When several flocked grocery stores to pick up essentials soon after the news spread that the Gujarat High Court had proposed a lockdown or curfew for a short period to contain the spread of Covid-19 on Tuesday, Ajit Tiwari, a 30-year-old textile worker in Surat, says he knew exactly what to do.
“I cannot forget the bad experience of last year’s lockdown. It will remain etched in our memories throughout life. My family and I had to face too many hardships. With money running out, getting food was difficult. I returned to Gujarat only to earn bread and butter for my family,” the native of Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, tells The Indian Express.
On Tuesday, he cobbled up all his belongings and booked himself a ticket on a private luxury bus for his hometown for April 8.
“We get news on the Covid-19 situation on WhatsApp groups and through local Hindi newspapers. The situation is going from bad to worse each day. There has been a rise in the number of positive cases and deaths in Surat city. My wife and children call me regularly, and insist that I should return,” he says.
Tiwari, who has been working in Surat for the last 10 years, says, after the lockdown was eased in September last year, he had returned to Surat for work, leaving his old parents, wife and two children behind.
“The factory, where I work, is operating round-the-clock. But I want to be with my family now. I miss them,” he says.
Sanjay Singh (24), a native of Unnao in Uttar Pradesh, who works in an auto-spare parts manufacturing company at Changodar in Ahmedabad has also decided to go back home. “Six workers in my company have tested positive and are currently under home quarantine. Due to a shortage of staff, work here has nearly stopped. We all stay together in rented accommodation at Panchtantra estate in Changodar. Our rent and electricity bill comes around Rs 3,000 per person. At least 15 workers from Unnao have decided to head back to their hometown after April 10, when we receive our salary — Rs 8,000 each. We came in private buses from Unnao to Ahmedabad last year in November and we are looking to book bus tickets for home,” he says.
Construction worker Manish Paswan, who lives at ‘Bacchu Bhai ka Kuan’, a migrant settlement in the industrial area Vatva of Ahmedabad, is now looking for people who are planning to travel to Nalanda, in Bihar. “I have been reading news regarding a possibility of another lockdown. Last year, I was stuck in Ahmedabad for three months without money. This time, my younger brother and I are looking for people from Nalanda, who are looking to go back now. We will collectively book train tickets in the coming week.”
According to a labour contractor in Surat, the number of migrants workers leaving in Surat was slightly higher than the usual 30-odd per cent seen during the summers – several migrants travel home for weddings and festivals. While there is an upcoming local bodies election in Uttar Pradesh scheduled for April 15, the possibility of a lockdown is also behind the exodus, he says.
Surat’s textile industry experts say that around 15 lakh labourers work in different segments of the textile industry like power looms, dyeing and printing, embroidery, and textile trading. The labour force mostly hails from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand. Several migrant labour colonies have also cropped up in Surat at Sachin, Pandesara, Udhna, and Limbayat among others areas.
Labour contractor at a dyeing and printing factory at Pandesara, Banshu Yadav says, “Earlier, migrant workers in Surat would take the train home, but this time labourers are afraid of Covid-19 tests and a forced 14-day quarantine and are preferring private luxury buses. Private bus operators are also seen camping at various streets in the labour colonies at Pandesara and Sachin. Boards at public junctions with messages in Hindi for people wishing to go to Hamirpur, Kanpur, Banaras, Jaunpur, and other parts of UP have become a common sight.”
A native of Uttar Pradesh himself, Yadav believes the fear of lockdown, coupled with a bad experience from the last year was playing an important role in the current migration. “The bus tour operators are merely taking advantage of the situation and spreading fake news on different WhatsApp groups about an imminent lockdown.”
Another labour contractor, Amit Singh Rajput, agrees with Yadav. “This time, the migration is more as compared to the previous summers. A few days ago, the taluka panchayat and district panchayat elections in UP were announced for April 15. Most candidates offer to pay for the ticket fares of the people staying outside to return to their hometowns (to cast their vote),” he says. Also, several marriages were deferred last year due to the pandemic, and so these ceremonies have doubled this year, he adds while not ruling out the fear of another lockdown.
Mahendra Ramoliya, whose wife Ramaben is the president of the Sachin Industrial Co-operative Society, said labourers, mostly from UP, were migrating over the last few days.
“We have assured labourers that we will take care if anything goes wrong, but still the rumours, spread through social media, has had an impact. To remove the fear of Covid-19 among migrant labourers, we started a vaccination centre with help of SMC at Sachin industrial co-operative society hall, and in the last 10 days, we got 4,000 vaccinations done, covering almost 300 to 400 people daily, including labourers. We have coordinated with the factory owners for daily vaccination,” Ramoliya says.
While more labourers migrated from Surat last year when the industry was closed, Ramoliya says they have not left any stone unturned to prevent an exodus over rumours. “We have taken help from the police department to allow labourers going to the factories for a night shift in the curfew. We have also organised meetings in the labour colonies to make people aware about the present Covid-19 situation and reassured them that there was nothing to worry.”
WITH INPUT FROM VAIBHAV JHA IN AHMEDABAD