Immediately after lockdown, based on my personal interaction, I had written about the social distancing leading to emotional distancing and erosion of spiritual quotient. Now we observe the problem has grown by an order of magnitude. You have been reading a lot about Indian migrant workers and also seeing it on the TV. On one hand, the Government is claiming that the trains and buses are being run for them and on the other hand you see on TV that they are travelling on foot, on bicycles and on autos, on the highways, covering long distances of hundreds of kilometres; you can also see them being beaten by police and herded like cattle into the trucks and buses.
I have a true story to narrate. For the past 20 years, a young boy Hariom, now a young man has been coming to my house twice a week to give me a body massage with herbal oil. Because of our long association, he confides in me; I listen to him and help him financially or by counselling, more like an older family member. He is from a village near Agra; along with 4 others from the same village and in the same profession, he lives in Dharavi in one small rented room. The five of them travel all over Mumbai for giving massage to their regular customers like me and also share the domestic work of cleaning, cooking washing etc. Each one of them, on an average, makes about Rs. 10,000 per month and after keeping some money for the expenses, sends the remaining amount home for the family.
During the lockdown, they were confined ( 5 in one small room, social distancing ?) and could not go out for work; even if they could, they could not enter the residential buildings and even if they could, most of the customers would not permit the massage because of social distancing. Hariom was in constant touch with me on the phone; he even tried to come out and take a bus but was barred from entering the bus. By the end of April, they started living on the borrowings from other friends. The government contractor started supplying a packet of ‘khichri’ in the evening. They were told that the special shramik trains have been started to take the migrants home; they should go to the local police station and register themselves for the train towards their destination. Hariom phoned me and asked my opinion whether they should go or wait for the lockdown and restart their business; I advised him to go back; even if the lockdown is lifted which is unlikely, the business of massage is not likely to be restored soon. All five of them filled the form and as per the government requirement, they got the form signed and stamped by the local medical practitioner for which each one of them had to shell out Rs 400 to the doctor. Now the wait and the agony started; every day, they went to the police station to inquire about the train and got the same answer ‘we will phone you when it will depart and give you instructions’. After waiting for one week, he phoned me that they cannot wait any longer, the debt is piling up; they would have enough to eat in the village and they would be with the families. In the first week of May, he phoned and informed me that a tanker was coming from a place near their village and they plan to take a ride on the tanker on its way back. I transferred some money to him and told him to carry on with the plan. The driver of the tanker informed them about the breakdown on the way and asked them to reach Nasik. Five of them arranged an Ola and reached Nasik for which they paid Rs 5,000 to the Ola driver; they do not know if the Ola driver bribed his way through or had some permission from the authorities. From Nasik they travelled on foot for about 25 kilometres to a predetermined location, stayed overnight and were picked up the next day by the driver of the tanker; they finally reached their destination after 2 days on the tanker. He phoned me again after reaching home and conveyed the thanks from his family. I promised to send him the money for the train ticket to come back when the situation becomes normal for his kind of business but I am afraid that day is too far off, and may not be possible.
In addition to the single migrant workers like Hariom, there are many who are with families and settled in the slums along with locals. Most of the ladies are part-time domestic help ‘bais and cooks’. These are the families who are hit next. Occasionally, I drive a short distance to buy some essential items for the household. Last week when I parked my car, I could see reasonably well-dressed ladies roaming around. When I stopped my car, one came and asked me if I could buy some soap for her family and the second asked if I could buy sugar for her family; they were feeling embarrassed to ask for money but I gave them money and told them to buy the items themself. This week when I went there were more in number and did not feel embarrassed in begging as they extended their palms and said that they have to buy ration for the family. I am afraid, next time the retrenched employees of Ola, Uber, Swiggy, Zomato…..may hit the road.