‘If I die here now, no one will know’: Pune’s migrant workers are struggling to survive the lockdown
Ground Report

‘If I die here now, no one will know’: Pune’s migrant workers are struggling to survive the lockdown

The administration has set up four shelter homes, but many workers have already begun walking hundreds of kilometres to go home.

By Prateek Goyal

Published on :

Pawan Sahu, 20, is visibly hungry and distraught. Twelve days ago, he came to Pune from Bihar with Rs 3,000 in his pocket, hoping to find work as a daily wage labourer. Now, with only Rs 30 left, he’s sleeping on the streets, buckling under the vicious cycle of the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, and his inability, therefore, to find work.

Millions of migrant workers like Pawan are struggling to survive. Stranded in alien cities, with public transportation suspended for the next two weeks at least, thousands are walking home, left bereft by the central government.

Pawan got lucky though. After hearing his story, Pune’s district collector, Naval Kishore Ram, and sub-divisional magistrate, Santosh Deshmukh, swung into action to provide food and shelter to destitute migrant workers.

Here’s what happened.

Newslaundry met Pawan on Fergusson College road. When asked why he was out during the lockdown, he broke down.

Pawan’s home and family are in Phulwari Sharif in Patna, 1,700 km away. His family owns only one bigha of land, and his brother works as a labourer in Rajasthan. Their crops in Bihar were destroyed so he decided to look for work in Pune.

Pawan arrived in Pune on the Patna-Pune Express, he doesn't remember the exact date. “I immediately began searching for a job,” he said. He first went to hotels in Deccan, an area in Pune, to try and find a job.

“I was ready to do anything, from washing utensils to sweeping floors. I went to six restaurants that day but couldn’t find anything,” he said. “I thought I would get a job on the first day itself...I was wrong.”

For the next six days, Pawan visited over a dozen hotels and restaurants, but was unable to find employment. “I decided to go back home but it was too late; by that time, trains were suspended across the country,” he said. “Many people were going back home but I still hoped to find a job. So I delayed my departure, which was my biggest mistake.”

His hopes were further shattered when the prime minister first announced the Janta Curfew, which took place on March 22. Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray swiftly announced curfew in Maharashtra, which was followed by the 21-day nationwide lockdown on March 23.

Pawan talks to Newslaundry

Pawan didn’t know what to do. For the last five days, he slept at the Deccan bus stop.

“My money got over, so I didn’t have anything to eat. For the first two days I managed with an empty stomach but some people started distributing food to people like me,” he said. “They gave packets of poha, so I was able to eat at least once in 24 hours.”

Pawan lost his mobile phone and had no way to contact his family back home. “Even if I die here now, no one will know. I will be an unclaimed body,” he said. “My aged father would never know what became of me.”

He added: “It’s not easy to live on the road, because the police are beating up people. Two days ago, I was also beaten by the police.”

Newslaundry contacted Naval Kishore Ram, the district collector of Pune, and told him about Pawan’s plight. Ram responded at once. “You will get a call from someone soon, and the matter will be sorted,” he said.

Within a few minutes, Santosh Deshmukh, Pune’s sub-divisional magistrate, telephoned this reporter, and asked if Pawan could be taken to the Dattawadi police station, from where he’d be taken to a shelter home. However, Pawan was frightened of the police and refused to go to the station.

When Newslaundry told Deshmukh, he replied: “I will be there.” Within 20 minutes, Deshmukh arrived and took Pawan to a shelter home.

Later on, Deshmukh told Newslaundry: “The Pune district administration has set up four shelter home across the city for people stranded due to the lockdown. These homes provide a place to stay and daily meals. We’re there to help such people 24/7.”

A group of workers leaving the city for their hometowns, hundreds of kilometres away.
A group of workers leaving the city for their hometowns, hundreds of kilometres away.

‘It’s better to walk 350 km than stay here’

While Pawan managed to find refuge in the shelter home, many other migrant workers made the difficult decision to return to their respective villages on foot.

Shankar Neele, 33, started his journey on the afternoon of March 28, leaving Pune’s Hadapsur to walk to his village in Omerga, Osmanabad — a distance of about 350 km. He’s walking with about a dozen others from the same village.

“I came here to find work as a labourer 15 days ago. I was working at a construction site in Mulshi,” Shankar said. “Five days ago, all work stopped and we were stranded. There are no buses or trains to return to our village. I’m a daily wage labourer; I can’t survive if I don’t get money on a daily basis.”

Shankar had nowhere to stay in Pune. “We can’t live here without money and food. So, we have decided to walk back to our village,” he said. “There is no other option. It’s better to walk 350 km than to stay here.”

Venkat Borsare, 22, is walking back with Shankar. “Initially, we thought buses or trains will resume within a day or two. When we realised it will take a long time, we decided to go back to our villages on foot,” he told Newslaundry. “It will take 3-4 days to reach. I know it will be a very long walk but we don’t have any other option. It’s better to be with our families than live here.”

Rajkumar Neela, 27, is also walking back to Omerga.

“We don’t know what will happen to us here if we fall sick. But if we go home and fall sick, at least we’ll be with our families,” he said. “Over here, we are also afraid of the police. They are hitting people stranded on the road.”

Many workers who inhabit the slums of Pune are running out of ration.
Many workers who inhabit the slums of Pune are running out of ration.

"To save rations, I make food just once a day."

Daily wage workers living in Pune’s slums are also worried about what the future holds.

Bharat Pathak, 35, lives in a slum in Indra Nagar. He works as a porter in a timber market.

“I used to earn Rs 150-200 on a daily basis but for the last 10 days, I don’t have any work because of the coronavirus outbreak,” Bharat told Newslaundry. “In this lockdown situation, there is no work for us. It’s become difficult to run our homes.” Bharat has only Rs 600, and doesn’t know how his family will survive.

His wife, Vandana, 30, said: “We’re running the house by borrowing rations from here and there. But this will not work for a long period of time...Everything is shut and everyone has to save for themselves.”

Two months ago, Savita Maurya, 36, lost her job as a security guard. Her husband went to Davangiri in Karnataka to work as a labourer. He’s now stranded there due to the lockdown.

“My husband tried to come back but was stopped by the police and beaten up. I don’t know what to do,” Savita said. “I have two children, how will we survive? To save rations, I make food just once a day. I borrow Rs 30-40 a day because there’s no cash at home.”

Sunita Bansode, 42, said she’s scared of the coronavirus outbreak, but is more frightened of how her family will survive.

“My husband is a rickshaw driver but he’s had no work for 15 days. We survive on daily earnings, and there’s been no earnings for 15 days,” she said. “Yesterday, I saw on TV that rations will be distributed in ration shops, but the shop was closed. Today I only have wheat flour at home. I don’t even have chillies to make chutney.”

Sunita managed to borrow chillies from someone, but said: “In these times, I feel hesitant to ask others because all poor people are barely surviving.”

Rekha Kude, 30, works as a household help at a building in Salisbury Park. Last week, her employers told her not to come anymore.

“I generally earn Rs 3,000 per month but if I don’t go to work, my wages get cut on a daily basis. A day ago, I managed to go to my employers’ homes, escaping police bandobast, but my employers said they have no money to give.”

Rekha’s husband, who works as a daily wage porter in a timber market, has also been out of work for the last 10 days.

“Now, we’re left with two kilos of wheat flour, rice and pulses,” Rekha said. “For the past week, we’ve been cooking only once a day. Today I tried to borrow oil from a grocery store but the shop owner refused, saying the situation is so critical that he can’t give products without money.”

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