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In 2020, India suddenly went into a national lockdown without advance planning or adequate government support. This led to a humanitarian crisis in addition to the COVID-19 public health emergency. Millions of jobs disappeared, and hunger was a serious issue. Tens of millions of migrant workers struggled to get home – often on foot – and many died attempting the journey. In this episode, we bring you Gulzar, a migrant worker who left his village as a child and traveled across the country to earn money to support his family.
Image Caption: Indian migrant workers flee during the 2020 national lockdown
Image Credit: Re:Work Radio, a project of the UCLA Labor Center
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Writer, Producer, Engineer: Veena Hampapur, Saba Waheed, Inayat Sabhikhi, and Vaishnavi Nathan from Re:Work Radio, a project of the UCLA Labor Center English Voiceover: Shawn K. Jain The Making Contact Team
Writer, Producer, Engineer: Veena Hampapur, Saba Waheed, Inayat Sabhikhi, and Vaishnavi Nathan from Re:Work Radio, a project of the UCLA Labor Center
English Voiceover: Shawn K. Jain
The Making Contact Team
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Monica [00:00:08] This week on Making Contact… When India went into its first lockdown, millions of jobs disappeared and tens of millions of migrant workers struggled to get home, often on foot. Many died attempting the journey. This is Muhammad Gulzar’s story.
Gulzar [00:00:36] Everyone supports the big time someone should support the small team. If there is a fight between an elephant and a good for sure, the good will die. It is, however, better to support the good someone is behind it to. The kind of mind I have, I like the thing that is at the lowest level. Do you understand if there is a poor man among Richmond, then I will choose that Boorman. The poor has no money that I know, but his heart is very strong. Whatever condition he is in, he will say, yes, you will get it done. This is the system.
Saba [00:01:13] From the UCLA Labor Center, we bring you rework. I am Saba Waheed.
Veena [00:01:19] And I’m Veena Hampapur.
Saba [00:01:25] We all kind of moved into this unknown period when COVID first began, and it really brought out how many of our infrastructures were really weak and then kind of looking at just the impact of those same conditions in other parts of the world.
Veena [00:01:44] You were reminded that this is a global situation, we’re tied to people around the world because of this pandemic. For me, there is a big disconnect when we started to see the news about how bad it was with COVID in India. It was at the same time that things were getting better here in the U.S., I ate a friend’s dad who lives in India, who called it the devil’s Diwali. Diwali is the festival of lights, normally a time of hope and new beginnings. And in this case, he was referring to the fire of the cremations. And I’m referring to the second wave of COVID earlier in 2021. But of course, there were widespread hardships due to COVID well before in 2020, India’s national lockdown led to millions of jobs disappearing pretty much overnight. There were issues with hunger and food deprivation, a lack of access to health care and a lack of government support.
Saba [00:02:46] We were reached out by an organizer named Inayat Sadiki, who really wanted to highlight the story of migrant workers, particularly who were impacted by COVID.
Veena [00:02:59] In this episode, we bring you the story of a migrant worker in India named Gulzar, and I conducted the interview along with Vaishnavi Nathan from Swan, the Stranded Workers Action Network.
Gulzar [00:03:23] My name is Muhammad Gulzar and I’m 24 years old. I am from Jarkhand. My village is Manjot Boozer District Goda Block by Santry. But I grew up mostly in Mumbai.
Veena [00:03:35] Gulzar is from a state in eastern India that is mostly rural, and about 40 percent of its population is living below the poverty line. Job options are limited, and most families have at least one member who migrates to the city for informal manual labor.
Gulzar [00:03:52] When I was growing up, the situation was very grim for many people in my village. I did not get that much food to eat and I suffered, and these days it’s even worse. These days, children go around asking villagers for dinner in the evening. Every day they come to my home and they take the food and eat. Ever since I could remember there was only one school and there was also only one doctor named who said people came there from far away to get treatment from him. So you can imagine the condition there when there is only one school for 20 to 25 villages and one doctor for 30 to 40 villages.
Saba [00:04:31] It’s really hot in Gulzar village, reaching over 100 degrees in the summer.
