‘Q&A: Migrant Workers Are Faceless Part Of Our Daily Lives’

Award-winning filmmaker Vinod Kapri speaks about his book that documents movement of migrant workers amid lockdowns and his interaction with Danish Siddiqui

How did the idea of your book ‘1232 km: The Long Journey Home’ come about?

I am basically a film-maker and never thought of writing a book. When the first nationwide lockdown was announced in March 2020, I was expecting this kind of migration and discussed this with my journalist friends that the government was probably not aware of the problems of the daily wage labourers and this is going to be the biggest exodus. My fears came true. We saw millions of people on the road. Being a storyteller I felt I needed to document this journey.

During that time, the mainstream media, except a few, were focused on Tablighi Jamaat incident. I felt it was an injustice to these workers and thought I should be a part of one of the journey. I travelled with them for seven days on the trot, filming whatever I could. Back home, while I was editing the documentary, I realised it did not tell the complete story. It was then that I thought I should write a book because there were moments and feelings that the camera could not capture. That is how ‘1232 km: The Long Journey Homecame about.

What did you learn from this experience?

I would admit that I was not aware of the migrant labourers beyond the work they did. I knew nothing about their families and the challenges they go through staying away from home. After completing the journey with them, I realised the middle or the privileged class never really thought about these people who have been a part of their lives, run our society, build our cities, clean, cook, iron, do carpentry and plumbing work, operate lifts and guard our apartments. We don’t know anything about them their families, their villages. They are nameless and faceless. My journey completely changed that.

But for holding the mirror, you were heavily trolled on social media…

There are a few people whose job is to target, abuse or demoralise people holding the mirror. But largely, it is like a hit job for a political ideology. The trolling is very manufactured, targeted and organised syndication. Whenever we write something, post something in public domain, we are aware that a section of users will troll us, pull us down and try to play dirty, all lies. So it doesn’t really matter. You are not answerable to them. It is our duty to tell the truth and state the fact. To not speak up today means our future generation will be ashamed of us.  

When the second wave of Covid-19 started, I was on the field documenting it. I saw people dying in front of me, I was in and out of hospitals, at various cremation grounds, shamshan ghats for almost 32 days and covered it extensively. It shook me to see the suffering, the irreparable loss, relationship and emotions.

And you met Danish Siddiqui at one of those cremation spots… taking pictures that will later draw both anger and admiration.

I met Danish Siddiqui when he was taking photographs of the funeral pyres at a cremation ground in Seema Puri, at eastern border of Delhi. It was my only meeting with him and I was not aware that he is working with Reuters. We had a small conversation and I told him I was documenting the pandemic. He asked me for which platform was I working. To which I replied it is yet to be decided, and I was just shooting. I asked him what was he working for and he said he was just clicking.

His pictures did receive a lot of backlash. But imagine if that picture of Danish did not exist, how the world would come to know the ground reality. That picture created shivers in people’s mind. I agree partly that death is a solemn moment that needs privacy. But the issue of privacy is secondary when thousands are dying and the government is a mute spectator. The critics used religion to target Danish merely to hide the ground reality.

Danish lost his life in a warzone. Do you think journalists should draw a line…?

No one knows where to draw the line. We can’t predict our death. We may die due to a heart attack at home too. As a journalist, we should uncover the truth. That is the lakshman rekha we should not cross. For that if we end up losing our lives then be it; consider these as professional hazards that we have to face in the line of duty. Just the way frontline workers and doctors are losing their lives in this pandemic, they cannot choose to draw a line for their role…they have to go out and treat patients.

And holding those in power to account is your duty?

Absolutely. As a journalist and storyteller, we are considered as the fourth pillar of democracy and it is our right to question the government of the day, be it the BJP, the Congress or any other political group.

Interview by Mamta Sharma

‘Lockdowns, 1st Wave, 2nd Wave… Life Is Tough For Migrants’

Mohammad Manan, 25, a migrant worker who came to Delhi-NCR from Bihar, says he has survived so far but is worried about an impending third Covid wave

I came to Delhi- NCR nearly a decade ago for work. Supporting a family is no easy task but I was managing it fine until the pandemic struck.  Since then, things have gotten very confusing and uncertain. The recurring lockdowns, the first wave, the second wave, it is a difficult time for everyone.

