“Will the blockade happen again?”
Brother Seti asked me this question in a grainy video call from a small, grainy room in the western Indian city of Mumbai. Their voices were tense and shivering.
More than a decade ago, Santosh and Tunna Sethi left their families and homes in eastern Orissa (also known as Orissa) in search of work. They arrived in Mumbai more than 1,600 km (994 miles) away.
Here, the brothers struggled in the shadow of the city’s impressive skyscrapers built by migrant workers for the wealthy. He carried cement, sand, bricks and stones and earned 450 rupees ($ 6, £ 4.35) daily in eight hours of work. They lived in unfinished buildings, ate, and slept, and sent most of their savings home to support their families.
According to Chinmay Tumbe, author of India Moving: A History of Migration, 60 million of India’s more than 450 million migrants are interstate “labor” migrants. These workers are the backbone of the booming informal economy of Indian cities. Despite contributing 10% to India’s GDP, they are “socially and politically vulnerable,” says Professor Tumbe.
“Do I have to go home? Do you have any information?” Asks Brother Seti.
Fear grabbed them again.
With more than 3 million reported Covid-19 infections, Mumbai’s capital, Maharashtra, is the stubborn epicenter of India’s second infection wave.the government Complete blockade warning Unless the case begins to fall.
It imposed on Tuesday Strict new restrictions to control the spread of the virusOnly mandatory travel and services permitted until the end of April.
A large and unplanned blockade in India last year forced more than 11 million migrant workers, including the Seti brothers, to flee the big cities they worked in.
The embarrassed men and women departed on foot, by bicycle, by supply trucks, and later by train. More than 900 people died on their way home, including 96 people who died on the train. The escape is reminiscent of the escape of millions of refugees during the bloody division of India in 1947. Humanitarian crisis“This is what many Indians have seen in their lifetime.
Now Mumbai is once again attacked by the virus and the brothers are at stake. Memories of last year’s blockade bother them. Last year, a suspension of work and transportation left them stuck in the city for two months, begging for food.
“It was a really bad experience. It was a strange time,” says Santosh Sethi, 43.
The two were part of a group of 17 workers who lived at a construction site in Mumbai. When the blockade was announced on March 26, last year, they realized they were stuck without a lot of food and money. Their contractors gave them only Rs 1,000, but not enough to sustain their food demand for more than a week.
It was dangerous to get out because police were beating people on the road for breaking the blockade rules. A video call from a worried family broke them down. Hunger was the “biggest problem”.
“We will be hungry for many hours. We ate once a day. The battle for food was fierce,” says Tunna Sethi, 40.
The brothers met with officials from a non-profit organization that provided food to immigrants and homeless people in search of food. Ultimately, Khaana Chahiye (Food Wanted) served 600,000 migrant workers like Sethis and supplied more than 4.5 million meals to the poor in Mumbai during the blockade last year.
“They came and told us that they would never die in the city and see their family again. Sethis came to us looking for food and wanting to go home.” Last year. Was desperate.
Ms. Sawant and her fellow workers prepare a kit containing rice, lentils, oil, soap, spices, sugar, tea and salt, return to their abandoned workplace, take a proper bath and kerosene heater. I made it possible to cook food with.
Throughout the city, Ms. Sawant said the employer and her contractors turned off the phone and abandoned the workers. A worker came to look for soap, saying he had been bathing for 20 days without soap. Another said he couldn’t access the public toilets for three days because he didn’t have the money to access the paid facilities in the slums. Activists put images on food parcels provided by nonprofits by local politicians, steal food for sale in the black market, and refuse distribution in areas where people believe they haven’t voted It is said that there were many cases.
The politics of hunger hindered efforts. “People were often discriminated against based on religion, gender, caste, and language while distributing food during the blockade,” Kana Chahier’s Niraji Shetty told me.
Two months after struggling in Mumbai, Brother Seti was sent home by plane chartered by a group of lawyers to send the stranded workers home. They arrived at the airport in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa, at 8 am. For the next five hours, they couldn’t find food or transportation to bring them home in Ganjam, 140 km away.
“The authorities treated us like dogs. They threw us some biscuit parcels saying you came from a sick place,” Tunna Sethi said.
Late in the evening, they arrived at Ganjam and met their families after 14 days of quarantine at school. The government gave them 2,000 rupees to help them resume their lives. But money soon ran out.
All the food they raised went to the family’s kitchen, as the five brothers shared a parcel of one acre of the family. Santosh Sethi worked 350 rupees a day on a nearby farm for several months. Some of the other returnees worked on government road construction and employment guarantee programs to earn a living. It’s been months like this.
And in January of this year their contractor called. The pandemic appeared to be mitigating, the number of cases decreased, and work at the construction site was resumed. The brothers took a two-day trip to Mumbai on a crowded train.
This time, their workplace was a block of a 16-story unfinished apartment on the outskirts of the city. Some contractors still have some wages on them since last year. Anyway, there was no increase in daily rates. The brothers had few choices and started working.
They started sending money to their families. Over the years, their income was paid to children’s private school tuition, parents’ medicine, and a small concrete house with an asbestos roof.
I asked them if the new restrictions were so imminent that they felt as helpless as last year. Mumbai and bus stations began to fill up with panicked workers trying to get home.
“No one cares about us. Can you help me get the pending wages from the contractor?” Tunna Sethi asked me. “I’m a diabetic. I need to buy medicine. It costs more than my brother.”
Santosh Sethi rang the chime. They are a world full of anxiety and uncertainty. And the fear of hunger is imminent.
“We’re scared. Things like last year won’t happen again? If so, you have to help us get home.”