Gulzar [00:04:37] I have bound my house with the Flex. It is a blue plastic material that is used for walls and the roof. Then on top of that, we put dried rice stalks basically the haystacks, which are soft material in the mud house. It stays cool in the summer. Some people live their whole life with air conditioner. How do the villagers live their lives without even a van?
Saba [00:05:04] Gulzar really wanted to go to school.
Gulzar [00:05:18] I have never gone to school because I could not afford the school fees for enrollment. The money situation at home was very bad. From where would we get the money? Only those who are connected to politicians or our teachers son have the ability to study. These days, everyone here has privately opened up their own schools to attend, it will cost 3000 rupees a month, which poor man can afford three thousand rupees?
Veena [00:05:46] Gulzar realized at a really young age that school was not going to be an option for him. And he realized instead that it was important to work and earn money for his family.
Saba [00:05:56] In India, there’s about half a billion migrant workers, and about 60 million of them often have to cross to other parts of the country crossover states in order to find work.
Gulzar [00:06:14] I have been working since my childhood since around 12 to 13 years old. At that time, I used to bathe naked in the Hajji Ali mosque. That’s how young I was when I went to Mumbai to work. My grandfather had not been letting me leave our village to work. He said, Keep him here for education. But I understood that I could not study if I did not have money. So I went away from home despite his objections. No family wants their relatives to leave the village and go far away to work, but it is a must.
Saba [00:06:56] Mumbai is one of the largest cities in India. It’s a hub of commercial activity. It’s home to Bollywood and all of its movie stars. And when Gulzar finds work there, he’s earning less than a dollar a day.
Gulzar [00:07:22] We had learned a bit of embroidery in the village, so we went to try clothes designing work. We worked from 8:30 in the morning to 11 pm. Whatever time remained after that, I use that time to learn the work. They paid 35 rupees per day. Then many such factories were closed and ceased to exist. So we started doing manual labor. Someone told us that you could earn more money and Goa. So we went to Goa and started taking up labor drops from the market. Suppose you need two workers, then you will go to the labor market and hire two people. Did inquire Gulzar. I need two guys. Would you come? Do you have any job in hand right now? This is how I find jobs. The contractor I work with on this job isn’t going to keep me once I finish that job, then I’ll have to look for a job someplace else again and so on. We don’t have any regular employment. There is not a 20 year contract to work in one place, only. No. Sometimes we’re here. Sometimes it means we have lots of friends. Maybe no one will have more friends than me in India because it keeps changing for us. Work anywhere, work as long as you can. And then when you’re done, look for another place. This is the way it works. It means our life was running after money. We don’t get tired if we get tired who do this work. We continue to work during the day at night because we are now adopted that way. If the naptime is about good, if the meal breaks are out, good, if not, then we work without eating as well.
Veena [00:09:03] Gulzar had to move around a lot for work every time he got a new job that meant making new friends potentially moving to a different city.
Saba [00:09:12] The conditions of work could really vary depending on, you know, who he is working for and how they treated their workers.
Gulzar [00:09:23] I actually don’t like any job I do. There was just one that I liked in a remote area of Goa. They used to do their business with mustard seeds and harvest a lot of crops. Those people were good. They had a separate room for eating sort of like a dining room. But it was a cabin and there were chairs and tables with slabs and benches around it along the walls. So if any worker comes, he could sit there and eat comfortably and take a short nap. There was a good arrangement for drinking water as well. They used to order a 20 liter jar of mystery, even if there were just a couple of workers working there. How much water would just the two guys consume in the entire day if they used to keep that covered? If there was no more water than they used to pay and ask the guy to bring some over? They never used to complain, either. But the job in such places doesn’t last long. That’s the problem. I worked there for eight days. Then the job was over.
Veena [00:10:21] Gulzar constantly faced a disconnect. You know, he was moving around for work and he was away from his family. He’d keep making new friends wherever he went. He’d meet new people at his jobs. And then he also felt a disconnect with home because people who had never left the village didn’t understand the hardships he faced working in the city.
