Stranded Odisha workers across India send SOS for food

Workers from Odisha are contacting anyone who can help them in a number of states

By Priya Ranjan Sahu
Published: Thursday 02 April 2020

Thousands of migrant workers from Odisha, who are stranded in other states due to the 21-day nation-wide lockdown for the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), are sending distress calls for food to anyone who can help.

Around 15 labourers from Odisha’s Nabarangpur district have been trapped in Tamil Nadu’s textile hub Tirupur. They are without jobs and money.

Likewise, nine skilled Dalit workers from Kendrapara district, working in plumbing and fire services, have been stranded in Telangana’s Rangareddy district. They had purchased groceries before the lockdown and have been surviving on a single meal a day.

“The groceries will sustain us for a day or two and we do not have money to replenish them,” Basanta Kumar Sethi, one of the workers, told Down To Earth.

Around 1.50 lakh migrant labourers from the state have been stranded in their workplaces, according to Odisha government officials. The figure is four to five times higher, according to social activists and non-governmental organisations.

The workers are desperate for food. Every day, administrations and non-governmental organisations in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have been receiving countless distress calls and WhatsApp messages, requesting food.

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has urged the chief ministers of all states to take care of the migrant labourers stranded in their states. The Odisha government, on its part, has taken steps to arrange accommodation and food for migrants from other states working in Odisha.

“The 23,133 guest workers from West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh now stranded in Odisha are being provided food and accommodation through 336 camps set up by the government,” Subroto Bagchi, the Odisha government’s chief spokesperson for COVID-19, said.

The government has set up a 20-line help centre for Odia workers stranded in other parts of the country. The migrants are calling an emergency number — 0674-2392115 — for help. State officials have been coordinating with other state governments to make food available to migrants trapped in different places.

However, they admit gaps remain as communication is mostly virtual, with minimum physical presence due to the epidemic. Many non-governmental organisations and individuals have stepped in to try to close the gaps and organise food for distressed people.  

A government official said that he felt helpless when he received such distress calls from migrants. “Though we coordinate with the respective states, there is no way to assess whether the help has been reaching the needy,” he said.

Umi Daniel, director of migration and education, Aide et Action South Asia, an international non-profit, said his group had been coordinating with Telangana and Tamil Nadu for food and accommodation of over 20,000 Odia migrants.

“The district administrations of both the states have asked their owners to provide them food. We are also following it up on a regular basis,” said Daniel.  

But this has not been the case with all workers. DTE interacted over phone with several workers and they said that the lockdown has left them with no money as the owners for whom they worked and contractors have completely abandoned them.

They have been repeatedly sending distress calls to government authorities and other voluntary groups and though response is quick and sympathetic, the wait for delivery is endless, according to them. During such agonising gaps, individual efforts have sustained them.

“We had been hungry for the last two days but received food on April 1 thanks to coordination by Sidharth Babu from our district,” Ananta Mishra, a migrant from Balangir, who works in a textile mill in Tirupur, said.

Babu, a bank officer based in Chennai, started organising food after he got a distress call from Sambalpuri Parivar. The Parivar is a collective of people from western Odisha residing in Bhopal.

It asked Babu to organise food for 15 migrant workers from Kalahandi trapped in the Shamgarh district of Madhya Pradesh. As he was earlier posted in Bhopal, Babu used his contacts over there to help the migrant labourers.

“After that, calls started coming from migrants from across India and we formed a group of few like-minded friends to help them,” he said.

Babu and his friends have been feeding at least 250 migrant workers in Tirupur. In some cases, cooked food packets are being sent to them while in some other cases, they are being provided with grocery items.

However, over 5,000 workers aged between 20 and 40 are said to be stranded in the textile hub and it is becoming very difficult to arrange food for all, at all times.

Over 2,000 construction labourers from Ganjam have been stranded in Chennai, according to social activists. They have skipped meals several times since the imposition of lockdown.

They dread the fact that they might soon be asked by their owners to vacate their houses. The government should have allowed them to return home or facilitated their safe passage before declaring the lockdown, they said.    

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