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Winners? Wages? food, masks, buses and trains (Safe in India Update Weeks 9&10)

Dear friends and supporters,

Here is our report for weeks 9 & 10 of our COVID19 relief initiative.

मेरी माता जी का देहान्त हो गया है सर जी, मुझे अभी जाना है, आप मुझे प्लीज कैसे भी कर के भिजवा दो। “My mother has died and I need to return immediately, please send me back home any way that you can”...Pankaj Yadav, 25

The train journey to Bihar that was not to be

At noon on Sunday, May 31, we received official information about a Gurgaon-Bihar train at 6pm the following day, for which workers needed to assemble at Tau Devi Lal Stadium, Gurgaon by 8am. Just a couple of days prior, on May 29, we had assisted 47 workers at a similar short notice to get to Faridabad station, 62 kms away from Manesar. There was no local transport running, so we hired two private buses. It went relatively smoothly. We are not a migration-transportation-CSO (and after this temporary COVID19 relief work, we will quickly go back to our original mandate of systemic change in ESIC and worker safety) but if a distressed family needs to get home, and the government allows them to do so, how can we ignore them, if all they need is, say, get to a railway station and comfort that at least someone has their back?! So when we heard about the June 1 train, we immediately started calling those we knew were desperate to get back home, identifying the most distressed and arranging 5 hired roadways buses. After confirming with local Administration, we reached the stadium next morning with 144 workers, with some difficulty - resistance from a few landlords and contractors, who did not want them to leave!

At the stadium-gate, our buses were not allowed in. Workers were not allowed to get off the buses as there were already ‘too many people for the train’. We waited, argued with the officers-in-charge and escalated, to no avail. Clearly, they were helpless too as we soon found out from reliable sources that ‘the train stops in Bihar were cancelled’. In the meantime, the five roadways bus drivers were getting agitated and wanted to drop the workers and leave!

"वापिस गया तोह मकान मालिक ने बोलै की हाथ पेअर तोड़ देंगे" “My landlord said that if I return, he would break my hands and legs.”... Omprakash, 40 

Do we leave our 144 stranded with the other 800-900 inside the Stadium?

With another 800-900 workers waiting inside the stadium, we had to leave the Stadium gate at 2pm with our buses. We had no ready inter-state transportation plans. Our workers, however, by that time were desperate not to go back to their rented rooms, which they had left after settling dues. Some of them had sold their belongings to pay rents due for the past two months, and where they feared facing ‘angry landlords’. Some of them had made up their minds; if they didn’t get a bus or a train, they would walk to Bihar. Our team was under tremendous moral pressure, although we had been clear with workers that we would only drop them at the stadium. But how could we too leave them stranded! After four hours of waiting on side of roads, and feeding them lunch, we took them back to Manesar.

In the meantime, our networks started offering assistance. A well-intentioned group of people from Delhi offered help with bus arrangements to Bihar including a free bus and we booked the other 3 buses. The chartered flight option was discarded as too expensive. At 6 pm, this transport company asked us to pay all in cash and in return they offered to carry 40 people per bus (legal requirement is max 30)! We refused all 4 buses.

At 6.30 pm, we revived our conversations with another bus company. They were professional and legit, allowing max 30 per bus. We liked that. But they needed time to arrange 4 buses and inter-state movement passes. By this time, 30 workers had left, disappointed with us but we still had 120 men, women and children with us. It could be morning by the time we got any buses. Thankfully, a friend offered us a large space, where we could put them up for the night. We had to arrange a water tank and dinner and could also pack dry ready food (chanaa, jaggery, biscuits) and drinks for their journey. Finally, it looked that we could pull this off.

They send you their blessings from Patna

At 2 am, first two buses arrived, the third at 4am and the fourth at noon the following day. To their credit, Haryana Administration issued Inter-state Passes overnight. On June 3, 10am, 90 of them arrived in Patna, exhausted but relieved. The last 30 arrived the same evening. The job was done. We had our expended some of our limited budget on buses that we should not have had to. Our team of four on the ground, two on phones and seven Shramik Saathis (worker volunteers) came together wonderfully and we are so proud of that. However, we can do only so much and this is not our long term mandate. Only the government (and rich and powerful corporates) can and should resolve this issue, at the scale that is needed.