Gulzar [00:10:55] When I go to Mumbai or Goa life there, it’s very empty. The problem is that I have no one close to me. For example, let’s say that I’ve gotten a headache and I have to go to the doctor and no one can take me. No one can massage my head because no one is there at such times. I really miss home. If I plan to return home for one month, I have to arrange for a month’s earnings beforehand, and after that, I have to set aside money for the ticket to return to the city. This is how life is right now. For those who have never left the village, they think that I lead an easy and comfortable life. I showed them the videos I took. I say, See this, look at my condition there, see how I have to work in the sun. What sort of work I have to do. I say to them, No place is better than here.
Saba [00:11:51] They sometimes think about how labor leaders are made, and it’s sometimes that the conditions of the work propel you forward to become a leader that suddenly is willing to fight for not just your own rights, but the rights of those around you.
Gulzar [00:12:24] This interest to fight for the rights of workers started from the days when I was in Mumbai. Our boss said to one of the boys that you pay the money on Friday. When the guy went to collect the money on Friday, the boss said, Are you an idiot? I didn’t mean this Friday. The guy came back to me with this and narrated it all. So I sent him back and told him to ask the boss to specify which day of the week, what month, what date and what year he means. I also asked him to confirm the time and if that time is in the morning or night, or else he would again fool us when he went there to ask all this. The boss didn’t pay anyone. The time of need is important, and you can imagine what it’s like if we don’t get the money and are not able to send money back to our homes, especially those who have kids.
Veena [00:13:13] So it is a major holiday for Muslims, right? And Gulzar was really upset at the thought of kids not having anything for Eve. I mean, he’s the type of person who will buy children’s sweets in the marketplace if they come up to him, and so he was determined to get this contractor to pay.
Gulzar [00:13:30] I called for a strike of all the workers. No one should work until he pays our wages. When this happened, the boss called me and said the manager at work had informed him that I had caused a strike. I said, See here, sir, we all have families. Other people are dependent on us, so please pay us all of our wages. He said, Why are you bothering about other people’s money? I’ll pay you yours. You take the money and close the matter. I said, I won’t take a single penny from you unless you pay us all. The talks went on like this, so I was kind of losing my temper. He threatened to call the goons. I said, Please go ahead, call them, call all the Daunte’s for Mumbai. I don’t care. Then he just left, and at night he paid us all after he paid everyone. I told the others that whoever has been paid should leave this job and go, I don’t like when someone has their money blocked. It’s not free money. He has worked hard to earn it, you know?
Saba [00:14:26] So something that Gulzar had noticed and experienced himself was that police are regularly harassing and intimidating people who come from the villages and are doing migrant work.
Gulzar [00:14:40] I’ll tell you an incident that happened one night. Some friends around 13 of us had gone for a stroll near the Taj Hotel. Armed guards and policemen surrounded us with their guns. They arrested us and said it will cost you 50000 each to bail you all out. Call your boss. Then I called modernizer who came along and got us all bailed out. They let us go because he was a person with higher connections. I met him in the factory where I used to work, and he used to stay in that area. I don’t know what he liked about me, but he started looking after me and fed me.
News Clip 1 [00:15:16] They were the backbone of the big city economy, rendered worthless and weightless following the lockdown. They became the worst affected ones in this crisis. Yeah, I’ve got a job there. Oh, look what is on. I’ve got another thing
Veena [00:15:34] as of this recording, there are 32 million COVID cases in India, and many sources say that this is a massive undercount.
News Clip 2 [00:15:41] 300 migrant workers were found trying to cross the border between the states of Telangana and Maharashtra, and two container trucks and temperatures of nearly 40 degrees. A lockdown without any planning for India’s millions of migrant workers and daily wage earners has led to a humanitarian emergency even before a health crisis
Saba [00:16:03] when the lockdowns happened last year. There was no preparation. Basically everything shut down, and all these migrant workers were left stranded.
News Clip 3 [00:16:16] Fact that medical crisis became a humanitarian crisis tells us a lot about the kind of institutions that we
News Clip 2 [00:16:25] have as weeks of lockdown rolled into months. Many were forced to walk hundreds of miles to their villages. Some even died along the way with a large population. It could take years for India to get a grip on the virus.
