A day after thousands of migrant workers protested at Bandra station, Mirror spoke to a few to find out how their lives have been ravaged by the lockdown and what help, if any, they have received
| Team Mirror
The protest by thousands of stranded migrants at Bandra railway station on Tuesday evening was yet another reminder of how the nationwide lockdown has been hardest on the poorest among us. It also exposed holes in the government’s repeated claims that it has been providing food and other essentials to those who need it most.
News of the protest led almost immediately to political bickering between the government and opposition – an indication of how difficult it has been for migrant workers to get politicians to halt their oneupmanship and just listen – even during a pandemic.
It isn’t just the migrants’ pleas that have fallen on deaf ears; those who have taken up their cause have been ignored, according to Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), a group of 73 volunteers. It has interacted with 640 groups comprising 11,159 stranded workers across the country, including 291 groups comprising 3,992 migrants in Maharashtra.
SWAN, which has been trying to procure food and other essentials from the government for these groups, said that not a single group of migrants its volunteers met in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region has received any aid from the government. “We have made repeated calls to government helplines and reached out to them on Twitter but ultimately no rations have been delivered. None of the groups in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region that we met has received any help from the government whatsoever,” said a volunteer.
Damningly, its report on the matter states that a whopping 71 per cent of migrants interviewed in Maharashtra said they had enough rations for just one meal a day. The figure for Karnataka was 36 per cent.
On Wednesday, Mirror reporters met migrant workers in various parts of Mumbai, including Durga camp at Antop Hill, Shastri Nagar in Bandra East, and Worli’s Adarsh Nagar, and asked about the hardships they have been facing, what they need, and what support, if any, they have received from the government. Read on to find out what they said.
CASE STUDY 01
‘I am running out of people to borrow money from’
Shankar Shahu (32)
Area: Durga camp, near the church at Antop Hill
Approx number of migrants: About 100 migrants in the area are stuck
THE PROBLEMS THEY FACE
Shankar Shahu, who makes a living installing and repairing tiles in homes and offices, said his family – a wife and two children – has been surviving on one meal a day for the past fortnight. He said, “I have been running the house on borrowed money. I have taken food grains from shops on credit and have asked people I know for cash. But now I am running out of people to ask for help. We have been eating only one meal a day because there is no money to buy enough rations for the family. I haven’t even paid my house rent for the last month.”
Shahu, who is originally from Bihar, has been living in a chawl at Antop Hill for the past 12 years. He said he used to earn a decent amount – enough to feed his family and send his children to school – but now everything has changed.
“I doubt whether things will return to normal any time in the near future. I don’t think my work will restart immediately after the lockdown is lifted. No one has money to spend on anything. I am worried about my children’s future and education,” he said. When asked if government officials or any NGO has reached out to help him, he said no. “Neither did anyone come to help us nor did I try to flee the city. There is so much uncertainty [around travelling long distances on foot during the lockdown] and I did not want to get stuck in between. There are at least 100 people like me in this area. We are trying to support each other mentally,” he said.
— Raju Shinde
CASE STUDY 02
‘I have no reason to be here; I should be with my family’
Masum Ali (24)
Area: Shastri Nagar, 2nd lane, Bandra (West)
Approx number of migrants: 7,000 to 8,000 migrants in the area are stuck
THE PROBLEMS THEY FACE
Masum Ali, who has been working at construction sites across the city for the past seven years, witnessed on Tuesday how hundreds of migrants came out on the streets near Bandra (West) railway station. Ali’s family is in West Bengal while he lives in Mumbai with other migrants. His ailing parents and two sisters are financially dependent on him. He said, “I do not know exactly what happened [on Tuesday]. A large number of people who wanted to go home started gathering at the station. We all have no work and no money and, until two days ago, no food. Only for the last couple of days has someone been sending us food twice a day. I do not have any reason to stay here. I live in a tiny room with 10 others. I would like to at least go back to my village and be safe with the family.”
Ali said he was worried by the extension to the lockdown and that it would be impossible to continue like this until May 4. “I cannot sustain myself here with just food packets. I need work and money too. If the situation does not change quickly then I won’t be able to survive. Even my family cannot go on like this,” he said.
The BMC said it has started supplying food to migrants in Bandra and has distributed 50,000 food packets since March 28. After Tuesday’s incident, the civic body sent 4,000 more food packets and made toilets and other sanitation facilities available to the migrant workers. — Shruti Ganapatye
CASE STUDY 03
‘ Please let us go… please’
Area: Baiganwadi, Govandi
Approximate number of migrant workers: 100
A majority of the migrant workers in Baiganwadi are from West Bengal, and a few are from Bihar and Jharkhand. Most of them are employed in a mid-size footwear manufacturing factory in the locality, and earn about Rs 10,000 a month. Many of them arrived in Mumbai in their teens looking for work, and have settled into dingy rooms which accommodate ten to 15 of them.
