For two years in a row, Covid-19 lockdowns have cost Santosh Das his job in Surat’s powerloom industry and forced him to return to his village in Odisha.
Both times, his journey home has been prefaced by death.
Last year, the man who died was another migrant worker from Odisha, who was beaten to death by the Surat police on May 14. He had been part of a group protest demanding police registration for tickets in the Shramik Special trains, so that desperate migrants stranded in the lockdown could return home. Das did not personally know him, but his death paved the way for his return.
“We had been struggling to register for two weeks, but after this man died, the police immediately gave us tickets and put us on trains to Odisha,” said Das, 34, who hails from Ganjam district’s Baiballi village. “They were afraid that the Odia workers would create a bawaal [ruckus].”
Das returned to Surat in November 2020 and resumed work. But five months later, a second wave of Covid-19 surged across the country. As cases rose in Gujarat, fearing another lockdown, Das decided to head back home before transport snapped.
He booked three train tickets for his brother, brother-in-law and himself. All three men worked in the same powerloom factory.
But on April 16, a day before they were scheduled to travel, death hit home.
His brother-in-law had suddenly fallen ill with breathing and gastric problems. “We looked after him for a week, and took him to a hospital on April 16, but he died within hours,” said Das. Although he had tested negative for Covid-19, Das and his brother were asked to cremate their brother-in-law as per Covid protocols.
“We already had three tickets to Puri for April 17, but we never imagined that only two of us would end up boarding the train,” said Das, who is now back in his village.
Between last year’s sudden, nationwide lockdown and last week’s grim journey back home, Das has faced unemployment, food insecurity, a wipe-out of his savings and mounting debt.
Lakhs of informal and daily-wage workers are in the same position in cities across the country. Even though states have been imposing decentralised Covid-19 curfews and lockdowns more cautiously this year, they have offered little welfare support to working classes and migrants whose livelihoods are at sea once again.
This has triggered a second exodus of migrant workers who are flocking train and bus terminals in urban centres in a bid to get back home. Scroll.in spoke to three workers from Surat, Delhi and Mumbai to find out how two years of Covid-19 lockdowns have impacted their lives.
‘No savings, only debts to pay’
Das was barely 15 when he moved from Odisha to the textile hub of Surat in Gujarat. As landless agricultural labourers, his family had few prospects in the village, but in the powerloom factories of suburban Surat, Das and his brother could each make between Rs 14,000 and Rs 18,000 a month. “We work 12 hours a day and cannot miss work for more than two days at a stretch, or else we get replaced by another worker,” said Das. Whenever a worker visits their village, they usually have to find a work in a new factory when they return.
When last year’s lockdown was announced on March 24, all the textile factories in Surat shut down overnight. “The government announced that our salaries had to be paid, but we did not get even one rupee to eat food,” said Das, who considered walking all the way home like lakhs of other migrant workers across the country. “But then I saw news reports about how so many of them were dying on the way, and I decided to stay back in Surat.”
Das used up his savings to buy food, pay his monthly rent of Rs 2,000 and send money to his aged parents, wife and two school-going daughters in the village. He did not receive the five kilograms of free food grains that the central government had announced for migrant workers, and by the time he returned to Odisha in May 2020, he had to take a loan of Rs 60,000 to survive.
“I thought I would be able to earn something in the village, but there was no work at all,” said Das, who once received a call about work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, but did not eventually get hired. When he returned to Surat in November 2020, he felt fortunate that he was able to get his old job back.
“But then Covid started rising again last month, and I realised we could get stuck again,” he said. This time, a lockdown and job loss was not the only thing Das feared. Surat imposed night curfews to contain the second wave, but the powerloom factories continued to run during night shifts too. “Nobody was wearing masks inside the factory, so it was quite scary. We all wanted to leave Surat, but one train can only carry 1,200 people, so it will take time.”
On April 19, Das and his brother managed to reach Odisha’s Ganjam district after 44 hours of travel. For now, they are in mourning at their brother-in-law’s village, wondering how they will support their sister and her children if they do not find work in local farms.
“This time we have no savings and only debts to pay, and we cannot go back to the factory until Covid comes down,” said Das. “Our only hope is to find some small majoori [labour] in the village.”
A one-day trip to Delhi
On April 16, as droves of migrant workers left Delhi in the midst of the city’s worst Covid-19 spell, Vijay Kumar swam against the tide and travelled from Bihar to Delhi. He knew it was a health risk, but he was desperate.
