In September, Shamliben*, a construction worker from Kushalgarh in South Rajasthan, returned to Surat after having spent nearly six months of the Covid-19 lockdown in her home village in rural Rajasthan.

During the time in which Shamliben had been away, conditions in Surat had become considerably more difficult for her and the city’s thousands of other circular migrants, who spend some months in Surat and the rest of the time in their home villages.

“Work is not as frequently available,” Shamliben said. “As a result I earn even less. I can’t access the public distribution system because I am not eligible, and so I buy food at market prices. I don’t know how this will end.”

A year after the unprecedented urban exodus that followed the imposition of the coronavirus lockdown, life for migrant construction workers in Surat remains unsafe and undignified. With a new wave of infections washing across the city, another exodus to their home villages is already underway. When they return, it’s clear that the majority will continue to live in the open and without the most basic amenities.

Fleeing rural distress

Shamliben and thousands of other migrants from the tribal, socio-economically backward regions of South Rajasthan live in thatched shanties in Surat’s Hathi Mandir, Ambatalavadi, the Amboli Market footpath and near the Tapti river.

Many of them come three blocks in Banswara, the southernmost district in Rajasthan, which characterised by acute levels of rural distress, poverty, landlessness, indebtedness, and an abysmal social welfare system.

Last year, unlike in other migration corridors, most of the workers in the South Rajasthan-Gujarat belt had already returned home in the week leading up to Holi, before the lockdown was announced on March 24 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. As a result, most workers did not have to face the horror of being stranded or having to return to their villages on foot.

However, their living conditions have been difficult since long before the lockdown period. The workers live in the open, constantly exposed to the elements. They live without access to toilets and running water.

Women workers are among the most vulnerable of the residents here. They work longer hours than the men, sleep and eat less and earn lower wages. They are forced to walk long distances to the river to relieve themselves, often in the company of their husbands and very early in the morning. At night, in spite of sleeping alongside their families, they face sexual violence.

The numbers of street dwellers in Surat are contested. In 2019, the Surat Municipal Corporation estimated the total number of “pavement dwellers” to be just over 36,000. The city is also home to over 40 lakh migrant workers, a large proportion of whom work in the construction industry. Nearly half of them live in the open.

The Surat Municipal Corporation, the agency in charge of providing shelters to the urban poor, says on its website that it has about 50 facilities across the city. However, these shelters are not close to the labour nakas where workers assemble hoping that contractors will offer them jobs for the day. This means most migrant workers do not use these shelters.

Life post lockdown in Surat

As workers returned to the city post lockdown, new challenges appeared on streets in Surat because of the difficult conditions in the villages.

My colleagues at Aajeevika Bureau, the non-profit that works with migrants from Gujarat and Rajasthan, said that they have noted a rise in the number of adolescent girls coming to Surat, mainly from the Kushalgarh and Sajjangarh blocks.

Schools and colleges in rural areas have been closed for a year, as a result of which dropout rates have shot up. Most of these girls first-time migrants, who have never stepped out of their villages.

The other, more acute problem has to do with the low availability of work and the inadequate wages workers are being offered. Construction was among the most severely hit sectors during the lockdown. As Surat’s economy gradually opened up, the number of working days available to each worker dropped. They earn lower wages, and so spend proportionately even more of their earnings on food and other essentials.

This means that they are unable to send back much money to their families in their villages – who have no other means of livelihood.

In addition, stringent evictions and forceful relocations by local authorities over the past few months have resulted in a shift in the distribution of migrants across the city, resulting in unprecedented friction between two sets of workers.

Before lockdown, the Amboli riverfront had been settled by a few thousand circular migrants from South Rajasthan. Last year, shortly before the lockdown was announced, they had left for home to prepare for Holi. When they were away, a number of semi-permanent settlements were demolished in other parts of Amboli. These settlements were home to migrants from within the state of Gujarat. These groups moved into the part of Amboli Chowk that had been vacated by the migrants from Rajasthan.

When the original inhabitants of this space returned from Rajasthan, they found themselves at loggerheads with the recently settled Gujarati workers. Eventually, it was the intra-state migrants who triumphed, while their Rajasthani counterparts had to go elsewhere.

They had to scramble to find a new place to rebuild their shanties or live in the open.

Shelter problem

The 50 or so shelters built by the Surat Municipal Corporation are too small to accommodate the city’s population of homeless people. They also fail to address the most fundamental question around housing for the urban poor: where should these shelters be built and for whom in particular?

The shelters have been built where land was available rather than where poor people work – and would need to live.

Construction workers, for instance, live in a few areas of Surat so as to save money on commuting. Where workers live a little distance away from their work sites, contractors organise transport for them, but more than often deduct that amount from each workers’ wages.

With work and wages scarce, with shelters barely equipped to provide for those who are perpetually homeless, let alone seasonal or circular migrant workers, dignified housing in Suran remains a distant dream for people like Shamliben.

“I had hoped that after lockdown, this city that we helped build with our sweat and labour would treat us differently,” she said. “But things are only getting harder.”

* Name changed to protect her identity.

Anhad Imaan works with Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit that provides support to seasonal migrant labourers in Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Maharashtra.