One of the factory workers, 36-year-old Iqbal Sheikh, says that he arrived in Mumbai when he was just 20 years old, and he has never felt this helpless. “The factory has been shut and we couldn’t go back home because of the lockdown. We haven’t eaten anything for the past few days. Many among us are losing hope, we are getting increasingly frustrated,” Sheikh says, asking if we could arrange food for them.
Over the years, Baiganwadi has grown into one of Mumbai’s most densely populated slum pockets. And like most slum colonies, it lacks basic amenities such as toilets, sanitation, and proper roads. Sheikh, who lives in a tiny room with eight others, says he and his roommates called up the BMC helpline number on several occasions, but did not even get a proper response, leave aside food. “Please, let us just go back to our villages. Please, we don’t want anything else,” he says. — Shruti Ganapatye
CASE STUDY 04
‘When hunger strikes, we drink water’
Area: Lohar Khata, Dockyard Road
Approximate number of migrant workers: 200
As the name suggests, Lohar Khata is the hub of metal industry in Mumbai. Rows and rows of iron casting and nuts and bolts manufacturing units, and tiny rooms housing hundreds of people toiling in these units, stand cheek by jowl in one of Mumbai’s oldest localities. During the time when Mumbai was Bombay, there was a saying that every labourer arriving in the city looking for work first lands up at Lohar Khata.
Now that these factories have been silenced by coronavirus, the migrant workers are trapped in no man’s land: there’s no money and no food here, and there’s no transportation to return home. One such family – Mehbub Ali Chauhan, his son Sameer, and brother Feroz – arrived in Mumbai from Rajasthan barely a few days before the countrywide lockdown was declared on March 24, hoping to earn in Mumbai after losing everything they had in Mehbub and Feroz’s father’s cancer treatment. Thanks to a few acquaintances the city, the three managed to find shelter in a 150 sq ft office in Lohar Khata where they had found work before it shut down.
Mehbub, his son, and his brother haven’t eaten for two days. “We drink water when hunger strikes,” he says. “After our father died, my brother and I decided to come to Mumbai and earn something. We have nowhere to go now,” he says.
The situation is precarious back home too. “My widowed mother, wife and daughter don’t have much to survive on. We desperately want to return to them,” Mehbub says. — Payal Gwalani
CASE STUDY 05
‘How are we to survive without work?’
Areas: Poisor And Malvani
Approximate number of migrants: 4,000
Poisor in Kandivali East, and Malvani in Malad West, could be the twins separated at birth. Poverty, high crime rate, rows of slums and ground-plusone-storey structures housing mostly people from northern India who work as auto and taxi drivers, at hair-cutting saloons, at malls and restaurants, and a large number of people just looking for employment. The lockdown has hit these people hard.
Sunil Sharma, 28, from Gounda in Uttar Pradesh who earns a livelihood through carpentry in Mumbai, says there is nothing to do now except watch movies on the mobile phone, and when that gets too tiring, play cards with roommates. “We cook whenever the owner of this room hands us. Sometimes an NGO or a political party gives food packets,” he says.
The situation is worse in Malvani, which has been sealed after a few Covid-positive cases emerged from the locality. A resident, Mohammad Alam, says he and 13 members of his family are surviving on a sack of potatoes, onions, and rice they had stored a few weeks ago. “Some days we get food packets but those often don’t reach us,” he says.
Another Malvani resident, Jamil Shaikh, a tailor, says the entire locality is scared. “We earn on a day-to-day basis. How are we to survive without work,” he asks. — Shashank Rao
CASE STUDY 06
No room of their own
Area: Janta Colony, Worli
Approx number of migrants: More than 1,000
Randeep Senapati, Dushmanta Behra, Sushant Shetti, Prasanjit Senapati and Sitaram Behera squeeze into their 6X8 sqft room. The discomfort on their faces is palpable—there is no room to stretch and the heat is stifling. Every night, before going to sleep, they have to stack their bags on top of each other to make space, says Randeep. The five daily wagers from Odisha have had no work since the lockdown began, and food rations are running dangerously low. “We have to send money to our families. We have already used up the little savings we had, and can no longer afford to eat three times a day. We will be skipping meals till the lockdown is lifted,” says Randeep, adding that if arrangements are made for them to head home, the five will leave readily.
Their next-door neighbour, the Ghasmares, did try to leave over the past weekend. The family of four, which includes two children aged 11 and 13, set off on foot to cover the 40-km distance to their village, Revdanda in Raigad district. But they had to return after police personnel at the Vashi toll naka refused to let them cross. Rajendra Ghasmare, employed as a delivery agent for an e-tailer who hasn’t worked a day since the lockdown began, says the slum’s alley is so narrow that a passer-by has to step into his house to cross it. He says many residents have started skipping meals to get by. “Veggies and non-vegetarian food are off the plates because no one can afford to buy them. We are surviving on just rice and dal,” he says. “I don’t know how we will survive. After my children go to sleep, I cry every night.” — Alka Dhupkar