On August 20, Nicholas Murmu stood under an umbrella in Dumka, Jharkhand, looking down into his phone, making a forceful intervention in an online discussion about the protections needed by migrant workers.
“Earlier it was just men that would go [to other states for work] but now women migrant workers are also going,” he told the participants at the session on industry, labour and employment organised by civil rights organisations as part of an initiative called the Janta Parliament.
“The women get trapped with the middlemen because of lack of education, awareness and poverty,” the 36-year-old man said. “We have to make them aware. Many incidents happen with them.”
Murmu was not speaking as a social activist – but as a factory worker who had lived and worked in South India for six years and had found himself stranded far away from home without money and food during the coronavirus lockdown. In May, when the government had finally started running train services for migrant workers, Murmu had visited a police station in Bengaluru to register for travel. But there he ran into two women from Jharkhand who had been cheated of their wages and had faced sexual violence. Murmu stayed back to help them.
This is the story of how an ordinary factory worker became an activist in a year when migrant workers in India faced an extraordinary crisis.
Murmu belongs to the Santhal community. For six years, he worked in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, in a factory that manufactured automobile parts, earning around Rs 15,000 per month. In December 2019, he went back home to his village to cast his vote during the Jharkhand Assembly elections. He returned to Kanchipuram in January.
A month later, he went to Bengaluru after some workers from Dumka said they needed his help to find work there. He stayed on in Bengaluru, finding work at a construction site, earning Rs 12,000. He lived at the site with fellow Jharkhandis and other migrant workers from states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Assam.
But the lockdown that began on March 24 left them without any work. Murmu and the other workers did not have to spend on rent but needed money to buy food. The contractors sent their monthly salaries to bank accounts in their home states, Murmu said. While he had a debit card, many other workers did not have any means of withdrawing their money from the bank, he added.
The contractors then started giving the workers a weekly stipend. This amount ranged from Rs 100 to Rs 350 per week. But the amount decreased each week after the lockdown, he said.
“We starved for two days,” Murmi recalled. “Everyone would eat one serving of khichdi we cooked once a day.”
Water was also scarce. “We got water in tankers every day to would wash utensils and bathe with it,” he said. But that stopped during the lockdown.
After repeated calls to the Jharkhand government’s helpline number, Murmu was able to get through to the nodal officer to file a complaint about not receiving food rations and water. He received Rs 5,000 in his account in April but said he was unsure if it came from the Jharkhand government. “I think it was someone from Bengaluru,” he said. Citizens’ groups had sprung up in many Indian cities to help stranded migrant workers and some of them were also providing them cash assistance.
In those difficult weeks, Murmu said he missed his family – his parents, wife and three children. “I was very worried because of the virus,” he said. “I wanted to be with my family at such a time when the virus can infect anyone. But the lockdown kept increasing day by day.”
Murmu used the internet on his mobile phone to check for ways to get back home. During the lockdown, all modes of public transport were suspended. Lakhs of migrant workers stranded in cities began to walk to their home villages, sometimes over 1,000 km away. More than 170 workers have been killed in accidents on the roads or train tracks. Some died from the sheer exhaustion of walking in the scorching heat.
A month after the nationwide lockdown, the Centre on April 29 announced that it would run special Shramik trains to carry migrant workers to their home states. But workers had to get several clearances from their home and host states as part of the process.
Once Murmu found out about the trains, he made repeated visits to the local police station to get himself and his colleagues registered for a trip back home, much to the ire of his contractors.
“I became a headache for them,” he said. “The contractors got angry with me and told other workers that I was brainwashing them,” he said. The contractors did not want the workers to leave and spread rumours about the consequences of returning home, he said.
“They said that the village would not allow us to enter, police would catch us, the hospital would give us an injection and kill us...there were many rumours like this,” he said.
This did not stop Murmu: he made repeated visits to the police station to enquire about train registrations. But a chance encounter at the police station one day would delay his homecoming.
On May 5, Murmu saw two women and two children as he was about to enter Kumbalgodu police station, which is located on the outskirts of Bengaluru. One of the women was around 25 years old while the other was around 35 years. The children were aged eight years and five years.
He said they looked like they were from his home state. “As a Jharkhandi, I asked them who they were and where they were from,” he said.
The women told him that they were from Dumka district. A contractor had brought them to Karnataka in October 2019, promising them work for Rs 9,000 monthly wages at an agarbatti factory at Ramanagara district located around 50 kms from Bengaluru. But when they came, they were made to work for nearly 16 hours per day and they did not receive their wages, Murmu said.
Moreover, these women alleged they were mistreated at the factory. “They did not get any food and they were abused,” Murmu said. “The children were made to do some work. Some of them used to fill water in the bathroom. Or they had to look after the other children.”
In December 2019, the women and children attempted to escape from the factory, but they were caught, after which the contractor took away their mobile phones and Aadhaar card, Murmu said. “They were locked in a room and beaten very badly,” he said. “They were threatened with rape and were made to work after they were beaten.”
