“We were asked to stay indoors by the police. Whenever we stepped out to get groceries or other essentials, the police would beat us back to our rooms. Even if we stepped out to urinate at night, they were there, waiting to pounce on us,” says Dola Ram, recalling the first few days of the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown in Mumbai.
On the morning of March 25, Dola Ram and his co-workers came back to their rooms in Borivali from their worksite in Malad after they heard about the lockdown. For six days they remained in their cramped room – shared by 15 of them for a monthly rent of Rs. 1,000 each – hoping the situation would change. Soon, they started running out of food. So 37-year-old Dola Ram and the others decided to go back home, to their villages in Rajasthan.
“There was no work in Mumbai. Since we had just come back [from the village] after Holi, we did not have much savings either. So there was no point in staying in the city,” Dola Ram says, speaking to us on the phone. Before leaving the city he had received news that his five-year-old son was ill. His wife, Sundar, and other relatives had taken the child to the hospital, then to the bhopa, or local traditional healer, but he was not getting better.
Dola Ram had returned to Mumbai a few days after celebrating Holi (March 9-10) in Baroliya, in Rajasthan’s Udaipur district. He spends 8-9 months a year away from his village in Salumbar block, to earn a living. For the last 15 years, he has worked as a mason on construction sites, migrating to towns within Rajasthan, or all the way to Goa, Pune and Gujarat. He has been coming to Mumbai for two years. Dola Ram’s latest job involved marble polishing, earning him Rs. 12,000 a month, of which he sent Rs. 7,000-8,000 home. He visits his family twice in a year – during Holi and in October-November – staying back for 15 to 30 days each time.
The recent journey to Baroliya from Mumbai was not only out of turn for Dola Ram, but also a difficult one. He and the others started out from the city on March 31, six days after the lockdown began. “Nineteen of us hired a taxi for Rs. 20,000 to get to our village in Rajasthan. However, police made us return from the Maharashtra border and locked us up in Mumbai,” he says.
Undeterred, they left from Mumbai again at 5 a.m. on April 1. This time they walked in pairs, and headed for the Maharashtra-Gujarat border. They carried dry chapatis, which were finished in less than a day. When they reached Surat the next day, things were heating up there, with migrant workers protesting to be allowed to go back home. The police in Surat were helpful, he says, offering them tea and biscuits. They even arranged to send them to Banswara, across the border in Rajasthan, about 380 kilometres away, in a truck.
At the border in Banswara, they were screened by local authorities for fever and allowed to go. “We were given glucose biscuits there. We ate some and took some for the way,” Dola Ram says. From there, he walked to Aspur, 63 kilometres away, and stayed the night at a dharamshala. He then made his way to Salumbar in a pick-up truck delivering vegetables, which didn’t charge him for the 24-kilometre ride. He finally reached Baroliya, 14 kilometres from Salumbar, at 7 p.m. on April 5.
Some of the cops in Banswara, he recalls, called him and his companions ‘disease carriers’ (of coronavirus). “We had been checked [for fever]. I don’t understand why we were being discriminated against like that,” he says.
Dola Ram’s troubles did not end upon reaching home. He took his ill son to the primary healthcare centre in Malpur, about 5-6 kilometres from Baroliya. When we spoke to him on April 6, he told us, “My son has high fever. When my wife and I took him to the hospital yesterday, the police started attacking us and asked us to go back. They let us go only when we told them that we were going to the hospital.” At the hospital, his son did not receive attention. “The hospitals have too many people at this time. The doctor did not even look at our son properly and asked us to go back.”
The child died three days later, his ailment remained undiagnosed. The father, who was in a state of shock and unable to speak for a few days, tells us now, “No one could do anything about it. Even the bhopa and doctors could not do anything. We did everything possible to save him but we could not.” His family believes that a spirit had possessed the child.
In Baroliya, a village of 1,149 people, almost everyone belongs to the Meena (also spelt as Mina) community, a Scheduled Tribe that makes up 99.56 per cent of the population. A major portion of the village’s income comes from men who migrate to work – like Dola Ram does. Recent assessments done in Salumbar block done by Aajeevika Bureau, an organisation working with migrant workers in Rajasthan, show that at least one male migrates for work from 70 per cent of the households. The money they send back home amounts to nearly 60 per cent of the income of those households. Women and young girls usually work at the local construction sites in Salumbar.
Thousands of migrant workers from Rajasthan were stranded when states across the country sealed their borders for the lockdown and stopped inter-state travel. A report in the Economic Times on March 25 stated that over 50,000 workers from Rajasthan living in Ahmedabad city had started walking back home.
Among them is 14-year-old Mukesh (name changed), who too returned home to Baroliya due to the lockdown. He worked in an eatery in Ahmedabad, making chapatis, and earned Rs. 8,000 a month. Mukesh is the primary earning member of his family. His widowed mother, Ramli (name changed) suffers from tuberculosis. She works at local construction sites for daily wages, but she is not able to toil for long stretches. “I know I am young [underage] but I will have to work. There is no other option,” says Mukesh, who has four younger siblings.
“There is no money, no work left. What are we supposed to do?” asks Ramli, 40, who belongs to the Meena tribe. “We will have to work even now, to earn some money and feed our little children and repay the loans. The government is not going to give us anything,” she says during a phone call.
With no construction work during the lockdown, Ramli was forced to find work on a farm in a nearby hamlet. But she stopped going within 2-3 days because she ran out of her medicines and became ill. She says that she had to fight with the village panchayat to receive the ration kits they distributed to the ‘most vulnerable families’ as part of the state government’s relief package. Her name had not made it to that list because the sarpanch and sachiv from the panchayat office never visited her house, which is off the road and closer to the forest.
When Ramli and Mukesh did eventually receive the ration, the package was incomplete. “We have not got wheat or rice, like in the other ration kits. But I don’t know whom to ask for it,” Mukesh tells us. Their share had only 500 grams of both sugar and oil, 100 grams of chilli powder and a few other spices. The relief packets were supposed to contain 1 kilo each of sugar and oil, 5 kilos each of wheat flour and rice, and some spices.
“We have been given this month’s ration in advance as per the government’s announcement. It is only five kilos of wheat per person, and no additional items. This five-kilo ration will be over in the next five days,” says Shankar Lal Meena, 43, an activist from Tamtiya village in Dungarpur district’s Sagwara block, about 60 kilometres away from Baroliya.
Corrupt ration dealers are making matters worse, adds Shankar. “The ration dealer who comes to our hamlet to deliver the items is still stealing a kilo or two while weighing. We know that he is stealing, but what can we say? The remaining kirana shops in the villages are charging double the price for the same products.”
Back in Baroliya, the people are increasingly worried about their livelihood options. With construction work being suspended everywhere due to the lockdown, Dola Ram, who doesn’t own land, is worried about clearing his loans of Rs. 35,000 – borrowed from various relatives for his child’s treatment, from friends and even a small shopkeeper in Mumbai, for his journey back home. To add to his distress, he broke his leg in an accident on April 12, and doesn’t know when he will be able to work.
Ramli fears that the loss of income will intensify her family’s financial troubles. She must repay four loans, amounting to Rs. 10,000, borrowed from private creditors. The money was used for her treatment, to repair her house, and when one of her children had malaria. The last loan she took was to repay the other loans.
With no clarity on how they will make up for the lost time and wages, Dola Ram, Mukesh and Ramli are looking at a highly uncertain year ahead. “I had already spent most of my savings during Holi,” Dola Ram says. “We somehow managed the money to come back home. The contractor also refused to pay any advance. Let’s see what happens now.”