Sheikh Ariful is distraught. With the national capital under a lockdown again to curb the surge in coronavirus cases, he is staring at an uncertain future. The memories of last year’s lockdown still haunt him. “My father died due to the national lockdown last year. This year, I do not know what will happen,” says Ariful who works as an artisan in Delhi’s Shahpur Jat area.
Many of the city’s migrants decided to head back to their home towns after Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced a week-long lockdown on April 19. Thousands flocked to the to catch a train or bus. However, several like Ariful decided to stay. Ariful who survived the first week of lockdown on two kilograms of potatoes and few kgs of rice, says that he understands the dilemma faced by the governments but believes this should have been planned ahead.
“If there is no lockdown, the cases will continue to rise. However, in a lockdown, the poor suffer as their livelihood stops. I understand the difficulties. The choice is not easy to make and the government does not have anything else to offer. Financial assistance will be helpful, provided we get it in time,” he adds. Ariful works for a saree embroidery outlet on Rs 15,000 a month-a major portion of which he sends back to his family in Midnapur, West Bengal.
Among those who have not left Delhi, some have professional commitments or want to avoid frequent travel during the pandemic. There are also several who can’t afford the train or bus fare. A few of them believe the situation will improve soon. While a group of his colleagues have already returned to their native villages in Bihar’s Araria, Mohammad Tanveer Alam, 29, is staying in Delhi. He is worried about his family- a wife and two sons back in the village, but could not go back to be with them during the pandemic due to his professional obligations.
Alam, a foreman in the toy manufacturing unit in Sadar Bazaar, says he decided not to accompany his fellow workers going back to their places as his employer assured him all help during the lockdown.
“Only a few of us are left here in Delhi. Bhai (employer) requested me to stay so that the manufacturing unit could continue functioning. He has given assurance that he will take care of our needs including food or whatever. The employer needed someone for round the clocking monitoring of the production. He trusts me. Hence, he wanted me here to look after the place,” says Alam who has been working in the national capital for more than 16 years.
In Delhi, several industrial units have adequate provisions for the residential accommodations of workers. Alam is employed in one such unit. This way, he has an advantage. He doesn’t need to travel every day. “We stay on the premises. So, it is easier for us to manage during the lockdown. Enough raw materials were in stock, so we are working as per our convenience. There is no pressure from the employer also. I don’t need to be worried about rent or other expenses but I miss my family,” Alam adds. He may go to meet his family on the occasion of Eid next month if the Covid situation improves.
“In a way, it (not travelling to the native village) is good for me. The lockdown has already caused a huge monetary loss. If I continue to work, I will manage to save some money for Eid next month. If I can go, I will buy clothes and goodies for my children,” Alam said. His elder son is just three and a half years old while the younger is two and a half. Mohammad Munshir, a native of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, has different reasons for staying back. The 48-year-old has a medical condition that does not permit him to travel frequently especially during the pandemic.
Munshir, who runs a friction motor (a mechanism required to propel toys), said he has heart-related ailments. “I preferred to be in Delhi during the previous lockdown also as travelling during the chaos is difficult for me,” he says. He has five children including a married daughter. The family stays in the village and Munshir is in Delhi for more than two decades. His two sons are also in Delhi but work in separate units.Last year, when the lockdown was imposed in March, he didn’t face any difficulties as his friends and acquaintances arranged dry ration and meals for him.
Whenever he needed cash, his professional contacts supported him. “I didn’t experience much hassle last time. So, I decided not to go back this time too. I know that I will manage. I am hopeful that lockdown will not last long. If we go back to our village it becomes difficult to return soon, which disturbs our business,” he explains. Munshir said that in case lockdown is extended, he might get help from his relatives or family. “There are others also who haven’t gone back. All of them believe that this lockdown will not continue for long and things will be normalised soon. If the situation deteriorates, we always have the option to borrow money from relatives and friends. Why should we waste time, energy, and money on frequent travel? It also results in business losses,” he says.
“One of my prime concerns is who will take care of my manufacturing unit in my absence,” he adds.
“It is not possible for me to shut my unit. If I don’t complete my orders, the buyers will go to another manufacturer. Nobody will wait for you. Once you lose an opportunity, it is difficult to get back the buyers. There is already very tough competition in our field. Margin is very low so that we heavily rely on bulk production. If production falls, profit plummets. Given the scenario, continuous production matters.” While the regular work just had started a few months ago after a year of lockdown, migrant labourers are facing an uncertain future again.
Ashok Kumar, a migrant worker from Etawa district in Uttar Pradesh, says, “We were healing from the wounds, scars and the trauma that we went through last year but corona has hit us once again. I will not blame the government as the lockdown was important but the lives of thousands of migrant workers like me were destroyed.” “After going through the trauma last year, I left my wife and children back in the village. The experience last year was very horrible.
We had to walk 100 miles on foot with small children. Thankfully, the government and NGOs helped us with food and water on our way back home. But this year, I did not go back village as the lockdown was for only six days. If it is not extended we can get back to our work. I rejoined in October when the markets were partially opened. The salaries have already been cut, now if I go back, the expenses will increase and I can lose the job. So, I along with fellow workers will wait. We may return if the lockdown is extended.”
The 44-year-old works in a cloth selling shop in Sarojini Nagar Market and lives in Sangam Vihar. He earns Rs 10,000 per month and pays Rs 2000 for rent. Another migrant Manish Kumar says he did not leave the city last year as his owner and landlord exempted his rent for four months due to lockdown. But this year he is planning to go if the lockdown is extended. “Last year, both governments, people and many organisations helped us with food and ration. My family depends upon me and I am the sole earner. Our lives depend on daily earnings. Last year, the government pushed landlords to not take rent but this year no such support has been given.
There’s no food or ration. My family is running on savings and ration we had. I can do any work to support my family but no one is calling. We will have to return if lockdown extends,” says Manish, 28, who lives in Pillanji Gaon with his wife and one-year-old. “When the last lockdown was announced I didn’t go back home. This time too, I am not going. We can’t run away every time. Such a situation may come in future as well. I need to earn for my family. The earnings have gone down but I am sure it will be better in some days,” says 45-year-old Ram Prasad.
“Last time, I went back and came back after around 4 months. A friend of mine stayed in Delhi and earned more money. I realised lockdown or not, demand for vegetables won’t go down. People will continue to buy. My only concern is if I fall sick and get Covid who will help me. I saw in newspapers how people are dying outside hospitals. I don’t want such fate,” says 22-year-old Pintu from Ara in Bihar. Delhi government has set up a team of senior officials who have been tasked with providing all help to the workers. AAP government has also announced that it will provide `5,000 as financial assistance to workers in this time of duress.
With the national capital under another lockdown, thousands of migrants have left the city for their native places. However, some are staying back in the hope that the people’s and government’s assistance will help them survive this crisis, reports Siddhanta Mishra
(With inputs from Parvez Sultan, Gayathri Mani and Somrita Ghosh)