Hunger that compelled them to flee their work place again forced them to return to the place, they had left in disappointment and anguish.
During the initial phase of the COVID-19 outbreak, Central government suddenly imposed a nation wide lock down to combat the spread of the disease, which pushed everyone’s life to a mess and uncertainty. Poor suffered the most. The labourers were the worst hit by the announcement of sudden lock-down. The migrant workers had to go through unprecedented hardships. This unplanned lock-down changed the face of Indian labourers.
All companies, businesses and work places were closed due to the lock-down and as a result lakhs of workers lost their jobs. No one was sure when the work sites would re-open, which was a death knell for workers. Uncertain future coupled with starvation made them set out on foot for their home States. After some cases of death of the workers and pressure from many organizations, the government extended its hand to help them reach their homes. But by that time, the poor labourers had faced galore of problems such as exhaustion, road and rail accidents, police brutality and medical aid refusal, They were also treated like corona virus bombs.
After these humiliation and suffering, it was expected that they would not go back to their work site again. Also to the company where the owners ignored their responsibility for their workers. But in the course of time, when the unlock phase started, workers have started going back to their work place, though they had faced inhuman behaviors there. The agony does not end here. They are even facing many derogatory criticism now.
We spoke to Deba ranjan, who was involved with the laborers during the lock-down and also a national level documentary film maker, to understand the labour problem before and after the lock-down.
What was the situation of the migrant laborers and labourers who work in their own states during lock-down ?
Suddenly the government announced a lock-down and a rumor also spread among the workers that this lock-down would continue for 2 months and not for 21 days. So they felt that they would not get work for three months, as the factory, restaurants and all other sectors would remain closed. Hunger was not the only reason for them to flee their work place. They also bothered about how they would pay the house rent, electricity bill, water bill and many more without any income. The owners also did not assure anything and distanced themselves from their responsibility. There was another section who were street vendors. They first started walking back to their home.
The lock-down phase brought a cruel fact to fore, especially of Odisha. We never thought that such a large number labourers of our state migrate to other states in search of livelihood. Secondly, the number of women migrant workers of very young age (14-20), majority of them school drop out, also shocked us. Thirdly, majority of them were from Dalit class youths of coastal district like Puri, Balasore, Bhadrak. This epidemic brought some fact of our state to light and made us contemplate which classes are most deprived. We cannot clarify which district has more migrant labourers. Because we have no official data for it, but according to covid labor crisis, more migrant workers were from Ganjam followed by Balasore and Jajpur. Dadan workers were mainly from Kalahandi and Bolangir regions. The basic difference between them is education, there are many illiterate people who depend only on physical labour and they take advance money before work. For them there is no restriction and limit of time they also don’t get good quality food.
In the case of other states, Uttar Pradesh had the highest number of migrant laborers, then Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. During the pandemic, it was found that most of the laborers in our state were from Murshidabad, a district of West Bengal and they were working in construction sites in Rourkela, Sambalpur, Bhubaneswar. Another section were from Bihar and Jharkhand. They were working in Balsore, Jharsuguda and Jajpur.
How did you help them?
At first we could not understand. We did not know what to do. At that time, a journalist Sudhir Patnaik was posting about the status of labourers from the grass-roots level in a WhatsApp group. After that we decided to help them and we formed a WhatsApp group with 20 to 22 members. Then we started our work. Our first goal was to provide food. Wherever it is either in Bhubaneswar or outside the state. We used our personal contact inside or outside the state to help them. Where we could not reach, we sought the help of the concerned state government.
What was the role of the government and the owners of the business firm, under whom the laborers were working?
The government started being active with us. We also faced a lot of problem for the government guidelines which were changing frequently. Sometimes the government authority contact number were not working, sometimes they ignored and left the matter for us to resolve and did not reach the needy. Then they appointed some district and state-wise workers. Some acted under our pressure, some avoided us. Apart from all the state governments, the Bihar government was very insensitive towards the workers. They took a long time to bring them back. They were just doing propaganda. Many times the number of the buses were insufficient in terms of number of laborers. They also developed their portal very late.
Owners were also largely responsible for this situation. As they did not assure to their workers that their employment is assured. Although some owners took care of their workers. Owners of business organisation can easily get access to the government officials but they did not take any action.
Why they are again trying to go back and work?
There are many reasons for which they migrated. They do not have good crop yielding land, don’t have good marketing facilities for their produce. They also don’t get wages according to their labour. Insecurity, privatization, health are also reasons behind migration.
When they came, none of them said that they would go back to their work place. If they get an opportunity to work in Odisha, they will work. But due to the lack of livelihood options in the state, many workers are forced to return to their workplace for employment.