Bikas Sardar, 34, has been working as a migrant labourer for more than 10 years. He is semi-literate and unskilled, and, therefore, Sardar never had the luxury of holding a permanent job at one particular location. Sardar went where the labour contractor took him. In the last four years, he has been working at construction and pipeline-laying sites in Bengaluru, Chennai, and Kolkata.
Before the coronavirus disease (Covid-19)-induced epidemic brought the economy to a halt and upended lives and livelihoods, Sardar was spending almost 10 months in a year in these cities, earning for his family of three —- his homemaker wife and two daughters —- who live in Sandeshkhali. The elder daughter, 7, is in Class 2 at a government school and her two-year-old sibling goes to the local anganwadi.
While staying away from his family has been a tough and lonely affair, Sardar had no other option. The family doesn’t own cultivable land, and even have a proper house. There are no government-sponsored jobs, such as the ones available in other parts of the state under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, in his village.
His life as a migrant labourer in these cities was harsh and unrelenting. Sardar would either stay with other migrant workers in shanties or sometimes his employer would provide rudimentary accommodation, which would usually be a shed for 10-15 people. But Sardar migrated every year because at least he could earn Rs 12,000 to 15,000 per month.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has now taken away whatever little financial cushion Sardar had, and the future now looks terrifyingly bleak. The journey from his workplace to his village was harrowing. Sardar, along with other migrant workers, boarded a crowded train and somehow reached Howrah. Then he took a bus Kalinagar. But Sardar is happy that he could reach home before the national lockdown was announced on March 24.
Sardar left his workplace in such a hurry that he could not take his salary from his employer who promised to electronically transfer it or send it through India Post (money order). But to date, he has not got a rupee. This sudden turn of events left him and his family with little money to buy essential food items and other miscellaneous stuff for the household.
Today, Sardar and his family are managing to survive because of the ration kit from Digambarpur Angikar, a partner organisation that works at the grassroots level with the support of Bharat Rural Livelihoods Foundation (BRLF).
The kit includes 8 kg atta, 1 kg black chana, 1.5 kg mixed dal, 1 kg mustard oil, 1 kg jaggery, four packets of masala and salt, two soaps, two packets of washing powder, and two packets of sanitary napkins, ensuring basic food security and sanitary needs.
“I was very stressed when I came back. But thanks to the kit, we are not going to be hungry,” he says. “I am feeling much relieved.” There is no government ration available in the area.
But Sardar is nervous about his future because he knows that he will not go back to his job very soon, and will have to look for something in and around his village. That means, Sardar says, his dream of sending his daughters to a good school, buying land for agriculture, and building a secure home for his family, will remain unfulfilled, at least for the next few years.