In early March, the restaurant where he had worked as a waiter for 15 years had finally reopened, a year after the 2020 lockdown. His boss had called him back to work, and the earliest train ticket Kumar could arrange was for mid-April.
“I was very scared of the corona [Covid-19] situation in Delhi, but I had no option,” said Kumar, 30, who hails from Muzaffarpur’s Ratnauli village. “I had barely earned anything in the village since last year’s lockdown. I needed to earn for my family, and this job paid me Rs 18,000 a month.”
Within hours of reaching Delhi, however, Kumar’s hopes were crushed. “My boss told me that he had to shut the restaurant once again, that day itself, because of Covid.”
Delhi had recorded 19,486 new cases of Covid-19 that day – its highest single-day rise at the time – and all around Kumar, migrant workers were speculating about when a complete lockdown would be announced. For Kumar, this was a frightening prospect.
“Last year I was too scared to go walking from Delhi to Muzaffarpur when the lockdown started, so I was stuck in Delhi for three months before I could catch a train,” said Kumar. “I did not manage to get a loan, so I had to survive on very little savings.”
Kumar prioritised paying rent so that he had a roof over his head. For meals, he stood in long queues at food distribution centres organised by civic authorities and non-profit organisations. When the Centre announced that migrant workers would get 5 kg of free food rations, he filled up a form to apply for it. “But I did not receive it for the three months that I was in Delhi.”
Haunted by these memories from a year ago, Kumar decided he could not risk being stranded and jobless in Delhi for another lockdown. Not caring about a train reservation, he boarded a train back to Bihar on the same day that he had arrived in Delhi. “I was such a waste of my time and money.”
Now, back home in Muzaffarpur, Kumar feels safer but still miserable. Last year, his family of six had to rely on sporadic agricultural labour work to earn Rs 3,000 or Rs 4,000 a month. “NREGA work had started for a few weeks in July, but then we had heavy rains and flooding and all of it stopped,” said Kumar.
“I don’t think things will be very different this year. We will just have to manage till this corona kaal passes,” he said, using an evocative term in Hindi for a blighted time.
‘I really did not want to go back home’
When the first lockdown began in March 2020, Iqbal Sheikh was already out of money. He had just returned to Mumbai from a visit to his village in West Bengal’s Nadia district, where he had used up his savings to pay for his father’s medicines and his children’s fees in a local English-medium school.
“Just one week after I came back to work, the government shut everything down,” said 31-year-old Sheikh, who works at a small chappal-making unit in Mumbai’s sprawling Govandi slum. Sheikh is paid Rs 20 for each pair of slippers he makes, forcing him to work 18 hours a day to earn just Rs 400. “My income is not a lot, but when the lockdown came, I could not even earn one rupee.”
Since Sheikh and his co-workers lived in the same factory where they worked, they did not have to worry about rent. “But how to afford food? I tried to get free rations from the government shop, but they did not give it to me,” said Sheikh. “How long could I depend on donations from other people to eat food?”
Sheikh did not dare attempt to walk to his village like hundreds of others in his slum, but he did try to get onto trucks heading east. “But they were too crowded, I never even got to climb in.”
Sheikh’s efforts to get a spot in a Shramik Special train were also in vain, and on May 22, he finally took a loan of Rs 10,000 to buy a ticket on a bus to West Bengal. It took five days to reach the state’s borders, another day to get a bus towards his district, and then two weeks in a quarantine camp before he was able to reach his family.
At home, his fate was predictable: his family was landless, there was no labour work to be found, and Sheikh had to take an additional loan of Rs 40,000 to survive up till December, when his boss finally called him back to Mumbai.
“But now, see, Covid has come back and we are stuck in the same situation,” said Sheikh. When Mumbai imposed night curfews at the start of April, all non-essential businesses were made to shut down, putting a stop to Sheikh’s income once again. “We usually get a lot of orders in Ramzan, before Eid. But this year, even before Ramzan could begin, my boss gave each of us Rs 1,000 and told us to go home.”
Sheikh was not able to get a train ticket home, but says he managed to board a Howrah train anyway. He spent a miserable 32 hours on board, wondering if he would get work in a farm during the upcoming rice harvest season, or if he would have to sink deeper into debt.
“This time I really did not want to go back home, because it is so difficult to earn in the village,” he said. “But it is still better than being stuck in the city during a lockdown.”