What happened to the remaining 800-900 in the stadium?

Clearly there was no train. So, they needed c.25-30 buses. We tried keeping track of it. We were told that they all left in buses to Bihar after 30-48 hours of wait in the stadium, with assistance of a number of Corporates/CSOs.

Who wins in all this mayhem?

Such train cancellations can happen but this is not a stray incident. Only this morning (June 7), we found out, officially, about another train leaving at 6pm tonight; we had tried receiving official confirmation last night but they 'did not know' until 11pm. We understand that there were only 25-30 workers at the stadium at 730 am this morning, a CSO cancelled their scheduled bus for this train and finally only 120 people gathered at the stadium by around 2pm. We are told that a few local CSOs were requested to arrange food for 1,200 people which was then distributed to those who did not really need it. At about 4pm, the train was cancelled and CSOs were requested again to arrange buses to get them to Bihar! It leaves us wondering: while in all this the losers are obvious, who is winning?

  1. Is it the receiving home state (who in the state?) who wins by not helping/arranging getting their people back?

  2. Is it the host state (who in the state?) where the industry wants to have excess and flexible labour supply, whenever they need?

  3. Is it the Central government (how)?

  4. Is it the opposition in states/centre (how)?

  5. Is it the landlords of these worker tenements, who are going to lose rental income?

  6. Is it the cash bus mafia charging Rs 3,500 per head Gurgaon-Patna and over-crowing the buses?

  7. Who else could it be?

After all someone has to gain from all this. If all were losers, this would not happen; would it? Can't we even get organised to help a few hundreds of workers get home, without unnecessary pain? If we can organise millions at Kumbh Mela, what's the big deal here?

"इससे बेहतर मरना है ". "Death would be better than this." 
Omprakash Kumar, 38

Unworthy: Rapid Survey Report on April Wage payments (NOT!)

These urban worker families are running out of cash and some of them are selling their things. They are too proud to beg. Our rapid survey of 100 Gurgaon workers conducted in partnership with Agrasar showed that till May 15, three-fourths of these hundred had not been paid for April. A quarter had not received even their March salary by then.

You would remember that the lock-down started only on March 25 and the government had instructed all businesses to pay March-April salaries in full. No one in their right mind expected this to be complied with 100%, but after all these non-payments, the diktat was diluted. Apparently, the intention for the diktat was not to get cash to workers but to slow down migration. If that was going to be the case, why were cash transfer mechanisms for migrants not thought of and implemented earlier (or even now)?

More than half of these workers did not do anything about these non-payments; only 5% are with any union and even those received no help. Clearly, they just feel helpless and with little agency. Can one blame the 23% of them who have left for home, irrespective of the poor rural employment situation? We found another 2-5% of those still in Gurgaon wanting to return home. If one has to starve, as well starve at home - at least there is PDS there!

कांट्रेक्टर- "अगर मैं आपको काम दिलावा दूँ तो क्या आप लोग काम करोगे ?
वर्कर - "नही, हमे काम नही करना है, आप लोग पिछली सैलरी तो दिए नही, हमे अब घर जाना है।"
Contractor: "If I get you work will you do it?"
Worker: "No, we will not work. You still haven't paid us our previous salary. Right now, we need to go home"....
Conversation in front of us at a Labour Chowk in Manesar. 

Here is the media coverage of this Report in Business Today, Hindustan Times and The Wire.

We continued with distribution of food and masks to the most needy

We also distributed another 43,000 Food ADUs (Each Adult Daily Unit is enough for two meals per adult or 4 meals per child) and 7800 masks. The demand for rations, in areas we serve, is reducing as thankfully some employment is coming back. In all, we have distributed c.430,000 meals and 15,800 masks in the past 10 weeks, since we repurposed temporarily for COVID19 Relief.

Thank you for continued support. Spread the word. We need people to be aware of the unvarnished ground reality.

Stay healthy. Stay safe. Work safe.

DONATIONS AT: Indian passport-holders paying from their Rupee accounts/cards (for 80G Indian tax-relief): Foreign passport holders, foreign currency payers (for 501c3 USA tax-relief):

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