When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a sudden and complete lockdown last March to control Covid-19, it triggered an exodus of the desperate. Visuals of working-class migrant labourers pouring out of cities and walking hundreds of kilometres to reach their villages became the defining image of the pandemic in India.

This year, as a gigantic second wave courses through the country, a few things are visibly different: there is no blanket nation-wide lockdown, inter-state transport is still running, and migrant workers are not trudging home on foot.

But job loss, food insecurity and economic vulnerability are once again a looming reality for millions of urban informal workers and daily wage earners. In the absence of substantial relief measures by state governments or the Centre, a migrant “exodus” has resumed – this time in buses and trains.

“If I am not earning enough to pay rent or buy rations here, what is the point of staying in the city?” said Ramu Prajapati, an autodriver in Mumbai who is 200th on the waiting list of a train to Jaunpur, the Uttar Pradesh district where his village lies. “Last year I spent two months of the lockdown in Mumbai hoping it would end, but I had to survive on donations. This time I am going to go back as soon as I can.”

Nearly half of the Santucruz slum where he stays, he said, has already emptied out, and others are rushing to book berths on the 230 special trains that Central Railway has announced to help migrant workers get home. In Maharashtra and Gujarat, railway stations have been teaming with growing crowds of migrants hoping to get a ticket home, and agents are booking train and bus tickets at over four or five times the regular price.

The majority of these migrants are heading towards states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, which are now preparing themselves for a possible surge in fresh Covid-19 cases. Uttar Pradesh, which recorded over 22,000 new cases on Thursday, is once again setting up quarantine centres for returning migrants to be isolated and tested before they can reach their villages. In Bihar, train passengers arriving from Pune, Maharashtra, ran out of the station to reportedly avoid getting tested for Covid-19.

This chaos, say labour rights activists, could have been entirely avoided if governments had chosen to take responsibility for the precarious lives of the working classes who are central to urban economies but live on the margins.

‘People don’t want to be stranded’

After last year’s humanitarian crisis, central and state governments have been careful not to impose any sudden or draconian lockdowns this year.

“But couldn’t the government have told migrant workers not to go anywhere, not to panic?” said Chandan Kumar, the national coordinator of the Working People’s Charter, an organisation working for labour rights. “Couldn’t they have said, we will make sure you get food and that no landlord evicts you?”

Instead, even as late as last week, state governments had made no prior preparations for social welfare of the poor.

In Gujarat, where migrants are leaving even though non-essential industries are still functional, the government has made no announcements about providing the working classes with free rations, direct cash benefits or any other amenities.

“Because of this, it is more of daily wage workers who are leaving Gujarat rather than salary-based labourers – they will be first to suffer,” said Sharad Zagade, a Surat-based senior associate with Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit labour rights organisation. “People are anticipating a lockdown anytime, and don’t want to be stranded.”

In Surat, a major textile and diamond industry hub, lakhs of daily wage workers from UP, Bihar, Odisha and Jharkhand had walked to their villages during last year’s punishing lockdown. When they got home, many landless workers continued to struggle in a floundering economy, with inadequate provisions for work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

“This is one of the reasons why the number of migrant workers leaving Surat this year is slightly less than last year. Some of those without any land or opportunity in the village are staying back for now and hoping to keep finding work here,” said Zagade. Another reason, he said, is because many of the workers who had gone to their villages for Holi chose not to return at the start of April. “By then, they had heard news about the second wave and were already afraid of a lockdown.”

Left out of relief measures

In Maharashtra, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray announced a Rs 5,476-crore relief package on April 14, a day before the imposing a strict 15-day “curfew” in the state. This includes providing 3 kg of wheat and 2 kg of rice free to seven crore beneficiaries registered under the National Food Security Act, offering two lakh free cooked lunches per day, and paying Rs 1,500 each as a one-time payment to registered construction workers, hawkers and autorickshaw drivers.

These relief measures, say workers and activists, are laughable.

Barely 12 lakh construction workers are actually registered with the state’s Building and Other Construction Workers’ welfare board, out of an estimated 40 lakh workers in the industry. Similarly, the majority of hawkers are unregistered.

“After last year’s lockdown when unregistered workers were left out of central government relief measures, we have been trying to help more workers register with the board,” said Bilal Khan, an activist with Mumbai’s Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan. “But the government has put very difficult conditions for registration, like submitting a certificate from the employer saying that a worker has been with him for at least 90 days. Obviously employers are hesitant to do this because they fear it will make them liable to pay minimum wages.”

Several autodrivers that Scroll.in spoke to in Mumbai claimed they would not bother to collect the Rs 1,500 to be paid to them by the state.

“How will such a small amount help us at a time like this when we have almost no income? Can anyone survive on that much in the city?” said Prakash Yadav, an autodriver from Andheri. “It will probably be more magajmari [stressful] to run around and fill up forms to get that money.”

Meanwhile, taxi driver unions are upset about why their workers have been left out of the cash benefit relief measure.

To leave or stay?

The state’s provisions for food security – through limited free rations and cooked meals – are also not promising for many workers.

Last year, the central government had announced a Covid relief package that involved distributing 5 kg of wheat and 1 kg of pulses per month to 8 crore migrant workers without ration cards. The three-month scheme was poorly implemented, however, with states distributing just 13% of the grain allocated for migrants by mid July, and only 2.13 crore out of 8 crore workers actually getting grain during the first three months of the lockdown.

This year, Maharashtra has offered a smaller quantity of grain to the poor, and it has excluded people without ration cards. For migrants with ration cards, there is a different problem: all states have not yet put into place the One Nation One Ration Card system that allows ration card holders to access rations anywhere in the country by linking their cards to their Aadhaar number.

“My ration card is with my family in the village, and I linked it to my Aadhaar recently, but the ration walas still don’t give me grain,” said Irfan Khan, a middle-aged tea vendor in suburban Mumbai.

Since the start of April, Khan’s tea stall has been partially shut, and he sells barely 10 or 15 cups a day to stray passers-by. But he is one of the few migrants from his slum who is not planning to leave for his village in Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh, this time. “My family says there is no work there, and we have no land. So whether I leave or not, survival will be difficult.”

Tea vendor Irfan Khan is one of the few migrant workers who does not plan to return to his village this year. Photo: Aarefa Johari

The two lakh free lunches that Maharashtra is distributing every day across the state are not even a pittance. For reference, the population of Dharavi, Mumbai’s most famous slum, is itself over 10 lakh people.

“I found out that Shiv Bhojan will be distributing just 200 thalis a day in each local area,” said Deepak Paradkar, Aajeevika Bureau’s Mumbai associate who works closely with labourers in the small-scale industries located in Andheri East. “In this area, there are thousands of workers living on each road. So how will two lakh plates be enough?”

In the year since the 2020 lockdown, Paradkar has witnessed the labour force becoming even more economically vulnerable in the many garment, metal, recycling and food industries in Andheri East.

“When garment workshops started reopening after the lockdown, for instance, employers had limited orders and resources. So they gave jobs back only to skilled workers like machine operators rather than unskilled helpers,” said Paradkar. The unskilled workforce either moved to other cities, or shifted to construction or other daily wage work, leaving them with more job instability than before.

With curfews and a lockdown hitting their industries again, these workers have either left the city, are about to leave, or are seeking advice on whether they should leave or stay.

“When workers call us for advice, we tell them that they should take the risk of staying in the city only if they have proper work in hand,” said Paradkar, who helps attend to Aajeevika Bureau’s helpline for workers in distress. “If they don’t have work, then we tell them it is not worth the risk, because we too don’t know when things will get back to normal.”