By a lonely road, Murthal is a snapshot of the lockdown suffering
Covid-19: Economic Fallout

By a lonely road, Murthal is a snapshot of the lockdown suffering

In the Haryana town famous for its highway eateries, dhaba owners, vendors and farmers are all struggling. But migrant workers are hurting the most.

By Basant Kumar

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During these troubled days, the entrance to RK Colony, Murthal, is blocked by a bamboo barricade and two elderly men armed with sticks and a large bottle of sanitiser stand guard. They stop all visitors, enquire why they are in the area, and sanitise their hands before letting them in. The practice isn’t unique to Murthal. Villages across Haryana are employing such practices for protection against coronavirus, with residents taking turns to stand guard.

In the last two decades, Murthal, set along the highway connecting Delhi with Haryana, Punjab and beyond, has emerged as a favourite food haunt for travellers and truckers, always alive and buzzing. On any given day, its hundreds of dhabas, or eateries, would feed thousands of people. Now, under lockdown, it’s a desolate town.

All the eateries are shut, their owners are racking up losses, and, in a tragic irony, the workers that would feed and clean after thousands of people are facing hunger and destitution. The majority of them are migrants from Bihar, Jharkhand, and Uttar Pradesh, and they want to go home. For now, though, without a means of transport, they are forced to stay put in RK Colony.

As we reached RK Colony, one of the elderly guards asked our reason for being there. Satisfied by our reply, he sanitised our hands and directed us towards a small building nearby. It was a bright, scorching afternoon on April 14, but the building was dark inside. It housed around 70 dhaba workers, most of them from Madhubani district in Bihar. Pankaj Kumar Singh, though, was from Supaul, Bihar.

He works at Gulshan Dhaba. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly declared a nationwide lockdown on March 24, he was left with no food or money. For three days, he survived on water alone. But, Pankaj said, he did not share his situation with fellow workers out of a sense of shame. It was only when his health deteriorated that they realised he was starving.

Pankaj Kumar Singh is from Supaul, Bihar.
Pankaj Kumar Singh is from Supaul, Bihar.

The day we met him, he stood in a corner, wearing a t-shirt that looked oversized for his lanky frame, and covering his face with a handkerchief. “I have no money. Whatever I got from my employer was spent on rations,” he said.

It was obvious that Pankaj was still far from well. He began panting as he spoke with us. As he narrated how his friends were helping him, a fellow worker interjected, “Sir, how would others help when they don’t have anything themselves.”

Mounting losses

Modi initially imposed the nationwide lockdown for 21 days until April 14 before extending it to May 3, making it among the longest and harshest such measures in the world.

In Murthal, it meant the eateries were suddenly deserted, leaving the migrant workers stranded and without income.

Sukhdev Dhaba used to serve around 10,000 people on an average day. Today, there is only one guard outside it. The owners had sent all their workers on leave even before the lockdown began.

“As murmurs of coronavirus started in India, Sukhdev started functioning with caution,” said Kunal, the head of the eatery’s security guards. “We have close to a thousand workers who were paid and sent on leave before the curfew began. There are no workers here anymore, just guards who are from nearby villages. All guards bring their food from home.”

Sukhdev is reportedly the largest dhaba in Murthal. It also doubles up as a roadside motel and a venue for weddings.

“From the Kundli border to Murthal, there are five big dhabas on the highway that do a daily business of about Rs 5 lakh each,” the chairman of Murthal Dhaba Association, Manjit Singh, said. “There are 18 dhabas with daily sales of 2.5-3 lakh each. There are also 60 small places where most of the trucks and other vehicles stop. These places average 30,000 a day in sales.”

Manjit, who owns Jhilmil Dhaba in Murthal, added that all the eateries, big and small, have suffered crushing losses because of the lockdown. “Even if the lockdown ends on May 3, it would have ended up causing losses of Rs 30-40 crore to dhaba owners,” he estimated. “Besides dhaba owners, there are milk vendors, vegetable vendors, and labourers who are bearing the brunt of this lockdown.”

There’s another problem, Manjit pointed out. “How would we open our businesses even if the lockdown ends?” he asked. “All our workers have left, they won’t return soon for fear of catching the virus. In my view, it will take five-six months for things to return to normal in Murthal.”

