COVID-19: For migrant workers, a long road ahead

Back home, several daily wagers find themselves endlessly waiting to earn again 

By Rajat Kumar
Published: Monday 27 April 2020

It’s been around a month since Tulsi Ram returned to Rajasthan’s Dungarpur district — covering 170 kilometres on foot and the rest on two trucks — after the nationwide lockdown was announced to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). He migrated to Mumbai 20 years ago to work as a domestic help.

Like many fellow migrant workers, Tulsi Ram stares at uncertainty owing to the lockdown and its repercussions on daily wage work. It’s a long wait to simply start earning again.

Tulsi Ram received his salary of March from two of the four households he worked.

Back in village, he has small land holdings. His fields are located on hilly terrain and due to scarcity of water, he could cultivate only maize. The harvest was affected due to late and heavy rains.

“I am the sole earner in a family of six. I do not have enough savings. This is the first time in my life that I am sitting idle and don’t know what to do. If NREGA work starts, I will join that. I have filed my application for work and hope that my name will be in the roll,” said Tulsi Ram.

Tulsi Ram and his wife, back in their village in Dungarpur. Photo: Rajat Kumar

Recalling the arduous travel from Mumbai to Dungarpur, he said, “My contractor asked me to go back to my village when the lockdown was announced. I, along with 15 others, walked 170 km till Vapi. Few persons came in a car and gave us packets of steamed rice. We walked through the jungles. In Vapi, we managed to get lift in two trucks.”

Many at the crossroads

For many migrant workers back home, struggles have just begun.

“People are anxious. Many of them were not paid their salaries. Because of the adverse economic scenario, the chances of getting other jobs are slim,” said Madhulika, a social activist.

Dungarpur lies on the border and people often go to Gujarat to work as agricultural labourers. On their return, they get wheat for wages. But the source has been hit due to public restrictions.

The local administration and civil society groups have been providing ration to the most vulnerable groups. Many bhamashahs (donors) are also providing food supplies in collaboration with gram panchayats.

The wait, however, is now for Mahatama Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 (MGNREGA) to start. “At this moment, there is a high demand for NREGA in villages. Panchayat officials have asked us to give a list of 25 people from each ward. The work will be done while maintaining social distancing and wearing masks,” said Manisha, a community worker from Khajoori Panchayat.

According to the district administration of Dungarpur, around 54,000 migrant workers came back from Gujarat, Maharashtra, Delhi, Karnataka and other parts of India after lockdown. Small shop owners, street vendors and daily wage workers have been affected and have been seeking work through MGNREGA.

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