Why are migrant workers so desperate to go back home?

Activists and psychologists say panic and anxiety over their family's secure future is driving the desire to head back to their villages

Migrant workers
Pictures: @arvindgunasekar

A second wave of a mass exodus of migrants is just around the corner. After a large crowd of people gathered at Mumbai’s Bandra Terminus wanting to return home, the issues faced by the ordinary migrant have come to the notice of the mum government once again.

India went into a lockdown on March 25 that was first announced to last 21 days. At the time of the announcement, Prime Minister Narendra Modi failed to mention migrant labourers or arrangements for their safe stay or travel. Industries, shops and transport were to be shut, making migrant workers panic about how to keep the roof over their heads and put food on the table. 

The trepidation brought thousands to the streets and the fear of the virus spreading to them and from them to healthy people in rural areas, made the government sit up and take notice. There on, shelters were set up and announcements about how their basic necessities would be taken care of were made.

While relief from the government was slow and inadequate, these workers were provided for by the members of the civil society. Yet, their fear and dismay and the longing to be with their families remained. They sat tight till April 14 in hope of the lockdown being lifted on March 15, after which they could be reunited with their families. However, the extension of the lockdown till May 3, set off their latent anxiety turning it into full blown panic.

As textile workers took to the streets at Varachha in Surat demanding passage to their homes, workers in Mumbai gathered at Bandra Terminus, wanting to go home after they became victims of misinformation spread by a TV news channel and some others on social media.

While many unused properties like schools, etc. have been converted into shelter homes for migrants, they feel imprisoned in big cities. Is it that they feel like the unwanted children of suburbs, who are a burden on it?

As per the Indian Labour Organization, 90 percent of India’s workforce is employed in the informal sector. They are employed as rickshaw drivers, plumbers, construction workers, domestic help, security guards, fishermen among many other professions. And the problems of these migrant workers in cities are manifold. Staying in cramped rooms, using communal toilets, issues of rent, lack of potable water, inability to get cooking fuel, etc. have been hounding them since the lockdown has begun.

Mumbai holds a population of over 25 million or 2.5 crore people. Monthly rents in the city range between Rs. 2,000 to Rs. 1.2 lakh depending on the location. Dharavi, now a coronavirus containment zone in Mumbai, which is also considered to be Asia’s largest slum, is spread over just 2 kilometers but houses over 700,000 inhabitants.

Sabrang India spoke to an activist from Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan (GBGBA), an organization which has been tirelessly working for the welfare of the urban poor seeking to find what actually ails the migrant worker during this lockdown.

Citing that the problem was more psychological than physical he said, “I am a labourer myself. I worked at different places in Mumbai and have now settled well in my work. I understand the plight of the workers very well. The government is doing what it can, but somehow help isn’t reaching the beneficiaries. In a crowded city like Mumbai, the first thing the government should do is ensure social distancing. The requirement of people being one meter away from each other isn’t possible due to the population. The government can use MMRDA gardens, schools, empty plots, etc. to set up tents to set up shelters for migrant workers. The government should use the public transport it has to drive labourers to these relief shelters to ensure that the protocol of social distancing is maintained. The ones who are healthy must immediately be taken to open spaces and housed there.”

He goes on to explain that the problem isn’t just related to hunger saying, “People are feeling suffocated in cramped living conditions. There is a lack of oxygen in the city anyway. They need fresh air. The way the news is being presented on media channels is adding to health issues like blood pressure and heart conditions. People are frazzled and they feel caged. I’ve spoken to many workers and they say that they are being provided with ration and food. But the problem is that their psyche has been affected due to being ostracized by the media. They are yearning to be free.”

“We have no shortage of food and money. Our economy is going to flourish in the future. We are an agricultural country. Nature and seasons provide favourable conditions to us. Due to this, our economy is only going to flourish in the future,” he adds.