After the first wave last year, we thought we had survived the virus. But then came the second wave and I had to return to my village Sonbarsha in Saharsa district (Bihar) to be with my ageing parents. Most migrant workers from the locality I live in left for their native places as they did during first lockdown. We braved the first wave, but the second wave was worse than the first, so we decided to leave.

Lockdowns have impacted everyone’s earnings, be it migrant workers like me or people who run businesses. Everyone has been worried about their job or business security. I went home in April and came back in June-end, so basically I stayed in Bihar for two months. I strained my savings to travel in Three-Tier AC in the train because I was worried about contracting the virus. After all I was going back to earn a living and couldn’t afford to fall sick as soon as I entered the city of my livelihood for so many years.

ALSO READ: No Country For Migrant Workers

When I reached Ghaziabad (NCR), unlock had begun and someone else had been hired in my place at the optical shop I worked for. I spent two weeks in agony not knowing what I would do for a living and applied at various places. A family of six is dependent on me. My wife works as a domestic help and supports the family, but in these times one needs to have enough savings. Kabhi medical help ki zaroorat ho to hamare pas hath me kuch paise hon (there should be reserve cash for medical situation).

Luckily I got my old job back. I wish there were work opportunities in my village too. Those two months I earned nothing.

Even though I have my old job back, predictions of a third wave has me worried. What will we do if it is even more dangerous than the second and the lockdown stricter and longer? So many business days that have gone waste. Every month I send some money to my parents and God forbid if anyone contracts the virus! I wish the government improves the healthcare facilities in rural areas and also figured out ways to support people who have lost their jobs or whose businesses were impacted.

Right now, we are just about managing somehow but my biggest strength is my wife’s optimism and courage. She says we need to take one day at a time, and be thankful for each day that we have survived. She says even though our position is shaky we can keep figuring out newer ways to earn. I have picked up some tailoring skills and do minor alterations etc and get paid for it.

So we believe God helps those who work hard. My workplace is around 15 minutes away from my home and I use my cycle to commute. Thank God I use a cycle, with the price of petrol shooting up continuously driving a bike is a costly affair.

As Told To Yog Maya Singh

‘Migrants Are Back But Afraid Of A Fresh Lockdown’

Mohammad Babul has returned to the labour colony in Greater Noida West a year after the lockdown was announced but the going is still tough, he tells LokMarg

We had a flourishing society before the lockdown was announced in March 2020. My extended family, which included my relatives and friends from my hometown in West Bengal, used to live here (labour colony, Gr Noida West) together and worked in close vicinity as construction labour.

The strength of this community unity saw us flourished. Life was comfortable. We never foresaw a situation that there would be a shortage of food or money as too many of us were always employed at one construction site or another at any given point of time.

But as the lockdown struck due to the coronavirus pandemic, we ran out of our livelihoods. After spending nearly a month without a job, all of us decided to return to our hometowns in West Bengal. Some went on foot for hundreds of kilometres till they hitched a ride on a truck or other transport; the luckier ones were sent home either in sanitised government vehicles or NGO-run buses.

ALSO READ: Migrant Crisis Will Haunt Modi Govt 2.0

We lived through the uncertain times and when the virus began to weaken, with nothing much worthwhile in our hometowns, some of us decided to return to Greater Noida to look for work in the hope that things must have returned to normal.

However, a number of my extended family members, including my sister and brother-in-law decided to hold back, and waited for my feedback if the situation were favourable for them to come back. Their apprehensions were right. Since I have returned here, it’s hard to find a job as the builders and the contractors have run out of money and their projects are still in a limbo.

Earlier, during pre-CoViD times, any daily wager in Noida-Greater Noida used to earn about ₹550 every day, but now we are hardly earning ₹400 a day. It is because although a large number of labourers have returned from Bengal, Purvanchal and other areas, the construction work has not resumed in proportional stead.

