Migrant Deaths: “No such data is available”

Sukanya Maity

Speaking to Bhunia, a migrant worker who shares his experience during Covid pandemic, as the government claims to have no data/record of the deaths of migrant workers.

The constitutional strongholds of India were shaken up when the Ministry of Labour and Employment claimed “No such data is available” in response to a question about the deaths of migrant workers during the Covid-19 lockdown. 

On March 24, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, announced a nationwide lockdown. The entire country was panic-stricken. While those of us reading this worried ourselves about groceries, medicines and purchasing disinfectants, 40 million people who account for more than half the population living below the poverty line, had just one question in their mind – “How to go home?” In India, where inter-state migration is common, hundreds of thousands of people from rural areas of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar and West Bengal migrate to the cities in search of jobs and better living conditions. Migrants usually end up working in informal sectors and as daily-wage labourers. They live in substandard living conditions or slums in the margins of cities.

“They marched from one city to another, walked miles after miles barefoot, carrying their aged parents and young children in trolleys, bicycles and mostly on their shoulders.”

Shutting down factories and mining centres rendered these daily-wage workers jobless overnight. With no alternative forms of employment and very little savings, they had to bear the prospects of starvation, homelessness and even death. Hence, started the great exodus! They marched from one city to another, walked miles after miles barefoot, carrying their aged parents and young children in trolleys, bicycles and mostly on their shoulders. The pandemic, undoubtedly, brought to light the plight of the most vulnerable, ignored and exploited section of the society – the migrant labourers. 

Migrant workers photo by Sukanya Maity

While most of them, fortunately, made it to their homes, some of them had succumbed to the journey. Reportedly, sixteen migrant workers were crushed to death by a goods train in Aurangabad, in Madhya Pradesh, five of them were killed in a truck accident and eight people died in a road accident in Karnataka. As many as 378 people lost their lives, out of which 69 people died in road and rail accidents and others succumbed to starvation and exhaustion.  In the Shramik Special trains deployed to rescue stranded migrant workers in the middle of a heat wave, 97 people have died before 9th September. Those who made it to their hometowns faced stigma and new forms of untouchability. 

“Speaking to Bol Magazine, Sourav Bhunia, a resident of a small village in West Bengal who had migrated to the Khammam district of Telangana to work as a labourer in a granite factory, shared his heart-wrenching experience”

Speaking to Bol Magazine, Sourav Bhunia, a resident of a small village in West Bengal who had migrated to the Khammam district of Telangana to work as a labourer in a granite factory, shared his heart-wrenching experience: “For the last two months from the start of the lockdown, the contractor allowed us only one meal a day….one chappati (bread) and sometimes a spoonful serving of rice”. 

Bhunia, 25, along with eight other people, originally from Madhakhali, a small village in East Midnapore district of West Bengal, had left for their destination in 2019, sometime around September. After nine months, spending their maximum earnings, impoverished and jaded, they returned to their home state in the first week of May 2020. Following is Bhunia’s account of the lockdown. 

Sourav Bhunia photo by Sukanya Maity

How did you get through the initial days of lockdown? Did you save up?

Whatever little we had earned in the past few months, we transferred the amount to our families back at home and kept with ourselves, not more than what we would need to buy groceries or pay the rent. The contractor, Bera, under whom a group of eight people worked, promised me a sum of twelve-thousand rupees by the end of March. Because of the countrywide lockdown, the granite factory had to be shut down and the contractor always found an excuse to not talk about our wages. We waited for weeks until we confronted him. He seemed helpless and ignorant about the entire situation when we came to know that the factory owner had not paid him the sum that was due. I grew restless, without a penny in my pocket and an empty stomach, I would cry to sleep every night. We prayed for the lockdown to be lifted in no time so that we would get our due wages and return to our village. We did not want to die there, either of hunger or from the virus; we would rather die in our homeland. 

He broke down in the middle of our conversation.

Did the State Government or the local officials help in easing your condition? 

Mr Bera had recorded a video of us pleading with the West Bengal Government to arrange for our return. He had assured us that it would reach the Chief Minister of the state. We were betrayed again. It did not; why would the government think of us? 

The Central Government had arranged for Shramik Specials (special trains to carry the migrants to their hometowns). How has the initiative helped you?

When the Central Government passed an order to bring back the migrant workers to their villages, we were overjoyed; but we are labourers and why would anyone do us any good? The rail authority asked for our Adhar Cards so that we could get the free tickets to our home. I felt a sudden urge to kill myself when I realised that I did not have my Adhar card with me. How would I know that the only thing they care about even when we are in the midst of a pandemic, is a proof of citizenship? Back at home, my father contacted the local BJP cadres so that they might help in any possible way, but it did not work. I was not surprised at all. In the last election, I had voted for the Janata Party thinking that Pradhan Mantri (Prime Minister) coming from a family like ours, would work for the betterment of the majdoors (labourers and menial workers). I was only daydreaming.

How did you manage to return?

Thank heavens, I was not the only one without an Adhar card. Some of my co-workers, who could not board a train the following day, planned to go to the local police station in Khammam to seek help; I accompanied them too. The police personnel asked us to arrange a feasible means of transport for ourselves and made it clear that they would not be able to help us in any way. There were eight of us and we managed to get an ambassador car which charged each of us 5,000 INR. After continuous rounds of visits to the local police station and the district magistrate’s office, we were finally granted permission to leave for our home states.

Bhunia sighed after narrating his experience. As a sign of empathy and being at a loss of words, I exclaimed how the pandemic has affected the lives of people in the worst possible ways. What followed next, has kept me wondering about the situational reality and the world that we are living in. He said, “A pandemic becomes a pandemic when no one can escape from it, be it the rich people in the cities or people like us and when it affects them (referring to the privileged sections), it becomes a global issue. People like us anyway die of hunger. It has been ‘their’ (the privileged) government, ‘their’ problem, and now, ‘their’ disease. The only thing that we want is our wages. That will help.” 

“Not acknowledging the sufferings, hardships, humiliation and helplessness of the workers and erasing their reality by not keeping a record of their lives reflects how little the lives of people like Bhunia matter.”

Last week, the Home Ministry openly declared in the parliament that the panic created due to the migrants’ exodus has been solely stimulated by “fake news” about the duration of the pandemic. This negates the reality that the government did not specify the duration and for a daily-wage migrant worker the most rational action, like many other professionals, students, travellers was to go home. Not acknowledging the sufferings, hardships, humiliation and helplessness of the workers and erasing their reality by not keeping a record of their lives reflects how little the lives of people like Bhunia matter. Speaking to Bhunia and listening to his harrowing experience, I realise how we, as a nation, have failed to uphold our democratic ideals by choosing to be silent observers.

Sukanya is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She is a feminist, anti-fascist and anti-capitalist and hopes to document the lives of remarkable women so that their stories don’t vanish into anonymity.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

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