Coronavirus | Forced to stay back, these workers now battle hunger

Their ration cards are in Bihar and they have no money left

April 01, 2020 12:58 am | Updated 12:58 am IST - NEW DELHI

Double whammy:  Migrant workers Mohammed Hakim  (in blue mask) and others in south Delhi.

Double whammy: Migrant workers Mohammed Hakim (in blue mask) and others in south Delhi.

‘Stay home and stay safe’, the global slogan to contain the spread of coronavirus doesn’t sound too convincing to Mohammed Hakim and his associates who, unlike many other migrants, were forced to stay back and are battling hunger each day.

Their names are listed on ration cards but the cards, along with their families, are at home in Bihar. Living five to six persons in one windowless room at shanties behind the Jal Vihar bus terminal in the shadow of the posh Lajpat Nagar 1 colony in Delhi, they are now struggling to get one meal a day.

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“There are about 180 of us from Katihar who live here. Majority of us drive auto-rickshaws or pull cycle-rickshaws for a living. On March 28, many of us, by then having exhausted whatever little money we had, couldn’t get anything to eat. Then there were rumours that the lockdown will continue for three months. That jolted the others who still had some money to head home,” Mr. Hakim says.

For them it’s a race between the fear of an unknown virus and very real hunger pangs.

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Nearly 100 of them left for home. With no trains or buses, they just rode home in auto-rickshaws and cycle rickshaws, that on a normal day was the means of earning a living. Thirty-two of them pedalled cycle-rickshaws to cover a distance of 1,390 Km to Katihar. Three days later, covering a distance of 554 km, they reached Lucknow on Tuesday morning. “Their mobile phones are switched off, so we don’t know if the police caught them or if they are still continuing on their journey,” Mohammed Nizammudin, another auto-rickshaw driver, whose distant relative is one of the 32 making the journey, says.

For the 80-odd who stayed back, each day is getting more challenging. Coronavirus, the lynchpin of this lockdown, doesn’t occupy much mind space, though all of them are wearing masks, some readymade, some fashioned out of gamchas . It’s a race between the fear of an unknown virus and very real hunger pangs.

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Charge against police

The group complains that the police posted outside the gates of the colony don’t let them step out. “They hit first and ask questions later. We are shooed back into the colony each time we try to leave. We heard on the radio that the Delhi government is providing food, but we don’t know where or how to get to it,” 38-year-old Abdul says.

After a day without any food on Sunday, the Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan provided Rs. 2,000 for emergency rations on Monday. A government relief centre is providing free cooked food about a kilometre away, but the men say that they are beaten by police enforcing the lockdown if they venture out of the colony, showing the marks of lathis on arms and legs.

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As if hunger was not enough, being reduced to running behind vehicles delivering food or standing in queues to get a paltry amount has shaken many. “We never imagined that this day will come. We have always earned a respectful living and spent whatever we got. Never had to beg for food. We used to save enough to send some home too,” Mr. Nizammuddin adds.

As the chorus of complaints gets louder their anger against the government erupts. “Modi ji, sitting on a comfortable chair from his air-conditioned home comes up with these declarations. First it was demonetisation and now this. Since he came to power the country has been standing in queues,” Ahmed a cycle-rickshaw puller says.

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The common grouse is that the government should have given them a few days notice to reach their home towns before declaring a lockdown.

“If they extend the lockdown by another day after April 14, we all will leave, even if they are to shoot us down. If we have to die, it’s better to do so at our homes,” Mr. Hakim states.

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