At 3 a.m. on Saturday morning, when the train from Anand Vihar Railway station in Delhi rolled into Farakka Station in Bengal's Murshidabad district, it was more than four hours late.
Within minutes, the station was a sea of humanity as several hundred contract labourers, working in and around the national capital, alighted from the crowded bogies, only to disappear swiftly into the darkness.
Among the returnees are three youths — Arshad Sheikh, Kausar Sheikh and Rahul Sheikh — residents of Kasinagar in Farakka area, who have returned home just 40 days after they left for work. They explain that according to their agreement with the contractor, they need to have worked for two months at a stretch to earn Rs.12,000. But following the cash crunch after the November 8 demonetisation announcement, they were forced to return home foregoing their earnings.
“We had to go for days without food. Anyhow we managed tickets to come back. We are not going back to Delhi till the situation improves,” Arshad told The Hindu, with his friends echoing the sentiment.
Within minutes of the incoming train, the 3483 Down Malda-Delhi New Farakka Express, leaving for Delhi, pulls into the station. The train is usually filled chock-a-block with migrant workers heading to the national capital, while the luggage van is loaded with sacks of bidis from the local factories.
But on Saturday, in the unreserved compartment of the train, Sanjay Das and Lokendra Das from Samsherganj area are travelling in unexpected comfort. “Usually the compartment is so crammed that we do not find place to stand even in the toilets. Today, as you see not even 20 people are here. We are taking the risk of going to Delhi as many are coming home,” Sanjay Das said.
Large scale migration
In the villages of Farakka and in areas bordering Murshidabad and Malda districts, a majority of the men between the ages of 15 and 50 work as contract labourers in different parts of the country.
Pratik Chowdhury, who runs an NGO, Bhabna Association for Peoples' Upliftment, said a survey in 2011 in five blocks of northern Murshidabad had found that 46 per cent of the youth work as labourers outside the State. “The number must have gone up, it will be somewhere between 50-60 per cent now,” he surmised.
Explaining the routine migration, Md. Sanaullah, member of Nimtita Gram panchayat and husband of Panchayat Pradhan Tahamina Bibi, underlined the poverty in the region. “While men go out to work as labourers, the women roll bidis . Sometimes it is so depressing that there is so much poverty here,” he said.
The panchayat members recall that the Lakshmi Nagar building collapse in New Delhi in November 2010 killed 10 migrant labourers from the panchayat.
Stuck without money
But while earlier after such disasters, only the victims had returned home, this time the situation is different. Md. Afikul Sheikh is a case in point. He has returned, with two others from the same panchayat, from Kerala, where they were working as construction workers.
“After the demonetisation there was no work. The money I got was in old currency and hardly any shops accepted the notes. There are 40 others from the area who are willing to come back but do not have money for tickets,” he said.
A few kilometres north of Nimitita at Jorpukuriya village, where most villagers do not own land, the situation is more grim. About 50 men, working as contract labourers on a cricket stadium being constructed in Etawah in Uttar Pradesh, have come back after the demonetisation. At a roadside tea stall, Monrirul Sheikh and Shahid Sheikh, who have returned from Andhra Pradesh, are joined in conversation by Apple Sheikh, Zamiruddin Sheikh and Anwar Sheikh, who have returned from Etawah. Bedaruddin Sheikh, a labour contractor at the stall, said he cannot stay at his house out of fear. “I am unable to pay the labourers money even though I have Rs. 7 lakh in my account. Fifty have come back; another 50 are still there. Four of them have bank accounts and anyhow I am transferring money so that all of them do not come back,” he said.
It is not just loss of work for the likes of Zamiruddin and Anwar or Surjya Ghosh and his brothers from Jagtai village, who have come back with 15 others from Sambalpur in Odisha leaving construction work.
Women also suffer
With the bidi industry also in the doldrums after demonetisation, there is no respite for the returning workers.
The area has about 12 lakh bidi workers working for over 20 big factories and a number of small factories. Imani Biswas, former MLA and owner of Howrah Bidi said that bidi rolling is a labour intensive industry where payments are made every week.
“If the cash crunch continues I will have to close my factory in 10 days,” he said, mentioning the names of other factories that have shut operations.
At the Farakka Railway Station, it is not just a fewer workers heading to Delhi but fewer sacks of bidis as well. While the normal quota is about 150 sacks, each weighing 30 kg, on Saturday, only 58 sacks are loaded for the Capital.