He added: “Sonipat recently found eight cases of coronavirus, let’s see if the number of cases rises. If that happens and this district also becomes a hotspot, there’s no chance of dhabas reopening then.”

Pahalwan Dhaba in Murthal.
Pahalwan Dhaba in Murthal.

Pahalwan Dhaba is one of the Murthal’s “big” eateries, and among the most famous. It’s owner, Dayanand Sindhu, said, “We did sales of around Rs 4 lakh every day, but that’s all over now. Let’s see how the cookie crumbles. Priority, for now, is to save people’s lives. Yes, we are incurring losses, but we made profits in the past. We closed our dhaba before the lockdown started. We host people from all over, so there was a greater chance of spreading the infection.”

Manoj Kumar, owner of Gulshan Dhaba, said, “We served 500 to 1,000 customers every day. We made 1.5 to 2 lakh per day. It’s difficult to assess the losses accurately but we are incurring losses every day. The workers who are stuck here are also being fed. Under these circumstances, the scale and magnitude of losses would be clear only after the market reopens.”

Garam Dharam Dhaba owned by filmstar Dharmendra wears a deserted look.
Garam Dharam Dhaba owned by filmstar Dharmendra wears a deserted look.

There’s a “celebrity dhaba” in Murthal called Garam Dharam, owned by yesteryear’s filmstar Dharmendra. It was deserted when we visited, save for three guards. The eatery’s manager, Shamsher Singh, told Newslaundry, “All work stopped from March 21. We have 400 workers, mostly from UP and Bihar. Some of them left for their homes and some remain. We are ensuring that they are fed regularly. Before the lockdown, we served a thousand people a day. Now, we are incurring losses of Rs 2-3 lakh daily.”

Given the mounting losses, are the dhaba owners seeking any help from the government? “I don’t think the government will help,” said Manoj Kumar of Gulshan Dhaba, chuckling. “They have not said anything yet. Who knows what’ll happen next.”

Manjit Singh said: “We have helped the government earlier. So, if the situation of the dhaba owners gets worse and we need the government’s help, I hope they will help us.”

Dire situation

Most of the dhaba owners Newslaundry spoke with claimed that they were taking care of their workers. “We ensure our workers get meals before we do,” said Manjit Singh. “For the workers here, food is cooked daily. For workers stuck outside the dhaba, we give them ration and supplies.”

Dayanand Sindhu of Pahalwan Dhaba claimed as much. “We had about 120 workers, 40-50 of whom went home because they feared catching the infection here. We managed to run the place with those who stayed. We informed everyone that it was their choice whether they wanted to live inside the dhaba or not,” he said. “Everything is available for people living inside, they cook their own meals. For workers living outside with their families, we are providing cheap rations. We’re not charging them anything now, we will settle with them once the situation improves.”

Asked if the workers were being paid, Dayanand replied: “I’ll pay them for the month of March, but haven’t really thought about it beyond that. We’ll see what happens and decide.”

Families of migrant workers in Murthal.
Families of migrant workers in Murthal.

While we were at Pahalwan Dhaba, Santosh Prasad, 30, a worker from Ballia in Uttar Pradesh, arrived to get some rations. He confirmed what Dayanand had said. “I’ve been working here for four years. Most of the people who work here have left. I couldn’t leave because I live with my family. I was strapped for cash, so I called my employer. He asked me to come and take rations for a reduced amount, so I’ve come to collect 25 kg of flour and rice. Some dhaba owners are helping their workers while some have abandoned them.

Bhikhan from Darbhanga, Bihar, works at one of Murthal’s small dhabas. “I haven’t eaten since this morning,” he said, speaking to us around noon. “The owner asked me to take care of the dhaba after the lockdown started. There’s only flour in the kitchen, so I’m wondering what to cook. When the lockdown ends, I will go back home. At least, I will earn some money working in the fields there.”

In RK Colony, many workers live with their families, including women, children, and the elderly. In the dimly lit building, we tried speaking with a woman. She got upset and said, “I don’t want to register my name, people just note down our names but don’t provide any rations.”