One of the women alleged that some of the factory workers raped her in the premises, Murmu said.
In April, the women and children made a second attempt to escape from the factory. After they left, they spent nearly a month foraging for food and sleeping in a forest while they begged for food during the day in Kumbalgodu, he said. “While they begged, someone told them that they would be able to go home if they went to the police station,” he added.
Murmu noted down the names and addresses of the women. He gave them his mobile phone number and assured them that he would try to help them.
“I forgot all my tension and started to think of how I could help them,” he said.
A few days later, one of the women called Murmu and said she needed help. She said that another contractor who saw them begging took them to Kengeri, a suburb in Bengaluru that is located 8 kms away from Kumbalgodu. The contractor told them that he would give them work, clothes, food and shelter, Murmu said. In Kengeri, the women were made to stay at a construction site but they were not paid for the work they did. Instead, they were asked for sexual favours, Murmu said.
Murmu went to Kengeri from Kumbalgodu by bus. He did not have any money but his family in Dumka made a transfer to his account that he withdrew with his debit card.
He met the women and children at the construction site they stayed at and dialled 100 after which police officials came and took them to Kengeri police station. At the station, Murmu met Rajendran Narayanan, an academic and volunteer with the Stranded Workers’ Action Network, a collective formed this year to provide assistance to migrant workers. Narayanan was at the police station to help some workers register for travel back home.
With help from Murmu and Narayanan, the women filed a police complaint against the contractor who brought them to the agarbatti factory as well as the other contractor who took them to the construction site. One of the women also filed a rape complaint.
The police registered a First Information Report under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act, and went on to arrest one of the accused. Both the women also filed for compensation with the Karnataka government’s labour department, social welfare department and revenue department.
“What stands out about Nicholas is his unconditional willingness to stay back in Bangalore in support and solidarity with the two women at the cost of his return home,” said Rajendran Narayanan, who teaches at Azim Premji University.
The women received nearly Rs 1,10,000 each from the labour department as part of their pending wages, Rs 20,000 each from the revenue department for working as bonded labourers and the rape complainant received nearly Rs 4 lakh from the social welfare department, Narayanan said.
“This, at a time when he [Murmu] himself had faced severe distress of food insecurity and a loss of livelihood due to the lockdown,” Narayanan added.
The women and children were put in a shelter home in Kengeri, with Murmu, after which they boarded a Shramik train on June 3.
Home and unemployed
Along with the women and children, Murmu reached Bhagalpur in Bihar on June 5 after which they were taken to Dumka by district officials and kept under a 14-day quarantine at a hostel.
Most of his colleagues from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu reached Jharkhand before him. Some stayed back while others continued to return even in the beginning of August.
“We have never faced such a situation before,” he said. “The poor and workers have been the most affected by this. So many incidents happened with workers. Some slept hungry, some walked, some died midway, some died in unfortunate incidents...what happened was bad.”
But now that Murmu and his colleagues returned, their concern was finding work in the vicinity of their home. He remains unemployed more than two months after his return. He said there were no opportunities around his district.
And there was no work related to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in his village in Dumka district either. On some days, he was able to find work on farms that fetches him Rs 150 per day.
“Everyone is unemployed here,” Murmu said. To add to this, hunger was another worry for his family and him. He received 16 kgs of rice and 2 kgs of chana as ration in the beginning of August but that itself would not suffice for his family’s needs.
“Our main concern is food,” he said. “Things are so expensive. Buying vegetables, oil, soap...”
Murmu said that the government had to help workers like him who were looking for opportunities to earn their livelihoods.
“Corona is an epidemic but so is poverty,” he said. “I often hear that farmers commit suicide but if the government does not help us then I hope poor workers [like us] do not do the same,” he said. “I will not do anything like this but what can the poor, helpless do. Is the government listening to our voice?”
Murmu said he would consider going to another state if he was unable to find employment in Jharkhand. But he said he would prefer to work in his home state to be closer to his family. He said that workers like him wanted Jharkhand government to create employment opportunities for them.
“I was working in Tamil Nadu and from there I came back to give my vote,” Murmu said. “I entered my house only after I voted. If I can come from Tamil Nadu to vote in Jharkhand then I would also have expectations from the government.”
The government, he said, has to ensure that the poor were aware of the schemes they ran. To illustrate his point, Murmu said that the poor would buy salt if they had Rs 5 instead of a newspaper that costs the same. They would not have money to recharge their phone to access internet services either. “In that [amount], they can buy their week’s vegetables,” he said. “How will their children study online?”
Despite this, Murmu said he saw a silver lining. The constraints of a nationwide lockdown and the hardships faced by workers across the country made them more aware of their rights, he said. “They have understood that they are still stuck in the same place even though the government spends a lot of money,” he said.
Murmu continues to assist the women he had met in Bengaluru in their police case. Said Narayanan: “Not only did he stay back but he continues to play a pivotal role even after returning to Jharkhand in struggling and ensuring that the survivors are safe and get their due entitlements.”