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No Work, No Ration, And Apathy: What Did Migrant Workers Face After They Returned?

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

We were taken to the Quarantine centre. There the doctor and other officials were present. They asked for my name, address and all but when I got my papers, it had my temperature, but in fact, no one had taken my temperature.

I asked them how they had written my temperature when they had not taken it. But they said it’s done, you go. I started making a video about how they were writing temperature without recording,” says Ajay Paswan a migrant worker from Warisaliganj, Bihar who had been working in Delhi for the last two years.

Migrant workers walking home on foot after the lockdown was announced. Image credit: Reuters.

The State of Bihar was at the epicentre of reverse migration, which began in March 2020, due to the Lockdown imposed to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus. Almost a year later now, stories emerge which tell us that the situation was not better at home.

Through a survey (by the author) conducted in several districts of Bihar (Nawada, Patna, Begusaria, and Khagaria) it was found out that the longest a migrant worker had been living away from home was 18 years, and on the other hand, one worker had finished just 4 days of work before the lockdown was announced.

The Known Plight

Despite government schemes that ensured additional rations to the poor during the lockdown, distribution systems failed to do the job as ration cards are area-specific and fair price shops were inaccessible. Most of them said they received no help from the government in terms of food and shelter. They were surviving on their savings and some help from local NGOs.

A survey conducted by Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) of 11,159 migrant workers stranded in various States found that between April 8 and April 13, shows that more than 96% did not receive rations from the government and around 90% of those surveyed did not get paid by their employers (Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) 2020). Bereft of all resources needed to survive in a city far from home, migrant workers started travelling back home.

Information from the Ministry of Labour and Employment show that of the 10.5 million migrant workers who returned to their home states, Bihar accounted for 14.3% of the number – 1.5 million (MN and Ray 2020). Hundreds of migrant workers carrying heavy bags were seen walking on national highways, or boarding buses and tractors, in what seemed like their last attempt to return to their home states.

As the lockdown was being extended, again and again, we thought of returning, as there was no point staying there. We walked to Nashik (160-170 Km). From Nashik Railway station we took a truck. We had reserved a truck from there till our village for 150,000. We were 25 people” says Sita Ram who had been working in Mumbai.

For a lot of migrant workers, this journey back home proved to be harder than anticipated. An analysis by SaveLife Foundation, an independent, non-profit NGO advocating road safety and emergency medical care across India, estimated that 630 migrants were injured in road mishaps between March 24 and May 18 (Khan 2020). A database created by a group of independent researchers shows that between March 14 and July, 207 migrant workers died in accidents due to walking or during migration (GN, et al. 2020).

Home: Was It Secure?

It was under the hope of a secure home did most of the migrant workers take this arduous journey, not knowing that things were only going to get worse. “Because I was questioning a lot. They (referring to the testing official) called the police station and I was taken to the police station. Later my family members and friends came and sat outside the police station.

After this, I was finally released in the evening. From the police station I was sent to Institutional Quarantine, near my village for 14 days” says Ajay Paswan who had just returned home. All that he was asking from the administration was to test him. His question was not answered then, but why testing was not done is a question which the Bihar Government would have to tell the entire country now. The Government of India has already asked for a detailed report.

Most of the respondents in our interview denied being tested, those who said they were tested, assumed that thermal scanning was the test. Most of the respondents were given home quarantine, and those who opted for institutional quarantine, narrate a whole new experience.

A migrant worker from Begusaria, says “I was quarantined along with my wife and two children, the day be returned from Thane, Maharashtra. There was no separate room for women and even the toilets were the same. My wife was not comfortable sharing the washroom with men, she told me, but what could I do”.

Another migrant worker MD. Rahnuman Ansari says “We stayed in the Institutional Quarantine. Later our Mukhiya came and said that those from Kerala can go home and quarantine themselves.” Rahnuman Ansari went home after staying in the Quarantine centre for 4 days untested.

Bihar was one of the first states to shut down the Institutional Quarantine Centres, the reason: the administration knows best, why they were shut down when the cases being reported were rising. The centre’s which were being run was not testing people, this is one thing that has emerged now, and is also the reason why the investigation has been initiated by the government. Incidences like a dancer being called from outside, the presence of liquor raise a potential question on what was the administration doing, particularly when Liquor is banned in Bihar.

Situation In Bihar

The State Disaster Management Department, which Chief Minister Nitish Kumar set up for overseeing operations of relief camps and quarantine centres for migrants returning home, stated that only migrants coming from Surat and Ahmedabad in Gujarat; Mumbai and Pune in Maharashtra; Delhi, Gurugram, Ghaziabad, Faridabad and Noida in the NCR; Kolkata in West Bengal; and Bengaluru in Karnataka will be housed at the quarantine centres. The others would be asked to home quarantine themselves.

7 of the 20 interviewees in this study were asked to quarantine at institutional quarantine centres; 2 of them who were sent to S.N. Sinha College, Warisaliganj said that they didn’t spend any time at the centre and were asked to quarantine at home after brief paperwork at the centre. 1 interviewee complained about not getting food at the quarantine centre.

Sushil Kumar Modi said that the state of Bihar did everything for the smooth functioning of quarantine facilities.

His family used to send him food from home. Another interviewee complained about the lack of separate rooms for men and women. Of the ones who weren’t housed at quarantine centres, 2 interviewees said they weren’t tested at all, and another said that there was only thermal screening at the railway station and no other measures were taken.

It was reported in May 2020 that migrant workers returning to Bihar were jumping off the Shramik Special trains, ahead of their destination, to escape isolation orders. Several other reports claimed that migrants protested, and fled quarantine centres because of lack of basic amenities – lack of food, and poor quality of whatever little amount was provided.

A quarantine centre in Gaya reportedly had only 2 toilets for 240 migrants residing at the centre; another centre in Samastipur district saw a scuffle amongst inmates over just one tube-well available for water supply (Mishra 2020). Some migrants said that they were also opposed to spending any more time apart from their families than they already had, in difficult times like these.

The Question

When the ruling government of the state was questioned by opposition and critics for the poor functioning of the quarantine centres, the then Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi said, “State government is doing everything to facilitate the smooth functioning of these quarantine centres. The easy way out for the government would have been to send the returning migrant labourers home. But that would have led to the further spread of Covid-19.

Temporary difficulties should be ignored for the greater benefit of society in the long-term.” According to United News of India, the Bihar cabinet sanctioned Rs. 809 crore to the disaster management department to run quarantine centres, an extension of facilities at these centres, and for other such requirements. If Budget was not the problem for the state of Bihar, the potential question is why the Quarantine centres were in such a condition.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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