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Big worry as states brace for new curbs: stranded, restless migrants

Big worry as states brace for new curbs: stranded, restless migrants

Coronavirus (COVID-19): As it looks increasingly certain the lockdown will be extended by another fortnight, a number of states including Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi are bracing to deal with thousands of anxious and restless migrants, stranded in shelter homes and makeshift homes without much money and ration.

More than anyone else, the migrants are eagerly waiting for the Prime Minister's address Tuesday morning, police officers in Maharashtra and Gujarat told The Indian Express. Many feel abandoned by their employers, and want to return to their native places, and be with their families.

Maharashtra has set up 4,573 relief camps sheltering 5,60,450 migrant workers, and provides food to over seven lakh workers and homeless, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray said Monday. But migrants complain about less or no ration, dwindling savings, common toilets, and being forced to live with large groups in small spaces.

"In the last few weeks all we have been doing is keeping them occupied and deflecting their attention from the fact that they are stuck far away from their homes," said a Superintendent of Police, who did not wish to be named. In Osmanabad, locals have been volunteering to counsel migrant workers, while others conduct yoga classes every morning. "Local organisations have also provided toys to children of migrant workers and ensure they are occupied playing sports," said a senior police officer in Osmanabad.

But police is worried, and would not rule out unrest in the coming days. "Everything depends on what announcements are made on Tuesday. We are preparing for the possibility that migrant workers may have to stay in one place for much longer. But we can only keep them distracted for a limited time," said a senior police officer.

Workers have been calling their state helplines asking if and when they can leave. "Officials told that even if we leave and manage to reach our state borders, there is a possibility we may not be allowed to enter. We are hoping the Prime Minister gives some relief," said Lalji Geruhai, a worker from Madhya Pradesh, who makes mats in Jalgaon. "It feels like we have been abandoned. There has to be some way out of this," he said.

The only refrain from migrant workers, added another official, is to be allowed to return home. "In the last two weeks we have been conveying to people that this is a national crisis. Their families in their natives villages have also asked them to remain where they are," said an SP from a district in Vidarbha.

The Gujarat police has already faced the brunt of the restless migrant. On Sunday night, over 700 textile workers from Palsana taluka in Surat district came out on the roads complaining of food shortage. They wanted to return to their native place in Odisha. Surat district police controlled the situation and started food supplies Monday afternoon.

A large number of textile labourers working in powerloom factories and dyeing and printing mills in Mangal Murti industrial estate at Jolva village GIDC too came out on the main roads. When informed about such congregation of labourers, the Palsana police station staff called for additional police force from neighbouring stations. The textile labourers here too said they had no food and demanded transport to return to their homes.

Just two days back, on Friday night, thousands of textile factories labourers came out on the roads in Laskana area in Surat suburbs, carried wooden logs from nearby timber shops and set them afire. They blocked roads, pelted stones on the police and NGOs who supplied food to them. The Surat city police intervened, arrested 81 textile labourers, but released them on bail Saturday afternoon.

Subham Pradhan, native of Ganjam district in Odisha, who works in Jolva, said, "We have come to know the lock down will be extended for 15 more days. Since the last 19 days we have been sharing a room with five to six people. We are staying in pathetic conditions and unable to step out. We are facing shortage of food and are left with little money. We have to send money to our parents as well. We just want to go back, and return once the situation is normal."

Palsana police sub inspector H M Gohil said, "Majority of labourers are from Odisha while others from UP and Bihar. We have controlled the situation and assured all possible help. We have deployed police staff outside labour colonies, so that we can reach a spot early if something goes wrong. We have also kept police forces on standby should a need arise."

In the national capital Delhi too, the lockdown has had an adverse impact on workers. The sound of a lone engine with no coaches chugging by in Bhorgarh village in north west Delhi's Narela Industrial Area gave false hope to workers. Most workers The Indian Express spoke to Monday said they were under the impression that train services would resume when the lockdown ended, and they would finally get to return to their families. Few anticipated two more weeks of this.

Among them was Satnam Bai, 42, who used to work at a fan making unit earning Rs 6,000 a month. A single mother of three children, her only connection with her village was her mobile phone, which has now stopped working. "Aur nahi ruk sakte yahan; mere bachhe bhook se mar jayenge (We can't stay here any longer; my children will starve)," Bai said.

Those who stayed back wish they, too, had left on foot to their villages in UP, Bihar and Jharkhand. Till Monday, many still held on to hope that the Prime Minister would allow them to leave. After the lockdown was announced last month, many labourers had to leave their rented accommodations as landlords kept asking for rent. Owners of the industrial units then provided them small rooms in the area, where dozens now stay cramped in small spaces.

Every small building has a similar story – labourers from several states working in slipper, fan and shoe making units cramped into tiny rooms. Most would earn anywhere between Rs 6,000 and Rs 12,000 per month. With money fast running out, they are making do on a steady diet of rice, dal and khichdi, which they get after standing for hours near a local school twice a day.

In Uttar Pradesh, the state has set up 5,241 shelters in different districts for 1,25,989 people, but has also deployed adequate police force. Some districts hope migrant workers from other states may stay on with the commencement of economic activity. Nitin Bansal, District Magistrate, Gonda, said, "Around 50 per cent of the people staying in shelters in Gonda are from other states, like Rajasthan, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and mostly involved in construction work. If the government restarts construction work on big projects, then they will get their jobs back and would not want to go back. I have personally gone and met people residing at shelters and feel that even if people have to stay a bit longer, there should not be an issue," he said.

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