Speaking about the specific incident that took place at Bandra Terminus in Mumbai, he said, “Someone dangled a carrot of the prospect of going home in front of them. Mumbai is full of crooks and ready to fraud people. They too cause a lot of problems and take advantage of innocent people. The prospect that these crooks are offering, should instead be offered by the government; keeping social distancing and quarantine rules in place. Instead of a crowd, there would have been queues. But due to being embroiled in politics, the government is incapable of and unwilling to take decisions in favour of the people.”

Migrant workers are like always pushed to the sidelines by the government in India and these incidents that have taken place over the last few days are only testimony to that fact. Their numbers may be in millions, but as The Atlantic puts it, they have no political clout. Welfare services for people below the poverty line are generally only available at their place of birth. With migrants moving between cities, they can rarely access these schemes for their benefits. 

Sanjoy Mondol, a 22-year-old Bengali migrant construction worker, now in a shelter outskirts of Gaya, Bihar confirms the explanation of the activist from GBGBA. He says, “We are being fed. But I have no work and have run out of money,” he said. “I can’t even send any money home. Somehow, if I could get back to my village in Bengal, I would be happy. I could do some small thing, maybe sell vegetables. Be with my wife, my parents. I can’t bear to hear them weep, each time they call me. Please get me home.”

While some migrants are fine with living in the city because they do receive food from helping organizations, they are worried about their families back home. With a halt in income, most have nothing to send back home and savings are quickly drying up. Now with the government asking everyone to stay cooped in, social distancing norms in an area like Mumbai, especially in its impoverished neighbourhoods, is a dream.

The help trickling in from NGOs and the government is still not enough.

Dr. YA Matcheswalla, senior psychiatrist and the former President of the Bombay Psychiatric Society told Sabrang India, “The main issue the workers are facing is that of anxiety. In the past, whenever there has been a threat or a disaster in the city, these workers have been able to return home. But this time, they have been unable to do that and now they are scared for their lives due to the rise in cases and are also scared for their families back home because they don’t have any money to send for sustenance like they used to. Just recently, a woman from a low-income neighbourhood who complained of chest pain was referred to me. All her medical reports were clear and we found that the issue was anxiety and stress. People are desperate and they want to go back home to a safe space.”

Dr. Shivani Sadhoo, a psychologist based in Delhi explain the issues of migrant workers and the impact on their mental health to Sabrang India in detail.

Speaking about the issues the migrants are facing she says, “During this time of COVID-19 these migrant workers are not sure and a sense of panic has come up. They do not know when their normal jobs will resume, they do not know how many of them will get back their routine jobs. Money is a big issue since most of them are depending on daily wages that source of income is either stopped or not reaching them. Without money, they neither can buy food nor can they afford to pay their rents. Though several state govt has ordered not to charge any rent for specific duration still their minds are going through an unknown fear. Since these migrant workers also stay away from their families and native home town for a longer duration of their lives. There is a certain panic that has occurred inside their minds as well because they do not know if certain people will survive for the coming days or not?”

Dr. Sadhoo also said that the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has issued a notification suggesting psychologists counsel migrant workers. Under the directive, psychological counseling will be provided to migrant workers who have any issue pertaining to agony, anxiety, helplessness, fear, and loss of dignity, social report on top of complete uncertainty for food, medical care, and shelter.

When asked about how help will reach these migrants and how responsive they are to counseling, she said that the ideal way to reach them would be through community service providers. Their responsiveness to counseling depends on the situation as everyone has a different mental state. She says, “When you talk to them and understand their views things become a little easier and with the passage of time, they are also receptive to the ideas and suggestions that has been conveyed to them. It is important to understand the first thing is that they are the ones belonging to the marginalized sector of our community so it takes extra effort and cares to guide them.”

She concludes her explanation by saying that alienation and loneliness play a big part in their behaviour because they live alone in cities. This, coupled with the panic of running out of money and food has made them to want to return home at the earliest.

It is clear that the patience of the migrant workers is running out fast. Their desperation to be home with their families, stay safe and provide a dignified life to themselves and their kin back home is leading them to believe every hoax out there that provides them even a little bit of hope about them being able to return home.


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