Saba [00:16:41] What we had was this mass migration of people going often on foot trying to get back home.
Veena [00:16:48] I really want to emphasize here this is a lot of people. The mass migration that occurred after the first lockdown is unlike anything India has seen since the 1947 partition. And one of the biggest problems that people were facing in this time was hunger.
Gulzar [00:17:13] No one from the nearby houses would give us water. They were scared that they might get COVID from us as we were laborers roaming around. The last job I had in Goa was laying electricity cables. After that, the police weren’t allowing us to go to work. This was even before the lockdown was issued. The present Goa government is quite bad. They had not arranged to help us, and so we had to starve in the last lockdown there.
Gulzar [00:17:45] with the second COVID wave. I thought it would be better for me to return to my hometown. Whatever the conditions, at least I’ll be with my family and we went to the train station to return home. They asked for our train ticket. They said, Take the ticket for Mr Modi, the prime minister. If there’s no work and no one is getting paid, then how could we pay to get home? The government should let us ride the trains for free. The policemen finally said go without a ticket. He thinks that if we leave from here, they’ll be safe from coronavirus. That’s why he’s loading everyone onto the train election.
Gulzar [00:18:36] via you without a date. We said we will not pay the fine. Take everyone to jail will like it. There will be comfortable. Where will they go with 35 people? Does the government have money to feed us all? So they let us go and we returned home. I had to spend some money on the bus line because it was a private, non-government bus.
Saba [00:18:58] When we started this story, Gulzar, his village was already confronting hunger and poverty, and that only just got worse during COVID. Now we have hardships layered on hardship because all of these workers have come back home, have lost income. The villages themselves have lost incoming money from the cities. And then on top of that, you also have COVID and the public health crisis.
Gulzar [00:19:28] There are just too many cases of COVID in my village. I don’t know how this has happened. No one is going anywhere. Every day, we have at least four to five people passing away due to COVID. The morale and the spirit of the people are quite low at this time. This is the condition of every household in 2021.
Veena [00:19:46] Migrant worker distress has really been underplayed, and they haven’t received any assistance,
Gulzar [00:19:56] the previous lockdown last year, when we all returned home, there was some work available. Even then, the wage rate was only 194 rupees a day. If people with salaries of 50 or 70000 are finding it difficult to manage, then how can the labor and farmer manage with 194 rupees? They are human beings, too. Now, even that work is not available. See, I understand that issuing a lockdown is important and everything should shut down. But before doing so, the Indian government should first consider poor people who earn their bread on a daily basis. For them, food is the priority. If we didn’t have to worry about food, then I wouldn’t mind such a lockdown
Gulzar [00:20:45] Well, they go on tours, they go to America. They spend crores of rupees. The politicians go for vacations, they spend on the cars, save it all and give to the poor and needy, right? What’s the need to go on vacation now? For them, that doesn’t break the country’s budget, but helping the poor does. This system here is not right. Do you think about the daily wage earning labor? What will he do? What does he think about him? I can bear it. I remained hungry for two days during the last lockdown. I fed others. Some do not have the capacity to face it. I am thinking that after it, I must go somewhere by the 20th because there’s no work here at all. If I don’t go, all the food and life at my house will stop. For sure, this is our life hand-to-mouth.
Saba [00:21:39] Especially when there’s often the lack of government infrastructure and support non-governmental organizations come in and, you know, not only filled the gap but actually bring the visibility that we all need to understand what’s happening. So it was really amazing to see an NGO like the Stranded Workers Action Network building leadership of the stranded workers themselves.
Veena [00:22:09] A lot of the volunteers at Swann were largely from Sydney’s upper caste upper class, and they were connecting with the migrant workers themselves and sharing access to resources and information. Swan has fundraised and provided immediate cash relief. It’s recorded experiences of workers which drove advocacy efforts, and it set up a fellowship for invested workers like Gulzar.
Saba [00:22:32] Crisis can also create networks and community building, and you can really see that in the work that Gulzar started to do with swine.
