Locked out of cities, homes and livelihoods

Hakim, an auto driver who had to leave Delhi, is hopeful of returning soon

Updated - April 24, 2020 12:45 am IST

Published - April 24, 2020 12:05 am IST

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.

The defining images of the migrant worker exodus that followed the lockdown may comprise of the long lines of men, women and children trudging down the highways under the scorching sun, leaving Delhi with their belongings on their backs.

But I didn't have to head out of the city to report on the plight of migrant workers; I just had to step out of my front door. The unorganised colony of Jal Vihar lies barely five minutes from my home, crammed between Lajpat Nagar and the railway line that divides it from Jangpura. About a week after the lockdown began, a colleague and I headed to the Jal Vihar bus terminal to meet a migrant worker. The streets of Lajpat Nagar, usually bustling with shoppers and traffic jams, were empty.

Full coverage | Lockdown displaces lakhs of migrants

We were met by Mohammed Hakim, who led us to a small gate behind the bus terminal and through a maze of small alleys into the heart of Jal Vihar. With hundreds of families crowded into tiny homes and narrow streets, social distancing was impossible.

Kavitha*, who works at my home, lives here in Jal Vihar with her family. She is a migrant herself, having come from a village south of Chennai to marry a Tamil man who grew up here in Jal Vihar, who in turn is son of migrants brought to the capital in the 1980s to build infrastructure for the Asian Games. In fact, most of the cleaners and cooks working in my upper-middle class neighbourhood live here in Jal Vihar. So do the young men who clean my neighbours' cars every morning, or tend the civic gardens scattered through the area.

Mohammed Hakim and about 180 other men from Bihar’s Katihar district ply the autos and cycle-rickshaws. The migrants at Jal Vihar had been entwined into the daily rhythms of life in Lajpat Nagar, until the lockdown brought that to a crashing halt.

Hungry and stranded

Mr. Hakim introduced us to about 40 other men from his village. They had not eaten for more than a day, having been deprived of their ability to work and earn a living due to the lockdown. Their ration cards were with their families in Bihar. They still had to pay rent for the windowless shanties they shared, and many had to pay leases or mortgages on their vehicles as well.

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

Most of the men did not think of themselves as poor. They felt that in normal times, they earned enough for a decent life here in Delhi and send back money to their families as well. But now, reduced to begging from philanthropists for food, their self-esteem had taken a hit. For them, hunger was a bigger spectre than the virus.

The streets of Lajpat Nagar that they ruled as auto rickshaw drivers, were now forbidden and dangerous spaces, with police lathi-charging them if they dared to step out of the colony.

A few weeks later, after the Prime Minister announced an extension to the lockdown, I called Mr. Hakim again. He and his friends had already left Delhi, joining the exodus on the highways. At home in Katihar, fellow villagers were scared that he had brought the virus with him, and forced him into a quarantine outside the village. Still, he has food and a roof over his head, and for now, that’s enough. But once the lockdown ends, he knows that the city and its wages will lure him back. “I will take you in my autorickshaw again,” he vowed. (*name changed)

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