WHEN the third phase of the lockdown ended on May 17, lakhs of migrant workers stranded in Delhi continued to be out of work, penniless and starving. Despite tall promises by the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister, their condition was precarious.
Under the midday sun in May, Frontline followed a group of migrant workers on the old Grand Trunk Road as they kept walking undeterred by the heat or the hopelessness of their situation. They stopped for a few moments of rest on a flyover where there was no stick-wielding policeman to chase them. Removing their weary burdens from their heads, they quenched their thirst from plastic bottles. After some initial hesitation, the women in the group opened up.
They were all from Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh, and this was their second attempt at leaving Delhi on foot. Twice they had been turned away from the State border by the police. The factory in North West Delhi where they worked as construction workers had stopped giving them food. They had run out of money, and their only hope of survival was to somehow reach their village. Did they know the route? “No, but we are asking along the way,” said a woman, clutching a pair of yellow gloves in her hand. Did they know of trains that had started operating from Delhi? “We have heard something like that, but the cops chased us away from the railway station,” she said, adding that none of them had a smartphone to make the bookings. Just then, a train rumbled over the tracks under the flyover, and they all paused to look at it. But then they quickly snapped out of their reverie and, perching their bags on their heads, resumed walking.
While Shramik special trains have begun to ply, the tickets cost money and not all migrant workers possess smartphones that are needed to book tickets. Besides, a medical certificate and other clearances from both the home State and the host State are required for a seat on the train. The process is cumbersome and many prefer to walk. A volunteer who works with migrant workers said: “If they had the money to buy tickets, they would have stayed on in Delhi and bought food with that money. Many have borrowed from village panchayats and relatives to afford tickets.” Workers from States such as Bengal know neither Hindi nor English and find it hard to follow government communications. As a result, lakhs of migrants continue to walk back home despite exhortations by governments to stay put.
There were 38 lakh migrant labourers in Delhi, according to the government's assessment. On May 18, the first day of lockdown 4.0, Frontline caught up with migrants who had managed to get seats on a train going to Ballia in Uttar Pradesh. Ravinder Kumar of Jaunpur, who worked as a welder in Tughlakabad, was furious with the government and his employer. He had reached the designated screening point in a South Delhi government school with his family, including a three-year-old child, in a hired auto rickshaw. Asked how the family had survived for the past two months, he said, “How do you think?” before looking away.
Many of the migrants standing in queue to get screened before buses took them to the railway station looked completely dejected. Some had to go further ahead to places in Bihar. But they were keen on getting out of Delhi. Once in Ballia, they would look for other modes of transport.
Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his officials assured migrants a place in government schools that were converted into shelter homes. But the condition of these centres was not always good. A volunteer who went to the Yamuna Sports Complex shelter home was traumatised by what he saw there. On the condition of anonymity, he told Frontline : “It was less of a shelter home and more of a prison. Roll call was being taken every day and no one was allowed to step out. People were scared, and a woman told me that they were subjected to lathi charge from time to time to keep them in line. The daal-chawal distributed in the name of food was not great and the toilets were in bad condition. There was a woman there who was nine months pregnant. Some of them cried out to us that they simply wanted to go home. The police and civil defence volunteers are treating these shelters as lock-up centres.”
He said that detention in a shelter home could be psychologically damaging. “The government must think beyond providing two meals a day and engage them in some activity or relief work,” he said. Some of the shelters had school principals as caretakers and they had no idea how to run the place.
Some of the people locked in shelter homes actually had homes in Delhi but were mistakenly swept up by the Delhi Police two months ago when they were out on errands. Despite alerting the authorities about their situation, there was no mechanism to send them back home.
On May 1, over a month after the lockdown was announced on March 24, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government promised ration kits to Delhi’s 72 lakh ration card holders. The volunteer explained why this was too little too late for many people: “One has to register online through a smartphone for the ration. Many migrants who applied for it left after they did not receive anything for weeks. Another man, who had placed a request a month ago, received it only now.” The State government set up several food relief centres, but the planning was flawed and the demand often overran supply.
Reaching the food centres was a challenge in itself, with policemen harassing groups of people on the way. It was especially challenging for Muslim residents, for whom the holy month of Ramzan had begun. A huge chunk of Delhi’s migratory as well as local population in need of relief was Muslim, said a volunteer who worked with a cross section of the needy in the Capital. Following the violence in North East Delhi in late February and the police harassment that came in its wake, Muslims were shaken and wary. People were scared to approach the police, who were carrying out most of the relief and administrative work in Delhi, especially in “red zones” where essential services could only be accessed through the police. Muslim residents were hesitant to invite policemen to their doorsteps. In parts of North East Delhi, the police continued to arrest scores of young men on charges of rioting even during the lockdown.
As the government fumbled to put systems in place in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society members, many of whom had never been involved with social service before, rose up to the occasion and supplied rations to the needy. Structures created after the North East Delhi violence by organisations continued with relief work in other places.
Speaking to Frontline over the phone, a volunteer said that many people wanted to go back home but did not know how. Those who had stayed back for the first 21 days of the lockdown decided to head back to their villages when employers did not pay them their wages and landlords started to demand rent. “Either the government should send them back or open the industries so they can earn and pay rent. Only then will the situation improve,” she said. She pointed out that people would have to fall back on government processes once civil society resources dried up.
As Delhi entered the fourth phase of lockdown, Kejriwal announced the opening of all offices and industries. While this might bring some respite to labour, the fact is that most of the migrant workers still wanted to go back to their villages. Many of the volunteers Frontline spoke to said migrant workers were disillusioned and felt let down by the city, though they knew that they would eventually be forced to return to it. One volunteer said: “The workers left the villages in the first place because systems had collapsed there. They are going home because they have no option left, but there is no rosy picture awaiting them back in their villages.”
As some offices and industries start functioning again, there are fears of a spurt in infections. The numbers, meanwhile, continued to rise in Delhi (11,088 cases as of May 20). There were also reports of under-reporting of COVID-19 fatalities by the Delhi government. While the official number of deaths was 160, the count from funerals and cremations of confirmed and suspected COVID19 patients added up to more than 400, according to some reports. The Delhi government’s decision not to test dead bodies for the infection made no scientific sense. The protocol of testing, tracing and isolating individuals is, as of now, the only way of defeating the coronavirus.