“We are now eating less, just one meal a day. Need to keep the limited food stocks running. We are nine of us living together in one room, so we need more ration to feed all of us.”
Ajmal, along with eight of his co-workers, all migrants from Dumka in Jharkhand and working as daily wage labourers in a garment factory in Andheri, are struggling to find food amidst the lockdown.
Nine of them share a 250 square feet room in Dongar slums in Andheri West.
Rs 3,000 in aid that they had received from their factory owner to sustain during the first phase of the lockdown—meant from March 25 to April 14—started drying up soon. The workers were left with no choice but to cut down on their meals.
Their problems are further compounded by rising food prices.
“Since we are nine of us our daily consumption of ration is also high. But last few days food and vegetable prices have gone up because stocks in shops were less, so we couldn’t afford much. So we decided to cut down,” Ajmal added.
The worst-affected due to the lockdown, subsequent to the coronavirus outbreak, have been the ones who were on a daily wage regime, with no back up funds or a steady salary that they can depend on in times like these.
Multiple non-governmental organisations, gurudwaras, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and police groups are running community kitchens in various parts of Mumbai. Some are distributing rations too. But for many migrant workers like Ajmal and his friends living in slum areas accessing such aid is a problem.
One NGO had been donating cooked food packets to those in need, just a few hundred meters away, but many workers in that area said they were not aware of this food distribution as they have barely stepped out. Police and other state apparatus have been zealously enforcing social distancing norms.
Jakir, another worker living in the same room said “We live up there in the slums; we are not allowed to step out much. Security is very tight here. Even when we step outside to buy vegetables, food or soaps, police beat us and shoos us away. When we are holed up in our rooms, we don’t know what’s been distributed on the roads.
“If we are not allowed to go out, why aren’t these food packets delivered to our homes. Why will we make SOS calls then,” he added.
Mohammad Minhaj Ansari, another worker said he wants to step out for a walk or fresh air, but cannot. “We have been inside for the last 20-23 days, we are frustrated. Even our family in Dumka is very worried that we may get the infection. They are asking us to come back, but what do we do.”
As part of coronavirus containment measures all services deemed non-essential, including inter-state transportation, stand prohibited for the duration of the lockdown.
A recent survey conducted by the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) showed that hunger and starvation was rising among the migrant worker population still stuck in the urban centres. Fifty percent of the 11,159 workers they spoke to across the country had rations left for less than a day. Almost 96 percent of them had not received rations from the government and 70 percent had not received any cooked food.
Particularly in Mumbai, despite the reduced prices of the government’s food scheme ‘Shiv Bhojan Thali’ for all, restricted access, fear of strict police action and lack of cash meant most migrants were unable to use this facility.
Daily wage construction workers
Manoj, a daily wage construction worker, is thinking twice before spending even a rupee from his pocket. He barely has Rs 200 left to survive him and four others during the second phase of the lockdown.
“Last few days we have been eating just plain rotis or sometimes roti with salt. Don’t have money to buy more ration or even vegetables,” he says.
Manoj lives in a small room in Bandra East slums with four of his room-mates, all daily wage workers hailing from Bihar. The group had some 2-3 kilogramme of wheat flour and rice last month and say they managed for initial few days. But now arranging food is their biggest worry.
Amit, another worker and Manoj’s roommate said, “I only have Rs 200 left till this lockdown ends and we can go out to work and earn something. Even if we manage to buy a kilogramme of atta, we don’t have money to buy vegetables or daal. It has become very expensive. And where do we cook? Now even kerosene is not available.”
Hemant, another worker in the civil lines, said that a local group is running community kitchen in the vicinity but it is always very crowded. “There are almost always 500-700 people queuing up. We are unable to go there.”
Most workers we met said they will be running out of their limited food supplies in a day or two.
The survey report by the SWAN group highlighted that the rate of hunger is exceeding the rate of relief. “Percentage of people who said they have less than one day of rations increased from 36 percent to 50 percent in the third week of lockdown while the percentage of people who received government rations increased from 1 percent to only 4 percent in the third week of the lockdown.”
At a time when food is a luxury, meeting even medical expenses is a cause for concern. Some workers have resorted to calling for funds from their villages. A worker said he had to call for Rs 500 from his village when he fell ill 10 days ago. “I had fever. I had to visit a local private clinic as all hospitals were full. I spent Rs 400 on my doctor visit and medicines and had to ask my family in village to send money to my friend’s bank account.” He did not have a bank account.
Holed up in small rooms, and not allowed to step out during the lockdown, most migrants are fearful they will fall sick.
The sudden nature of the lockdown meant many daily wage workers could not get their dues cleared from their contractors. Construction workers who we spoke to in Bandra East said that money was due for the work they did before the lockdown started. “Almost Rs 10,000 of my wages is pending with the contractor,” said Amit, who used to collect his wages as a lump sum for work done for few days. “Now the manager is not even answering our calls,” he rues.
Manoj said his pending dues amounted to Rs 2,000. Another workers standing by said Rs 4,000 were owed to him.
“We are daily wagers, we don’t have savings. We earn daily, buy food from that and collect and send money home. It will be great if the government can give us ration and some money to buy vegetables, kerosene, soap, oil and other daily essentials until this lockdown ends.”
“Even when we go to use the public toilets, we have to pay Rs 5. We are running out of money and food.
“Where will people like us go and how do we manage?”
Follow all coronavirus updates live