A telephonic survey among 303 migrant workers in Delhi in June revealed that an overwhelming number of them had no income during the lockdown. More crucially, relief measures announced in the Prime Minister ‘Gareeb Kalyan Yojana’ did not reach most of them.
The promised cash relief of Rs 500 did not reach even those who had PM Jan Dhan Accounts. The ‘free’ gas cylinder reached very few and free ration too turned out to be a hollow promise for many of them. Those who chose to stay back in Delhi, however, survived on cooked meals served by the Government and NGOs. Most of them had borrowed money to survive the lockdown.
There is a clamour for some kind of job guarantee scheme in urban areas, affordable healthcare and a monthly cash dole of Rs 7-8 thousand to tide over the disruption caused by the pandemic and the lockdown.
During the survey in June, as many as 166 respondents (55%) had not yet returned to their native places though 39 of them were planning to do so soon, if the situation did not improve.
The uncertainty surrounding the sudden lockdown and its duration, closure of work, lack of income, etc. forced many of them to return to their native places.
As many as 138 of them had already gone back by train, private buses, trucks and lorries, shared cars, tempo etc. One family (cooler worker) had gone back by motor-cycle and it took them five days to reach home in South Dinajpur in West Bengal. Another family (hotel worker) went back by their own motor-cycle to Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh.
Another family (mason) of four members went back to Tikamgarh initially by foot from Delhi to Agra (UP), then by a truck from Agra to Gwalior (MP), then again on foot from Gwalior to Datia (MP), then by another truck from Datia to Jhansi (UP), then by private bus from Jhansi to Tikamgarh (MP) and finally on foot from Tikamgarh to their village.
Yet another family (stitching worker) of seven members went back to Katihar (Bihar) from Delhi on foot (covering a total distance of 1365 km between 22nd April and 2nd May) under extreme distress.
Significantly, only 41 out of these 138 families admitted to travel arrangements made by the government. Others had to pay a heavy price. Tickets were overpriced and agents and middlemen exploited the situation. Some had to borrow money or sell off their wives’ or mothers’ gold ornaments to buy tickets. On an average, they paid 38% of their pre-lockdown monthly income to pay for travel back home.
Not surprisingly, they were critical of the sudden lockdown and the unpredictability of future lockdowns. It was a tough call to stay in Delhi indefinitely without work or wages. Many house-owners forcibly collected rents.
There should have been a written order from the government to house-owners asking them to not forcibly collect rent for the lockdown months. The government had only requested house-owners not to collect rent but there was a need for a written order enforced by police.
They also articulated the demand for improving health facilities and making them accessible and affordable to all. Most of the workers, who had returned, wanted to come back to Delhi. There was no work back home and working as agricultural labourers fetched daily wages between Rs 150-200. Only one was engaged under MGNREGS.
75% of the families had become indebted– the amount generally varied from Rs 10,000 to Rs 30,000. The loans were taken to survive the lockdown and to return home. But some families borrowed up to Rs 1.5 lakhs.
10% of the families reported ailments apart from Covid-19 and a quarter of them complained of difficulty in receiving medical care during the lockdown. One reported a miscarriage.
PROMISES NOT KEPT: Three concrete promises were made in the PM Garib Kalyan Yojana – free ration, free gas cylinder and Rs 500 per month in the Jan-Dhan accounts of the people. But a surprisingly high number of respondents denied receiving any of these benefits.
If this is the condition of implementation of already announced schemes of the government in the National Capital Territory of Delhi– relief measures clearly are not reaching the ground.
Some respondents had been affected by the Delhi riots (in February 2020) and had received no compensation. Some respondents from West Bengal reported their homes were destroyed by the devastating cyclone Amphan.
Many respondents were surviving on cooked meals provided by government and other agencies. But long queues for meals, health hazards due to overcrowding and the quality of food left them dissatisfied.
Feeling abandoned by their employers, house owners and by governments, they were in dire need of cash support. Rs 500 every month was not enough, they said, and urged for monthly cash support of at least Rs.7000-8000.
(Surajit Das is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Economic Studies & Planning, JNU and Saqib Khan has finished his PhD from the Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai)