Penury and sickness at Rajasthan building sites
Sruthi Nair, Udaipur
The state of Rajasthan officially started a full fledged lockdown on May 10. But, unlike last year’s rushed and poorly thought-out lockdown, the state government allowed construction work to continue unimpeded.
This decision was in the right direction. The construction sector is the single largest employer of casual workers in the informal sector. However, the experiences of returnee migrants and local construction workers in and around rural Salumbar indicate this welcome step wasn’t thought through with due diligence.
Salumbar, a block in Udaipur district’s tribal belt, is a key region from where workers migrate to Ahmedabad and Surat. Although construction sites were allowed to function, paradoxically, sourcing raw material wasn’t quite so easy. Disrupted supply chains caused delays in sourcing and delivery, spiking prices and ultimately leading to shortages of material on worksites. All of which made work erratic. It was available one day but not the next.
One of many migrant workers returning to Salumbar, Velaram is desperately seeking work locally after the deadly second wave of the novel coronavirus struck Gujarat in April. His face, like many others, reflects anxiety and angst.
Even as both Rajasthan and Gujarat move towards easing lockdown restrictions, a considerable fraction of this group of returnee migrants is likely to stay back for as long as uncertainty prevails. The difficulties in finding work locally, a major factor fuelling migration, have grown worse since the lockdown.
The mazdoor naakas of Salumbar, tangible labour markets where workers line up each morning hoping to get hired, have been dismantled by the lockdown. Workers have to leverage their jaan-pehchaan with local contractors. This is not easy. Velaram, for instance, ordinarily migrates to Gujarat and doesn’t have local work connections.
For a skilled migrant worker returning from the city, like Shantilal from Jhallara block, the challenges are manifold. Few sites exist within his panchayat’s jurisdiction for the kind of specialized and higher paying work he does. For the few that do, there is a surfeit of labour.
Travelling to adjacent towns like Aaspur or Sabla, where there are usually more work opportunities, is prohibited since they fall within the boundaries of a different block and district. “Aaspur wale Aaspur mei, aur Jhallara wale Jhallara mei kaam karenge,” the police told Shantilal when they stopped him on his way to Aaspur where a local contractor and acquaintance had offered him a few days of work.
For the women of Salumbar, work is harder to find and out of reach. Men from villages can travel to worksites on their two-wheelers. This isn’t an option for women workers. In Salumbar and in the adjacent blocks of Jhallara and Sabla, it is adolescent girls and single women who seek work. Their absence from the few construction sites that continue to function in and around Salumbar is the most striking scene visually, underlining how worksites have been impacted.
Even as lockdown restrictions ease and barriers to mobility subside, it might still be a long time before women return to worksites. The local labour market, with its sharp reduction in available work, is overwhelmed by the return of migrant labourers who are now seeking work locally. In the 2020 lockdown, MGNREGA had absorbed large numbers of the region’s female workforce.
This year, the state government’s baffling move to halt MGNREGA work during the lockdown had briefly closed off that livelihood option as well. The state government eventually relented and restarted work. But there is a heavy supply-demand mismatch. Widespread delays in wage payment continue to weaken the potential of MGNREGA to emerge as a reliable fall-back option for the women workers of Salumbar.
What this loss of critical income means for female adolescent workers and single women, a group which is likely to hail from acutely vulnerable households, is yet to be seen. But, if what unfolded on the ground last year is a reliable reference point, indebtedness awaits many of these households, exacerbating the vulnerabilities that pushed groups like adolescent girls into an exploitative labour market in the first place.
The majority of migrants from Salumbar had returned home much before the lockdown, due to Holi festivities and the ongoing wedding season. Although they didn’t have to walk a hundred miles to get home this year, the migrant worker of today, financially ravaged by the first round of lockdown, is all the more vulnerable.
Despite their bitter experience of the lockdown last year, many were forced to return to the city due to the crippling debts they had accrued over the duration of the lockdown. While last year’s migrant exodus resulted in relief and aid being rushed to informal sector workers, this year such initiatives were missing. Migrant workers, rendered invisible during the second round of lockdown, are likely to be even more severely impacted than last year.
The recently harvested wheat crop provides some buffer for returnee migrant workers. Even as work becomes available, many are hesitant to take it up, fearing the virus or due to frustrations over rising instances of non-payment of wages.
Asked how they plan to make ends meet over the next few months, they pointed to the wheat harvested just before Holi. “There’s enough to use at home and sell,” claims Laxmibai of Ghated panchayat. Many, like her, seem confident of tiding over if they don’t find work.
Although every migrant and local worker in Salumbar is all too familiar with lockdowns, what is unprecedented this year is the virus ravaging rural communities with an intensity much higher than what’s been seen before. While there continues to be massive underreporting due to the lack of testing, existing data suggest that villages account for a staggering 50 percent of the total positive cases in Rajasthan. Other informal estimates at the grassroots indicate this number is much higher.
Primary health centres (PHCs) in the state have almost non-existent infrastructure for COVID patients requiring critical care. With bigger hospitals in distant cities overwhelmed by patients, referrals won’t work for the most vulnerable — a tribal migrant worker with few resources.
The returnee migrant worker in Salumbar then, has to fight two monsters at a time — the loss of livelihood and the deadly virus. A patient at a PHC run by Basic Healthcare Services, a local non-profit now working towards addressing the spread of COVID in rural Udaipur, only had one question when advised to self-isolate: “Who will bring food to the table if I stay home for the next 14 days?
Names of workers have been changed. Sruthi Nair is a fellow from the 2020 cohort of India Fellow Social Leadership Programme. As part of the fellowship, she’s currently working with Aajeevika Bureau in Salumbar. Aajeevika is a non-profit working with migrant workers in southern Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra