Rohit Prasad, 26, a rickshaw driver in Mumbai, had returned to his village in Ranchi, Jharkhand, just before the pandemic lockdown was imposed in March 2020. He came back to Mumbai at the start of this year, to find his daily income reduced to half.
“There are less people in the streets, they’re all scared of the virus,” said Prasad, who came to Mumbai 10 years ago, explaining why his earnings have dwindled. To compound the problem, there are rumours of another lockdown as the city battles the second wave of coronavirus infections. Prasad is worried he may have to go back home again, or change professions, as he is unable to earn as much as he did before the lockdown.
When prime minister Narendra Modi declared the national lockdown on March 24 last year, he did so at only a few hours’ notice. Unsurprisingly, the brunt of it was faced by the vulnerable migrant workers, most of whom work in the informal sector. Their livelihoods suddenly gone, they returned to their villages, travelling large distances by trains, buses, cycles, and on foot. The migrant quickly turned into a humanitarian crisis.
In Mumbai, migrant workers come mostly from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, and Jharkhand. The city has, according to , a migration rate of 55 percent, with 52 percent from rural areas. In fact, as per the 2011 census, 27.66 percent of the city’s residents were born outside Maharashtra.
Nearly 11.86 lakh of them left Maharashtra on special trains once the lockdown was imposed, to the state government. Unofficial estimates put their number as high as 25 lakh. They were among the about 11.4 million migrant workers who left their workplaces for their homes across the country, according to .
A year on, a large number have returned to the city, but the effect of the lockdown lingers on across professions, along with worry about another lockdown.
“Those who get intoxicated by coming to Bombay, keep coming back,” said Alok Dinda, a shopkeeper working at Bandra station. He had returned to his hometown in Bengal in May 2020, only to come back a few months later.
Business not like before
Bhola Singh, 32, has a chaat stall in the city. He went home to Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh by bus in May 2020, only to come back in December. “I had to come back to see if I could manage, but business is definitely not like it was before,” said Singh, who has been working in Mumbai for 10 years.
“Things had started picking up a little recently, but now due to the news about rising cases and the chances of another lockdown, business has become slow again,” he said.
Singh used to earn Rs 700-800 a day before the lockdown. Now, it's barely Rs 300. “My earnings have reduced by half. Many workers haven’t even returned back to the city, hence less people visiting my stall.”
Like many migrant workers, Singh came to Mumbai after hearing others talk about the good opportunities to earn money. But lockdown disrupted his life. After closing his stall during the lockdown, he had to ask his family village to send him money from the village to get by. “The police wouldn’t let us put our stalls during the lockdown – they’d hit us if we did,” he said.
“It’ll take years for things to go back to how they were before,” he added. “The government hasn’t done anything for us – not in my village, nor here.”
Migration after the lockdown was inevitable, observed India Migration Now, a Mumbai based migration data, research and advocacy agency. “Migration is an opportunity – people were going to come back whenever they got the chance,” Priyansha Singh, a researcher, told Newslaundry. “But we’re realising through our fieldwork that the wages people get have drastically reduced, along with the amount of work they get at cities.”
“Their vulnerability was only highlighted during the virus because we saw hundreds of people going back on the roads,” she added. “Their vulnerability is a result of how the policy system doesn’t really take the aspect of migration into account.”
Ravindra Kanojia cleaned the dust off a row of untouched books as crowds rushed past his stall at Andheri metro station. “Barely anyone buys books from us anymore. It could take two to four years for things to become like they were before the lockdown,” he said. “It is difficult to earn enough to eat two square meals a day. How do we manage our households?”
Kanojia had returned to Pratapgarh in May 2020 on a shramik train. He had to return home as work came to a standstill during the lockdown. Seven months later, he was back in Mumbai where he has been working for more than 20 years.
“We kept waiting for things to start during the initial months of the lockdown but when they didn’t, there was no point of staying,” said Kanojia. Barely earning enough money to take care of himself, Kanojia is on the lookout for a job that can sustain him better.
The book stall at Andheri station.
“Does any government come and ask if we’ve been able to eat for the day?” asked the book seller. “To win elections, politicians will keep coming with folded hands but, once their work is done, they’ll forget about us.”
“But now, people have understood all of this – coronavirus has explained it to everyone.”
No money, no place to go
gathered at Mumbai’s Bandra station on April 14, 2020, the day the first lockdown was supposed to end. Following rumours about a train going to Bihar, all of them had reached there with their bags.
Besides three FIRs, and the issue being sensationalised by TV news channels, the migrants were also beaten up by the police. Mohammad Chandbabu, 36, who lives in the chawls of Bandra east, said he saw the crowd and the police from the terrace.
Chawls of Bandra east.
“There was a sense of urgency to return home. If the government had spoken about the lockdown 10-15 days before imposing it, people would have made arrangements and returned home,” he said. “The government should listen to the voice of the poor.”
The city of dreams turned into a nightmare for migrant workers who were stuck with no job and income in the first month under lockdown. “If you’re told to just sit in a room or shop without necessary things, how will you manage?” Chandbabu said. “If you don’t have money, what will you do? Will you eat the clothes at the shop here?”
He has been working in Mumbai for 15 years. He sells undergarments from a stall in Bandra and left the city in May to return to Lucknow – only to come back less than a month later.
“Where is work in UP? We’re not educated to have businesses,” he said. But his income has greatly reduced, post the lockdown. “If I’d earn Rs 1,000 before the lockdown, it’s down to Rs 300 now. There is no public, especially since rumours of the lockdown started doing the rounds again,” he added.
The union ministry of labour and employment have data about migrant workers who lost their lives during their return to home. Nor does it maintain any data about the job losses. Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar had admitted to this via a reply to a question posed in the Lok Sabha in September 2020. Earlier this month, though, the minister that 17 “accidental deaths” had been reported in Maharashtra.
Fear of another lockdown
Fear of another lockdown is in the air in Mumbai. Migrant workers who crossed several hurdles to return to their villages during the last one, often without any help from the government, are worried. Cases are piling up again. On Wednesday, the city 5,185 new coronavirus cases – its highest single day spike since the pandemic began. Chief minister Uddhav Thackeray has citizens of another lockdown if cases don’t come under control.
“If the lockdown happens again, I’ll have to either return home like last time or stay imprisoned inside,” Chandbabu said.
He recalled the initial months of the previous lockdown, saying “No money, no work, no place to go to– times were very tough. There are very few people who help in such times. Some of our Hindu and Muslim brothers helped us and gave us food those two months.”
“The situations under which people walked home, it will all be remembered,” Chandbabu added. “The circumstances were such that these images are going to be stuck in the minds of people; I doubt they’ll ever be forgotten.”
Mumbai is romanticised as a city of dreams, but migrant workers are struggling.
“Everything has been destroyed for poor people like us, who earn to eat every day,” said an old man who did not want to be named. “No politician, reporter, or government came to help us during the lockdown.”
He has a small jewellery shop near Bandra station, and went back to his hometown for Holi last year. He had to stay back for two months, and returned to Mumbai in May 2020. Facing loans, health issues, and a reduced income, he said, “In my 55 years, this is the first time I’ve seen such days.”
“I wish I could take the disease from the entire world and give it only to myself.”