We’re scared of 3rd COVID-19 wave: Migrant workers reflect on 2 years of turbulence

Two years on, ripples from the first COVID-19 wave continue to cast a shadow on lives of migrant workers

By Vivek Mishra
Published: Thursday 30 December 2021
We’re scared of 3rd COVID-19 wave: Migrant workers reflect on two years of turbulence. Photo: iStock

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has entered its third year. The first country-wide lockdown imposed in 2020 to curb the spread of the disease forced many workers in big cities to go back to their villages, where they neither had any home nor any means to earn.

Two years on, ripples from the first wave continue to cast a shadow on their lives. Many migrant workers told Down to Earth that they were assured work cards and security in their respective states. But that has been far from the truth.

DTE got in touch with the migrant workers it had spent some time with during the first country-wide lockdown. Here is what they told us: 

Indrajeet Singh, Darbhanga, Bihar 

Loan has increased to 1.5 times, daily earning around Rs 70

We reached our villages to see kaccha and broken houses. My wife had recovered from tuberculosis and was looking after our two-year-old child. We had nothing in our hands.

We spent the first four days in the open. The villagers cooked for us.

I had to give up my work in Azadpur Mandi, Delhi, on May 16, 2020, and go back home with my family. We left on a truck. It took us 36 hours to reach Ithar village in Darbhanga.

I had already spent Rs 84,000 for my wife’s treatment. There are 100 houses in the village. One person alone owns 60 bighas (15 acres) land; men from other houses go outside the village for labour work.

We had high expectations from the Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 (MGNREGA) regarding work, but we got nothing. The cost of agricultural labour was around Rs 100-150 a day and the work was seasonal.

I had taken a home loan of Rs 70,000, subject to 4 per cent interest from October 2020. I have not yet estimated the interest that I have to pay.

I reached Delhi again in March 2021, but the second wave of COVID-19 had started wreaking havoc. I went from Delhi to Hisar mandi of Haryana where I somehow managed to spend a month and then went back to the village.

Now I buy petrol on trust and sell it in the market, around 4 km from my village.

I sell more than 10 litres of petrol and get Rs 70-100 a day. My village has been protected by the pandemic. That is the only good thing. 

Kehar Singh, Bichiya village, Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh

We are scared every moment, our earnings have reduced to half 

I went back to my village, then came back to Delhi where I now work at the airport. I had vowed I would never return to Delhi again, but I had to.

We own five bighas (1.65 acres) among seven brothers. My earnings have reduced in the last two years due to inflation. I have a family of five.

I reached my village on May 24, 2020. I got my name registered in the police station, got tested and then went to the village. The contractor at the airport had not given us money.

I got a job under MGNREGA at a construction site in a nearby village. It was a big support system at that time. I was at home for one month.

One day, all of a sudden, I got a call from the contractor in Delhi. He said: “I am transferring the outstanding amount in your account and you come to Delhi.”

I went back to Delhi Airport in July 2020-end. I am currently involved in construction work in places with cargo. Before COVID-19, I would earn Rs 1,000 a day; now I only do one duty because the cargoes of international flights have been closed.

My village has been safe from COVID-19. The villages and farmlands on the river banks in our area are flooded. This took away agricultural employment. Even today, many of my fellow workers are in their villages. We are scared of the third wave.

Joginder Singh, Sudama Chak, Gopalganj, Bihar

Was able to send Rs 10,000 home after six months

Singh was with DTE on his way from Hapur to Amroha. He carried all his belongings on a cart.

I am living on rent in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, for the last 11 months. I did not go back home due to the fear that I would have to pay back loans to lenders. I have a loan of Rs 30,000. I will stay there for four-five months more.

After COVID-19, the work has reduced. During the second wave, I secretly worked as a mechanic but never went home. I belong to Sudama Chowk village, Gopalganj, Bihar. During the first wave, I reached UP’s Devariya district with my cart on May 22.

The Pradhan asked to stay in an isolation ward in a government school for 10-12 days and then come to the village. When I reached my village, I had a fight with my brother for a portion of land. He was not willing to hand me my part of land.

I have a wife, five daughters and an 18-year-old son. There was no work for six months. I have a one-acre land and I did farming, but could not sustain the family. We get 5 kg rice from the public distribution system, but that is not sufficient.

We had to survive without vegetables, oil and salt for a few days following the lockdown. For many months, we had food for one time a day. When 55-year old mother got ill, we had to take borrow money for her treatment.

Suddenly so many people had reached the village that everybody started small works like selling vegetables. I also used my cart in December but could not produce enough money. So we came back to Ghaziabad.

Now I barely earn Rs 15,000 a month. I eat vegetables only twice a month; for the rest of the month, I eat potato, rice and dal so that I can save money and send it to the family.

Ramesh Gautam, Mehsi, Bahraich, UP

I reached my home in May 2020 but had to keep my land on the mortgage due to scarcity of money. I spent three months in village but got no work. Total eight members in the family are dependent on me.

This COVID-19 pandemic has broken us. I am the first person in my family who has completed Bachelor in Arts in Sociology and Hindi. But because the financial condition in the family was not good, I had to go out to work after high school.

In 2008, I went to Jalandhar for work, where I earned Rs 130-140 a day, which increased to around Rs 350 by 2016. It became Rs 450 in 2018 but it has been the same since then.

I send Rs 10,000 a month to my family. M brothers went to Nepal for work.

During the second wave, when COVID cases increased, the work got disturbed for 10-15 days but I could not gain the courage to go back home. So I stayed in Jalandhar. I am scared about the third wave.

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