Mumbai: Pandemic turned the city of dreams into a nightmare for migrant workers

When most people want to come to Mumbai for work in search of livelihood; last year saw a major exodus of migrants especially the labour force out of Mumbai and its metropolitan region. More than 15 lakh people migrated to other states to escape Covid-19 by various modes of transport. A year later, a majority of these people have returned still there are pockets where migrants haven’t returned as cases are rising in the second wave.

In the past one year, migrants from various pockets of the city like Bandra, Juhu, Dharavi, Bhiwandi, Mankhurd, Govandi and other parts left for their native villages and towns especially in states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, West Bengal, and Madhya Pradesh. In the initial days, these migrants took private buses, trucks, tempos, state-run buses, auto-rickshaws, taxis and even walked for miles in the hope to flee Coronavirus.

Migration had made Maharashtra an epicentre and there was tremendous pressure on other states where they were heading to. The exodus got traction when from May 1 the Indian Railways started Shramik Special trains. According to railway officials, Maharashtra and Mumbai saw a majority of exodus with long queues, waiting for hours at railway stations, stampedes, and insane rush to catch these long-distance trains. From Mumbai and MMR itself, the railways and state-run buses sent 18 lakh plus migrants to various parts of the country.

“It was difficult and testing times. We had to coordinate with the state government, police, and local municipal corporations before allowing each migrant to catch the long-distance train. We were feeling helpless seeing thousands of migrants waiting outside railway stations, on streets; with their bare minimum luggage. Somehow we managed to ferry as many people as possible in available trains despite the fear of Coronavirus spreading,” said a railway official.

The social activists who dealt with the migration said that they tried to ensure the least trouble while getting seats inside trains for these migrants. “Initially the main problem that arose was feeding these migrant labourers. Many housing societies, individuals, and NGOs helped in getting funds and groceries. In a day we managed to provide 5-7000 kits of groceries to these migrants,” said Sanjay Jaiswal, a social activist from Kandivali and Borivali.

Several multi-crore infrastructure projects, be it Metro rail works, railway projects, sealinks and coastal roads got stalled as labours weren’t available. There were some who stayed back and temporary settlements were arranged for them to stay along with food. The MMRDA in fact asked their contractors, after 3-4 months of lockdown, to get labourers even if it means paying them higher wages and paying for their airfare.

"We made arrangements for private buses to get them all the way from West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. Due to the exodus our industry had also taken a hit," said a member of jeweller association based in Kalbadevi. Right now, with emergence of Covid-19, the labour situation is expected to again become crucial for projects," said the official.

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