There is palpable resentment among the workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Haryana government hasn’t provided them any help. An Osho centre nearby distributed food for a couple of days after the lockdown, but the workers claimed the staff were disrespectful to them. So, the workers simply stopped taking food from them.

Migrant workers who work in the dhabas of Murthal are struggling.
Migrant workers who work in the dhabas of Murthal are struggling.

Several migrant families we spoke with were desperate to go home in Bihar. “The dhaba owners didn’t pay us for the 21 days we worked in March,” said Sanjeev Kumar from Madhubani. “Some got Rs 1,000, some 1,500. We have somehow survived on that until now. We ask the government to test us and send us home. That’s the only option left for us.”

Dharmendra Mondol.
Dharmendra Mondol.

Dharmendra Mondol, 50, lives with his wife and children in the colony. He said, “People talk about walking home, but how can I? My wife has a heart condition. What if something happens during the journey? Somehow, we’ll try and survive here, I’ll try to borrow some money and break out the savings. We’re facing a lot of problems but what else can we do?”

His wife said she frequently takes ill: “My husband works in Pahalwan Dhaba. They gave us 10 kilos of flour, two of rice, some potatoes and onions. We have three kids with us here. Somehow we are managing. We have to buy gas or oil. This just isn’t enough. My husband wasn’t paid for the days that he worked there in March. When we ask the owner, he chides us saying, ‘Should I bring shahi paneer and palak paneer for you?”

In all, over 4,000 migrant workers are estimated to be stranded in Murthal, mostly dhaba workers, but some dailywage labourers as well. A room in the building we visited in RK Colony costs Rs 2,000 a month and is shared by four-five people. The landlord hasn’t come to collect the rent so far but the workers dread the day he would.

In Pipli Khera village near Murthal, dairy farmers said the lockdown has 'broken their backs'.
In Pipli Khera village near Murthal, dairy farmers said the lockdown has 'broken their backs'.

‘We feel helpless’

Most of Murthal’s eateries source their vegetables from Delhi’s Azadpur Mandi but buy the dairy products locally. Pahalwan Dhaba alone used to buy several thousand litres of milk a day from nearby villages.

Now that the dhabas are shut, the farmers who supplied them are suffering. In Pipli Khera village near Murthal, dairy farmers said the lockdown has “broken their backs”. So dire is the situation that whatever milk they can’t sell, at discounted rates, is mixed with fodder for the cattle.

Mangat Ram’s is a prominent family of dairy farmers in Pipli Khera: “We have 60 cows and buffaloes. We used to sell 200 litres of milk every day at Rs 55 a litre. Today, we are unable to sell all of our yield even at Rs 20-25 per litre, so we give it to our neighbours,” said Mangat Ram’s son, Praveen Solanki. “But people don’t drink cow milk here so we are forced to feed it to our cattle.”

He added: “It’s also become difficult to get feed for the cattle now. We used to buy fodder from Narela in Delhi but since the lockdown, we have been unable to do it. We are losing Rs 10,000 every day on milk along with the extra expense of fodder for the cattle.”

As in RK Colony, the entrance to Pipli Khera was blocked and manned by a group of men. They waved down our vehicle and asked what we were doing there. Once they learned we were journalists, they began narrating their problems. One elderly man said, “Heavy losses are a reality now but one feels helpless. Only if one is alive can he sell milk. Manjeet, in our village, used to sell 300 litres a day but he’s giving it away to neighbours now. People are apprehensive even talking about it. This is the first time when milk has been devalued like this.”

Manjeet Swarup’s family owns 80 cows and buffalos. His brother, Ranjeet, told Newslaundry: “We are forced to give away the milk or feed it to the cattle because it is not being sold. We are incurring losses of around 12,000 thousand a day. We have heard that some state governments are buying milk from producers but that is not happening in Haryana. The government should buy milk from us to mitigate our losses. They can distribute it to the people in need.”

The coronavirus outbreak and the lockdown imposed by India to contain it have thrown Murthal’s dhabas,and the economic activity they generated in the region, completely off the rails. The network of interdependence, connecting dhaba owners, migrant workers, vegetable vendors, dairy farmers is broken. What it will take to mend it, and how long, remains to be seen.

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