NEW DELHI :
On the evening of 7 April, 26-year-old Vivekananda Sharma finally broke down.
For three days his family had survived on tiny portions of food. Early morning every day, Sharma would queue up for hours for a meal of lemon rice distributed in a nearby bus terminus. On that day, Sharma’s four-month-old daughter had had nothing but water; his wife was too hungry to breastfeed the child and they had no money to buy milk.
“The circumstances forced me to beg for food for the first time in life…if the lockdown is lifted, we can return to my village. We can live on salt and roti,” said Sharma, a migrant worker from Jharkhand living on the outskirts of Bengaluru city in Karnataka.
Thanks to a kindly private donor, he now has a week’s supply of grains, pulses and edible oil.
Sharma, who worked as a carpenter before losing his job two weeks back, dreads the future—stranded jobless in a city hundreds of kilometres away from home, his hopes of returning to his village, like millions of other migrant casual workers, are now bleak.
Struggling to contain the rapid spread of covid-19 infections, India is considering whether to extend the three-week national lockdown that’s been in force since 25 March. An extension will hurt the millions who are stuck without a job, dependent on charity to stave off hunger.
There is no hard data on the number of migrants in India dependent on daily wages—though over 13 million migrated out of their own states in search of work, shows data from the 2011 Census. The government told the Supreme Court last week that between 500,000 to 600,000 migrants were walking to reach their villages. Several of these barefoot migrants either died from the exertion of the arduous journey or were run over by vehicles.
A rapid assessment of migrant workers surveyed by the non-profit Jan Sahas released this week shows how hard the lockdown has hit them—42% of the 3,200 workers who were surveyed said they had nearly run out of food supplies, and 62% did not have any information on the emergency welfare measures announced by governments.
In any case, stranded migrants are unlikely to benefit from free grains from the public distribution system or the notional increase in wages under the employment guarantee scheme. Take, for instance, the case of Sheikh Asadullah, 42, and three other skilled embroiders from Howrah, West Bengal, now stuck in Krishnagiri district of Tamil Nadu.
After reaching out to some non-profits they received a cash transfer of ₹1,500. The money will be finished in the next two days. They can no longer afford breakfast or an evening snack. “If the lockdown is lifted we do not have money for a train ticket,” Asadullah said. Even in a state like Tamil Nadu where the government is providing cash handouts and free grains to households enrolled under the public distribution system, migrants have been left out.
“The way out is to make the food subsidy scheme universal for the next four months so that anybody with any identity card can avail free food… more so since central agencies are sitting on excess food stocks,” said Rajendran Narayanan, assistant professor at the Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. Narayanan added that it is time states started talking to each other and registered migrants so that help can reach the stranded.
In a city like Mumbai—a hotspot of covid-19 infections—help for migrant workers has been tardy so far. “The desperation for food is increasing among those who worked as craftsmen and electricians or were employed by small shops,” said Sakina from LibTech India, a group of social workers and scientists working to improve delivery of public services.
On Wednesday, SWAN, a newly created charity network to support migrants, made a cash transfer of ₹1,000 to the bank account of Tilak Mahato, a migrant worker from Bihar now stranded in Ludhiana, Punjab. But nearly ₹800 was deducted by the public sector bank as charges for non-maintenance of minimum balance (this was reversed after Sakina flagged it on Twitter). The money will cover food expenses for Mahato’s family of four for a week. “After that we will have to depend on the local Gurudwara for food,” Mahato said.