ALSO READ: Fearing Lockdown, Workers Return To Villages

There are lesser vacancies and more seekers for work in the locality of Greater Noida West. Thousands of high-rise apartments are being constructed in this area, but due to the consecutive lockdown, work at most of the projects has been halted. Threat of another lockdown is rife, uncertainty of losing the livelihood again looms large on the daily wagers.

That is why many of my extended family are reluctant to return. This is also taking a toll of our daily life. Since there are fewer family and friends, it’s hard to support each other during hard times as flow of money and food is limited. I just hope this pandemic ends soon so that our children don’t sleep hungry.

Watch – ‘No Money, No Food, No Work’

LokMarg speaks to a stream of migrant workers on their way home in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The dejected workers lament heartless employers and apathetic administrations. Yet, their resolve to reach their families remains firm as they brave the scorching sun, long distance to reach home.

‘I Sold My Phone To Buy A Rickshaw, Will Pedal To Bihar’

Having exhausted all options and resources, migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who are headed home on foot, share their ordeals

Pramod Kamat: “I lived in Rohini area of Delhi. We I heard that my 30-year-old brother died due to hunger at our village in Madhubani district during this lockdown, we decided to move. We went to the police station, seeking permission to go to our village. Police did not give us any permission. I was heavily beaten up by the police because they do not allow us to go in groups.

“I have purchased rickshaw at the cost of Rs 3,000 after selling my mobile phone. Along with my 65-year-old father and other members of my village, I have decided to pedal to the village. It is a tough journey but we will reach in three to four days. We do not have the money to purchase train tickets.”

Pramod’s father, Ganga Kamat: “I am pained for not being able to see my son for the last time. We were waiting for the lockdown to be lifted. It was extended again and again. We all became jobless. The landlord has asked us to vacate the rooms. We do not have money and food. Police spared me from the beating. However, they have severely beaten up my son and other people, who are going with us.”

ALSO READ: ‘Lockdown Has Turned Me Into A Beggar’

Bablu Kumar: “We had struck a deal for Rs 25,000 with a group of truck drivers to take us from here. We deposited Rs 15, 000 first. But he had cautioned us that he will only take us to as much as distance as the police will allow. At Noida border, police stopped the truck and asked us to come down. Truck drivers did not return the money.”

ALSO READ: ‘It Is Humiliating But I Accept Food For Kids’

Vishwanath: “I was living in Noida. The landlord has asked me to pay the rent or vacate the room. I do not have money as I became jobless after the lockdown. The company I was working with asked me not to come to work during the lockdown period.

“I get to know that the government has started a train for us, but we do not have any money to purchase the train tickets. If I get any job in my village, I will not come here. However, I doubt that I will get any work there in Bihar.”

Javed Ali: “I am a truck driver. I am going to Aligarh. Some of the migrants stuck in Yamuna Expressway are also going in the same direction. I have told them that I would drop them at Tappal. I am not charging any money from them. I am helping them on a humanitarian ground. ANI

‘Kids Were Moving With Sacks On Head. I Couldn’t Sleep’

Ajit Menon, a corporate leader, was moved by the TV footage of migrant families moving on foot post-lockdown. Menon shored up his resources to help the vulnerable workers, who he feels have built the NCR with sweat and toil

After the lockdown was announced, there was little for many of us to do at home except watch news channel for new updates. Most TV channels were showing how families of migrant workers in the National Capital Region had begun a mass exodus on foot to reach their hometowns. Some of these families lived hundreds of kilometers away but they felt reaching home was better than being stranded jobless in NCR.

The visuals of people walking with their children and womenfolk carrying sack-loads on their head were distressing. I couldn’t sleep that night; those pictures haunted me. The faces of the children, particularly, pricked my conscience.

ALSO READ: ‘They Built Our Homes, We Can’t Let Them Starve’

There was no question of sitting home and watch TV from the comfort of a lockdown. First thing the next morning, I drew up a list of my contacts from various work areas.  Over the decades of working in the corporate world, I have made friends with NGOs, social workers, social responsibility professionals and many in the government machinery. So, I began calling up these resources to assess our capabilities and limitations.

