Voice of the unheard: Resident migrants’ story during COVID-19 times

Voice of the unheard: Resident migrants’ story during COVID-19 times

The COVID-19 lockdown and its three extensions have created an unprecedented crisis, especially in the lives of migrants and unorganised sector workers. The national and regional media has largely covered the migrant’s crisis of those who were stranded and were unable to move to their hometowns. Most of these were short term migrants with families back in their hometown and sent remittances back home. The distress covered, represents only a small visible part of the crisis. 

The less spoken of are the stories of migrants who have settled here with their families for the long term, lost their job or income, and all livelihood options are largely underrepresented.  

According to 2011 census, in Pune district, there were 60.94 lakhs total migrants, out of which 8.93 lakhs were from out of Maharashtra. Among these, 25.37 lakhs have been residing for more than a decade. Our ongoing survey in migrant pockets of Pune has shown some stark revelations about the distress experienced by these long-term settlers, and the lack of attention from responsible public authorities. In the current sample, we found that 58.5 per cent lost employment; only 23 per cent were still employed in the lockdown time. Few were partially employed with little or no payment. Although the government had directed to pay the employees at least for a month during the lockdown, the surveyed people revealed that most of the employers did not pay them.   

Income loss of two to three months has severely affected the livelihood of these marginalised migrant workers. They had meagre savings to survive in the lockdown. They could not afford basic food, medicine, and other essentials daily. Most of these long-term migrant settlers, including those who came from different parts of Maharashtra, did not have a ration card. They experienced bureaucratic difficulties like running around from one office to another, excessive documentation requirements, etc., in getting a ration card. Even those who had ration cards, could not get ration due to reasons like address being in their hometown, Aadhaar card not linked to ration issues, and non-availability of ration during the COVID-19 lockdown. The government had allowed withdrawal from PF accounts, but 85 per cent of our respondents, despite many of them working in companies, did not have PF accounts. Most people have not seen the Rs 500 Jan Dhan Transfers. Banks cut various transaction charges (passbook entry, change in account type, ATM card), which can be a premium for these people with minimal or zero deposits. 

Maids who used to work in societies revealed that only about half of the members of the housing societies paid the wages during the lockdown. The government had urged a one-month rental waiver to be given to the tenants from owners. None of the tenants got such a waiver, although some reported that few owners agreed for delayed payments. Rent and electricity were the major expenses after food which the respondents found hard to bear. The food aid by NGOs and private parties has been sporadic, and not frequent and predictable enough to have two full meals every day. They were anxious about livelihood and availability of ration in the coming months and showed a high level of psychological distress and a feeling of worthlessness.

Here we narrate the stories of such residents in a chawl in Someshwarwadi, Pashan. 

Baccha Lal Goutham, a 40-year-old migrant from Jaunpur, UP, works in a company in Baner as housekeeping staff. He has not received payment for two months despite continuing his work regularly. He used to earn Rs 8,000 a month to support his family of four. He occasionally sends Rs 1,000-1,500 remittance to his parents in UP. Although he has stayed in Pune for 15 years, he still doesn’t have a ration card and has not received free rations from the government so far. 

Ram Chandra Pal (Ramji Maharaj), a local social worker, priest and facilitator, aged 49, from Gorakhpur, UP has been staying in the same chawl for many years. With his contacts in the neighbourhood and support from local organisations, he arranged food aid for the people of the chawl. He also facilitated young migrants who wanted to go home by filling online applications for a train journey. The residents had received food aid (mainly Khichdi, and sometimes dal-chawal-sabzi), from local workers for about a month and a half. Sadly, the food supply has stopped for a month. 

A 46-year-old migrant from UP who did not wish to be named made several attempts to contact relevant local authorities. Maharashtra helpline number was not responding, he sent pictures to journalists, contacted the sub-division office, but received no help. Corporators mentioned aid kits are not immediately available. In his words, “Corporators come to ask for votes but do not come to offer any aid”. 

He perceives discrimination, as he is from UP and speaks Hindi to officials in Pune. 

Apart from these, stories of lack of access to health care in the time of COVID-19 also emerged from our interviews. A 24-year-old woman with a nine-month-old son, could not get Antenatal Care (ANC) as the nearby government was closed for maternity services. Her meagre savings were not sufficient to fetch milk for her son, let alone have it for chai. The family now lives mostly on borrowings. An elderly lady, who lives with her disabled husband, used to work as a housemaid. She is now unable to pay for food, rent and medicines. The free supply of medication from government hospitals has ceased; hence she has to shell out Rs 1,000-1,200 per month privately for her husband’s medication. 

These stories reveal the unseen miseries of the settlers in Pune and possibly many other cities in India. The government announcements of free ration, JanDhan transfer, PF withdrawal, does not seem to have touched these people. COVID-19 was supposed to ramp up healthcare, but these residents saw greater barriers to public health and nutrition; especially for children, pregnant and lactating mothers, and the elderly. A common cry among these people was hunger will kill us before corona. 

(Dr Shivakumar Jolad is the Associate Professor, Public Policy at Flame University. Dr Shalaka Shah is the Assistant Professor, Psychology at Flame University.)

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