Gulzar [00:22:45] There’s no guarantee on how many more days you leave in on top of that in these days of the pandemic. There’s no guarantee of anyone’s life, so this fellowship interests me a lot and provides a lot of knowledge. See, when you listen to multiple people, you think of things you never had thought of before. For people have a heart, but not the rich, but if they join Swan, they’ll come to know what the world is and what humanity is. They’ll change and reform.
Veena [00:23:13] Swan had a health plan and through that they were able to hear what migrant worker needs were.
Saba [00:23:19] You know, many of them had barely two days of food rations left when they were calling. Some of them hadn’t gotten paid
Veena [00:23:28] and the majority had at most 200 rupees in their pocket.
Gulzar [00:23:40] I feel that Swan should go on forever. If someone is in distress, they supply them with some rations, some food items or arrange for some money. Otherwise, it’s a tough situation out there that this group should be registered as a government fund so that we’ll get money to run it. For example, there are so many dying in this pandemic, and there’s no money for treatment when one is alive and then there is no money for cremation after someone dies. We could invest money for such causes to help those in financial distress.
Saba [00:24:08] We saw both the chaos and crisis of the shutdowns. And so what do you think about at that point?
Gulzar [00:24:22] have dreams, but they will never get fulfilled? What should we dream about? What we can think about is when the condition and Goa improves. I will buy a ticket, sit on the train for four days, earn some money and my family will eat at home. That’s it. That’s it for dreams from people like me. If someone told me that they could turn me into anything that I wanted to be, I would try to become a police officer. I would purge the entire corrupt system. There’s a liquor shop about a kilometer away from where I stand. There’s a crowd there, given any time of the day or night. The police don’t see a corona threat there. If some guy goes out on his bicycle to earn a living, to sell some groceries or vegetables and a policeman sees him, they’ll stop him. Then they’ll throw his vegetables away, break his cycle, take all his money and leave. So if I ever get a chance of being a police officer, for sure. I want to cure the system.
Veena [00:25:23] You know, it’s easy to forget how young Gulzar is given everything that he’s gone through. He’s only 24 years old. And for him, the worrying just doesn’t stop.
Gulzar [00:25:36] I have a family of 10 to 12 people dependent on me. If this lockdown continues, even for another three months or six months, then what happens to me? Daily wage earners like me, everyone knows that I can eat when I work. I have no savings or extra money. What happens to someone who’s even poorer than me?
Veena [00:25:56] Gulzar brings up so many issues that involved COVID and go beyond it. It’s not just about the pandemic, it’s also how that impacts being able to work. Being able to work impacts having food to put in your stomach. And he also mentions the mental and emotional stress that puts on caregivers and also the kids who don’t have access to food shortages.
Gulzar [00:26:24] Imagine to her the kids in my family, they won’t understand that there’s nothing left to eat in the house or that my father doesn’t have any money to buy food. You keep crying and asking for food, and their parents won’t be able to deal with this, that they can’t feed their kids. And in such a stressful fit, they may do something terrible with their lives. There was a woman who set herself up these and died of burn wounds. A child, he was demanding food from where she could have arranged for food. So this could happen, right, if this lockdown continues for three, four months. When the breadwinner for the House passes away, how does his house of six to seven family members leave? No one has a job. You, you yourself think about it, who can take care of them?
Saba [00:27:15] You know, whether we’re thinking about the global pandemic or the global economy or the global impact of climate change, how to nurture more of the fact that we are a global community, how can us by understanding that what happens here has a huge impact on what’s happening over there? How can we better work off of those connections
Gulzar [00:27:49] Look around the world. Everyone only thinks about poor people in poverty, but no one does anything much for them. These political leaders, they always promise that everything will improve later. After listening to my story, if someone who has heard me tries to take action or is a part of the system himself and improves his work and makes others improve their work, then it will lead to some justice. If I want to break the wall, mere thinking is not going to break it. I’ll have to work hard. Then it will break.
Monica [00:28:33] You were just listening to Stranded, Muhammad Gulzar story on Making Contact. It was produced by Saba Waheed and Veena Hampapur from Re:Work Radio. For a full list of credits and info about the Stranded Workers Action Network. Go to our website at Radio Project dot org. Until next time, I’m Monica Lopez.
Veena [00:28:54] Thanks for listening to Making Contact.