As the lockdown had been imposed, we had to find out a way out to help the labourers on the move and do it within the boundaries set by the law. It took some time to work out various logistics which included: 1) areas where most migrants had been stranded; 2) their immediate requirements; 3) procurement of the essentials required for distribution and; 4) finally the distribution and revision of the process.

ALSO READ: ‘I Got Fired. Don’t Know How I’ll Pay EMIs’

So, we identified several areas with high density of stranded migrant workers in Delhi and Greater Noida with the help of various social organisations who were already on the ground.

We then created the survival ration kits. Thus, each of the ration pack would carry 3KG of rice and wheat flour, lentils, potatoes, oil and spices. This packet would be enough for a family of four to survive for a week. We marked all the recipients to ensure that we refill their ration supply right after a week.

We expected the lockdown continue for a long haul and we were proved right when it was extended for the third time from May 4 onward. But we are fully prepared to distribute more ration till the lockdown ends. I can only request people who have enough money to donate dry ration to the needy; it’s time for the privileged to help those who built our houses, roads and everything that we see around us.

ALSO READ: ‘It Is Humiliating But I Accept Food For Kids’

I can rewind that the first influx of migrant labourers came to Delhi-NCR when the city went for a makeover ahead of 1982 Asian Games. Many of these workers came from Eastern UP and Bihar. The flyovers, wide roads, bridges and glass-concrete buildings that we see as pride of NCR have been built by the blood and sweat of these migrant labourers. We owe them a lot more than a few packets of weekly ration. I feel bad that I woke up late to the situation and many families left on foot to their hometowns but I am duty-bound to stop as many as I can from leaving the city now by ensure food and essentials to those whom I can.

Before I finish, I must share that a few among our team of volunteers clicked a photographs of the family which had received the packet of dry ration. When I saw the picture and the look on the face of the family, it brought both tears and joy. That moment will remain engraved on my memory. I felt as if I achieved much bigger than what money and material success can give you.

The Invisible Indians In Pandemics

Classical literature and cinema are full of stories about stoic and steadfast human struggles against poverty, homelessness, displacement and hunger; as much as the ritualistic tragedy, and the inevitable defeat of humanity and humanism. So how does the life unfold as cinema and literature, tragic as it is, in the time of lockdown and pandemic?

You may read Munshi Premchand’s Sadgati, among others. You may read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Poor People. Or else, you can simply watch three classics in black & white of our turbulent times: Do Bigha Zameen by Bimal Roy, about a landless farmer’s ordeal in Calcutta; Bicycle Thieves by Vittorio de Sica in war-torn Rome; and, of course, Pather Panchali by Satyajit Ray and written by Bibhutibhushan Bondopadhyay. In the last shot of Ray’s first film, abject poverty forces a poor Brahmin family into exile; their migration begins on a bullock cart, even as a snake slithers into their abandoned ‘home’.

ALSO READ: ‘I Want To Go Home, Uncertainty Here Is Killing’

For those who might find ‘this kind of cinema’ unpalatable and unnerving,  there is Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin, set up in the backdrop of the Great Depression in Europe, where hunger, homelessness and poverty stalked the continent, even as the seeds were being sown for the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy. And, while, you might laugh, and roll down with amusement, you might actually observe that the underlying theme is really not so comic! Not only does this film anticipate the ‘big brother is watching’ and Doublespeak syndrome, the Surveillance State and the ruthless capitalist machine in another epical classic penned by George Orwell – ‘1984’, it actually graphically depicts the mass unemployment stalking thousands of workers and the sheer brutality of the mechanical machine.

In one interesting scene, a bumbling Chaplin, as usual enjoying himself thoroughly, is being chased by a bunch of utterly bumbling cops. So he falls into a gutter. As he emerges from the gutter he finds himself at the vanguard of a worker’s march on the streets. He quickly picks up a red flag and starts marching right in front – as if he is the leader. In fact, he too is a jobless worker, a citizen in exile, a condemned nobody, in a general realm of utter despair.

