factory.
In April, Surendra Shah had wanted to go back to his home in Bihar’s Vaishali district after his grandfather died on March 18. But his younger brother and him were unable to leave.
At that time, his company had only paid him a fraction of the salary he was owed for the month of March. He also had to pay rent of Rs 2,500 and was running out of savings to purchase rations. He ate only two meals a day and was left with barely any rice, a kilo of potatoes that he purchased for Rs 30 and some salt.
But shortly after the interview, he said the company cleared his remaining dues, even though he continues to wait for his salary for the month of April.
In the first week of May, his brother and him registered on the Haryana government’s website to go back home to Bihar but they did not receive a message about ticket confirmation.
Shah purchased a ticket costing Rs 1,700 for his younger brother on the special air-conditioned Rajdhani trains that the Centre started on May 12.
“The work started otherwise I would have gone [home],” he said. “I will try to go after this month.”
Shah received a call from the company asking him to resume work on May 14. He said that there were around 25 other workers who have returned to work. But the number of workers at the factory even before the lockdown was not very high, he said.
“Only eight or nine are not coming because they went back to their villages,” he said.
The company gave him a pair of gloves, a mask and a hand sanitiser. While entering and leaving the factory, workers like him were sprayed with a disinfectant. “It is a machine that sprays below the neck,” he said.
Even then, he said there was not much work for him to do in his eight-hour work shift that runs six days a week. “Our supervisor has told us to do what we can,” he said. “We are just passing our time.”
At present, Surendra Shah said he was not having any trouble purchasing rations and vegetables for himself as the company was providing its workers a separate weekly allowance between Rs 600 and Rs 900. His landlord had told him to pay the rent for the month of April and May whenever he could.
He was, however, bitter that he was unable to go home after his grandfather died.
“By putting the lockdown in a day, the government drove people mad,” he said. “They are killing so many…why are they sending them home now? If they sent people earlier then what could have happened? Now the government has accepted defeat…when they are not able to control it.”
‘My children need money’
In April, 55-year-old Bhagirath asked, “What will I go home and do?”
This question, he said, made him stay back in Haryana instead of returning to his family in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh. He had registered on the Uttar Pradesh government’s website in the first week of May, but it was too late by the time he received a phone call from a stranger telling him that the bus to go to his home state was waiting for him.
“I had already started working,” he said. But if he had not started working, he would have considered going back home. “Besahara toh the hi, chale jaate.” I was helpless, I would have gone home.
He works as a power press operator on a contractual basis at JRD Perfect Tools, a company that supplies motorcycle parts to Hero Honda, in Bawal.
Staying back and earning seemed like a better option to him. “There is no work there [Faizabad],” he said. “My children need money. At least I will eat and save a little. I have to think about their future. It is okay if I have to suffer a little.”
The company had cleared his remaining dues from the month of March but were yet to pay him for the month of April, he said. He had still not managed to pay rent of Rs 1,500 for two months.
“The company told me that they will give me an advance for the days I have worked in May, but otherwise they have not helped,” he said.
Bhagirath said that workers in the factory continued to wear the thick gloves they wore earlier while working with machines. “We would anyway wear gloves but they are second-hand,” he said. “They are not new.”
Workers at this factory unit were also sprayed with disinfectant before they entered the premises and after they left.
“We have to close our eyes,” he said, adding that this was stopped after a week. “They said the machine spoilt,” he said.
The company also gave him a cloth mask on the first day that Bhagirath said he has been unable to reuse because of its poor quality.
He said that his work hours had reduced from nearly 12 hours a day to eight hours. His job consisted of cutting auto-components into different sizes. Earlier, his target was to cut around 6,000 parts a day. At present, he cuts around 2,000 parts in a day. “The work is much lesser,” he said.
This does not affect his salary that continues to remain fixed at Rs 10,219 per month, he said.
He also helped other workers run machines where more manpower was required. “There are very few people in the factory,” he said. “Earlier there would be at least 100 workers.”
Vinnie Mehta said that companies were not able to absorb all of their permanent workers and as one goes down the tier they would not being able to absorb the contractual workers either.
“There is very little production happening at this juncture,” he said. “The revenue has completely dried up in the industry. Salary cuts have been drastic for permanent employees as well. Going forward the industry may see layoffs and retrenchments.”
‘We will stay back and earn’
Pawan Shah, 30, registered on the Haryana government’s website on May 5 in the hope of getting train tickets to Muzaffarpur, Bihar, for himself, his 27-year-old wife and their three children.
But they have still not heard back from the government.
Meanwhile, the company where Shah was employed, JRD Perfect Tools, has asked him to come back to work. “The company told us not to go back because if we do then we will not be able to return,” Shah said.
In April, his family was running out of rations and savings. They owed the local grocer Rs 10,000 and were yet to pay rent.
Nearly two months later, Shah said he had still not received his salary of around Rs 8,800 for the month of April and was not expecting it for the month of May either. He owes his local grocer Rs 12,000 that has accumulated since April.
With barely any savings left, Shah borrowed Rs 3,000 from his wife’s family in Bihar. The family was receiving rations of 3 kgs rice, 5 kgs atta, a kilo of oil, some lentils and vegetables on a weekly basis from the non-profit organisation, Safe in India.
The only other silver lining was that Shah’s landlord has not asked him to pay rent of Rs 2,500 since April.
Despite not getting his wages for April and May, Shah has decided to go back to work at JRD Perfect Tools from June 1. The contractor, through whom the company employs him, told him that it would offer an advance between Rs 2,000 and Rs 3,000.
His contractor also told him that the company needed 30 workers but was able to get only 15. “Dhoondne se bhi nahi milenge inko,” Pawan Shah said. They will not be able to find more workers no matter how much they search. “A lot of people went back home on foot or on cycles,” he said.