Migrant workers returning to Madhya Pradesh stuck in a double bind

With no prospects either at home or elsewhere, they fear for their survival

Published - May 08, 2020 01:10 am IST - Bhopal

At the Habibganj Railway Station in Bhopal, the luggage gripped or shouldered by each returning migrant worker screams of the jobs they left behind. Cement sacks, cartons bearing logos of food processing firms, sooty bundles dangling at the end of canes.

Sixteen-year-old Uday Pal, barely five feet tall, clutches a dusty sack, bursting at the seams with stuffed clothes, while sitting morosely inside the train. The promise of feeding his family of three back in Sidhi district of Madhya Pradesh, with no agricultural fields to call their own, had snatched him from both his village and his school. Now he was returning, empty-handed.

Sidhi waale aajaao bhai (Those from Sidhi, please come),” a policeman, with a portable speaker slung around one shoulder, bellowed into a microphone. He hailed workers desperately gripping the grills of the train that had reached from Telangana at 8.30 p.m. on Wednesday, bringing back a thousand stranded workers.

Children skittishly hopped off the ladder and positioned themselves inside circles chalked out across the platform’s length to observe social distancing norms. “Don’t go outside it. You will catch corona,” said a girl, her two eyes barely visible over a soiled face mask, pulling back her toddler sibling prancing away.

‘To survive’

Others sitting inside locked their gaze on Mr. Pal, dolefully stepping out last. The family’s sole breadwinner, his elder brother, after a dispute four months ago, deserted him and a mother, without work to be found locally and having to look after a disabled father. “If we wanted to survive, I had to step out,” said Mr. Pal.

A strange mix of emotions weigh heavy on Mr. Pal now — he is happy to be returning home after days of uncertainty, yet sad to be returning so soon. “We thought I could stay there for at least half the year, so that we could manage the rest of the months,” he said. The ₹11,000 he made the first month by working at a fans factory, he immediately sent back home. Like others incapacitated by the lockdown imposed in view of the COVID-19 pandemic later, he too could not foresee what was to come.

“I am the last one among my friends to return,” he said. He had still nursed hope of the factory resuming operations in Secunderabad soon. “Many are walking homeward on highways. I didn’t know the language there, how could I find my way back on foot?” he asked, unsure how his family’s life will unfold now.

Outside, Vijay Dahiya, 26, slumped in a seat on a Satna-bound bus, murmured absent mindedly: “My village is 50 km away from there. Will they drop me home?” For the first time in seven years, the summer in Telangana ended too soon for him. Working at a tiles factory for six months earned him ₹500 a day. Now, the approaching monsoon remains the only hope. But he will make just ₹250 a day sowing rice on others’ fields. “ Isiliye toh bahar gaye the, bhaiya (That is why I had moved outside),” he chuckled.

Gripping fear

Another fear grips Lakshmi Prasad Kushwaha, who is returning with his wife to Tikamgarh, 260 km away. “We had eloped a year and a half ago. And had decided never to return because her parents have threatened to kill me,” said Mr. Kushwaha, eagerly showing the marriage certificate stuffed inside the back pocket of his bag. Both made ₹8,000 each a month at a hotel’s kitchen in Hyderabad.

However, an outstanding loan of ₹2 lakh taken for crops sown on his family’s five bigha land is a more pressing reason, which pushed his two brothers to Agra and him to Telangana. “There are no jobs back home. We will probably manage working with a vegetable vendor,” he said, just as a health worker, donning a PPE (personal protective equipment) kit, called him for screening before he boarded a bus.

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