ALSO READ: ‘Lockdown Has Turned Me Into A Beggar’

Cut to the present scenario in urban India.

In a dark irony, the real life parallel cinema has gone ‘viral’ at several crossroads in present times, even during the emptiness and helplessness of the lockdown. It’s mostly about poverty, hunger, homelessness and migration. And it stalks about 40 crore unorganized workers in the vast, sprawling and unaccountable informal sector of India, employing as many as 93 per cent of the workforce, who are virtually invisible and ghettoized, practically without any fundamental or trade union rights, no health insurance, no maternity leave, no provident fund, just about nothing. Half of them are women, and a majority of them are Dalits and most backward classes/castes. They are basically outside the market, except as ‘free labour’, and Indian citizens outside the directive principles of the Indian Constitution.

Tens of thousands of them started marching soon after the Prime Minister’s second 8 pm monologue, with just about three hours given as time in the thick of night to restore normalcy in life and to organize and plan ahead. Most of them had no option since they were thrown out of their homes and jobs, and their day-to-day life of basic, minimum subsistence outside all social security schemes or a future.

ALSO READ: Who Is Afraid Of Lifting The Lockdown?

So, while swanky cars zipped past them, and people watched this Reality TV from high-rise balconies on expressways, the poor started walking to unknown destinations from where had migrated to look for work, many of them barefoot, children in tow, often sharing the burden. It was the long march, from here to eternity, under a scorching sun; hungry and thirsty women, mothers, children, walking along.

The Prime Minister’s unplanned and rather insensitive lockdown anouncement had failed for the whole world to see. The virus was all over the place, in human exodus and exile, in mass migration, in the sheer mass tragedy unfolding on the streets and highways.

A girl posted on social media that she stopped her car and asked a family moving on foot if they needed anything: biscuits, water? A young couple with two little ones. The woman is holding a sack on her head with her belongings – the sack has a name – ‘Santushti’. The man is holding a larger sack on his head – it too has a name, ‘Good Times’ or acche din. The woman smiled with gratitude, and said, “Nahi didi, hamare paas abhi toh hain. Aap kisi aur ko de dena…” (No sister, we have food as of now. You give it to someone else.)

Hundreds of workers who were not allowed to march, found shelter on the banks of a dirty Yamuna in the capital of India in recent times, not far from the citadels of power, under a concrete flyover.  Most of them have not got even one meal a day; and they have no work, no money, nowhere to go. They are trapped, even as NGOs, students, good citizens try to reach out. There are innumerable and scattered stories about the fate of these invisible men and women across the cities in India, especially around industrial zones and townships.

In Surat, there have been repeated and angry pitched battles of the workers with the cops. This is the textile hub of India, apart from its famous diamond industry. Surat is in crisis anyway since demonitisation and GST, with its small scale industry in a black hole. And they were/are all die-hard Modi supporters.

In Bombay, hundreds of workers came out, without any bag or luggage, at Bandra railway station, saying that they just want to go home, that life here is just not livable, that there is no hope left now. Thankfully, the cops did not beat them up, though FIRs have been lodged against scores, including a ‘trade union’ leader who gave a call to the workers to hit the streets near the Bandra railway station. Indeed, not to miss another diabolical and sinister chance, the usual ‘Hindutva’ TV channels quickly found a reason to give it a communal dimension, just because there was a masjid close by. They did not even bother to check if the masjid was actually providing food to the workers.

A reporter with a TV channel too has been arrested for giving the fake news that special trains will take the jobless workers to their native places. Indeed, with the kind of fake news circulating all over, like an epidemic of sorts, especially by the same TV channels compulsively, obsessively and without an iota or concern for media ethics, it is anybody’s guess why they are not being hauled up.

Surely, there are stories within stories. It’s a Do Bigha Zameen for the unwashed masses, yet again. Surely, in this Pather Panchali, the Song of the Road, there is neither melody, nor joy.