With the Central government recently telling the Parliament that it had no data on the deaths and unemployment of migrant workers, their families hold their breath in hopes of some respite.
Four months after he lost his brother and sister-in-law to a tragic accident, Ram Kumar Sahu still wonders what would have happened if the couple had not been compelled to attempt that perilous 700-km journey back home to Chhattisgarh’s Behmetara.
Set out on a bicycle, Krishna and Pramila Sahu were crushed to death by a vehicle on the outskirts of Lucknow in May. Their two children, Chandni and Nikhil, had miraculously survived.
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“If the government had provided facilities and ration then, why would my brother try to go back?,” asked Ram, when told that the government had claimed it did not have any data on the migrants who died or lost their jobs during lockdown. “What would he do in an foreign land, when there was no work?”
On Wednesday, Ram finally immersed the mortal remains of Krishna and Pramila into the Ganga in Prayagraj once he felt it was safe to travel.
Like thousands of migrant workers and labourers across the country, the Sahus was stranded — without work, money and transportation — during the lockdown, when desperation forced them to return to their village where they sensed a better chance at sustenance.
Ram and his wife Kaushalya have three kids of their own to take care of besides the additional responsibility of Chandni and Nikhil. This has forced Kaushalya from going to work at a brick kiln.
Ram, a labourer himself, earns ₹300-400 per day, making it a struggle to feed the entire family.
Since the incident, the family says that the State government has been silent on any financial support as they wait in hope for the ₹5 lakh compensation promised by the Chhattisgarh government. The only monetary sum received, says Ram, was through a local police inspector who deposited ₹1 lakh each in bank accounts opened for the two children.
As she prepares Chandni to go to a coaching class in the neighbourhood despite their humble means, she wants to educate the children, Kaushalya says. “I am only sad that they lost their parents. Otherwise, we are taking care of them and making sure they are fed and taken care of. But when they grow up, they will think about their parents.”
The lockdown against COVID-19, termed as ill-prepared in its implementation by several critics, brought additional misery on the migrant workers across the country, many of which were forced to return home, by bus, train or even foot in absence of any livelihood and money.
Ninety-seven people alone lost their lives while travelling in the Shramik Special trains, the government told the Parliament recently.
In Azamgarh, Kanhaiya Lal Chauhan, a science student still grieves his father, Ram Avadh, who died on-board a special Shramik Express while trying to desperately return to their native district from Kalyan near Mumbai, where he worked as a mason.
His body was de-boarded at Kanpur station in May and the family had then alleged that while they were served puri sabzi and a pouch of water each on the train, they were not provided anything to eat at the Jhansi Paramedical College where they spent the night after arrival in a bus. Their last proper meal was in Guna, 190 kms away.
Kanhaiya is haunted by the risk of dropping out as he is unable to submit his college fees and return to Maharashtra. The support offered by his uncle, a government clerk, is insufficient.
Other than the ₹1 lakh they received from a political party, the family got nothing. He wants the government to relaxes the tuition fees.
“What else can I ask? As if the government will provide us anything. It’s been three-four months, if they wanted to hear us, they would have by now,” he said.
Kanhaiya blames the government for imposing and extending the lockdown without informing migrants about the time-frame.
“They should have told us before implementing it so that those who want to return home, could. Prices of all food items had gone up and the promised ration did not arrive. So what else could we do to survive?” He asked.
Rajesh Gaud’s father, who sold pan in Mumbai, also lost his life in a Shramik train allegedly due to lung disease but his family feels it was due to the fatigue and exertion in the summer heat he was made to undergo due to the journey.
Rajesh, who is now the sole breadwinner with three kids, is earning through farming on one bigha land but is unable to return.
“We should definitely get compensation. This incident happened in the train,” he said. “Had my father not travelled, maybe this would not have happened. He had told me his health was fine,” said Rajesh.
For Sipahilal in Lakhimpur Kheri, the battle is more for justice. His brother Roshan was found hanging in the fields of his village Thariya Pipriya on March 31, three days after he returned home in Lakhimpur Kheri from Gurgaon where he worked in a power tower firm.
His family alleged that Roshan was threatened, assaulted and wounded by policemen for allegedly escaping from the local quarantine center, following which he hung himself. The case is, however, yet to move forward. “No action has been taken yet. We have not got a penny from anywhere. I want action against the cops who killed him,” Sipahilal said.
In Gurgaon, Roshan earned a decent salary of over ₹20,000 per month. His death not only robbed the family of a loved one but also pushed them back financially.
Sipahilal also feels the government should compensate his family, because his brother was allegedly pushed to death by police. “If he had died of Corona, then I would not have pressed the matter as much,” he said.