By Gauri Sinha

While attempting to understand the Indian social demography, one is forced to confront the vast number of labourers participating in the country’s economy. They often migrate either from their villages to urban centres pregnant with opportunities of employment or from their native state to another where opportunities hold better benefits. This has not only led to a massive urban-rural diaspora, but it has also played a role in the changing composition of states in the country. With the onset of Covid-19 and a somewhat abrupt lockdown, many individuals sought to go back home, to their families, where they can be well informed of their conditions. Airfare went up, prices of cabs, trains and buses shot up as the fairly well-off lot comfortably arrived onto the threshold of their houses right before the commencement of the lockdown.

On the other hand, with the imposition of the lockdown, migrant labourer without any means of transport, set to cover the distance to their native homes on foot. Almost immediately photographs of their journey flooded in as hundreds of migrant labourers along with their families were seen walking over 30 kilometres a day, often barefoot, balancing an infant over their hip or their luggage over their head, only to be turned away at the border sealed under the requisite for lockdown.

While air travellers were tested with dignity, images of a large number of migrants crouching over empty roads under the ruthless summer sun, sprayed with disinfectants as though they were nothing but bugs, shook the internet.

For the common man, this story ends here, with a button they can distract themselves from the conditions of their countrymen or simply shut off the news. And so was the case with me. I was distressed and my heart did leap out in their support, but only minutes later would all my attention be focused onto watching movies and contemplating about the menu for dinner, should I whip up some noodle? Or should Mumma make some aloo ke parathe?
That was until a few days ago. After constant pleading, my mother finally agreed to let me help with the grocery shopping. We got into our car, clad in masks, and slathered with a sanitizer, to drive to a nearby store.

It was on our way back home that the reality of so many families, so many citizens of our country stood facing me, heavy and seeking my full attention. Migrant labourers lined the perimeter of the highway, many barefoot, some resting under the shade of a big tree, their luggage packed in torn saris, their hair matted with dust and clothes worn out. There were children huddled around them, some playing with their newfound friends, others crying out of hunger.
Many people claim that it is foolish to travel back home at this time. What they fail to understand is the plight of migrant labourers during these testing times.

Majority of the migrant labourers were daily wage workers without any financial or job security. With the lockdown, most of the areas of their employment are temporarily shut down, leaving them without a source of daily income. They very quickly began to find it extremely difficult to provide food on the table. On top of that, their landlords began demanding rent for the roof over their heads, despite the initial imposition of Disaster Management Act 2005, which clearly mentions that in times of disasters, landlords cannot force their tenants to pay rent.

On 23rd May 2020, Delhi High Court passed a verdict saying that tenants can delay the payment of rent, putting an end to the debate surrounding landlords and tenants. Without a steady income, their meagre savings soon fell short and so they decided to pack their bags and travel to their villages where they would have a home to their name and family for support, care and comfort in these uncertain times.

A few weeks into the lockdown, my parents were returning from their grocery shopping trip, when they were approached by a woman probably in her mid-thirties who was begging for cash or food. Upon being given a packet of rice, she informed them that she was actually a migrant labourer from Karnataka, who came here as a construction worker. My parents informed her about the free community kitchen set up by the government of Maharashtra. She told them that she was aware of these initiatives, that she even approached them but was turned away because she held a ration card registered in Karnataka, and they were only providing those with a ration card registered in Maharashtra, with relief material.

इस जिंदगी में कभी भीख नहीं मांगनी पड़ी
(In this life, I never had to beg before)
Were her last words to them.

Our Dhobi Wala Bhaiya (washer man) one Sunday morning, gave us a call informing us that if the lockdown were not to be lifted by 18th of May 2020, he too would make his way back home, when probed further about the shortage of transport he said he would take his two-wheeler to Uttar Pradesh.

In spite of all the horrible news relating to Covid-19, is extremely heart-warming to see people come together and go out of their way to help those in need. The copier Bhaiya of my college, set up a kitchen for the migrant labourer along with some of his friends in Delhi. Gurudwaras have opened their arms wide and far to shelter anyone who needs help. Those who couldn’t help through community kitchens and provision of shelter have contributed to the cause through their donations, no matter how small, they were appreciated. If you also want to help with the cause in any way, even if it may be donating 50 rupees, there are multiple organisations for you, from government-run to NGO’s.

So, go help a family out!

Photo by Phil DuFrene on Unsplash

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