First Covid, now hunger, Bhagalpur migrants start packing — again

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Written by Dipankar Ghose | Published: June 28, 2020 4:34:02 am

The panchayat building in Bhulni lies locked. Dipankar Ghose

They had dreamt of Bhulni. Their green fields, mango trees and families. It is what kept them going even as hungry in the special trains, or on the back of trucks, for days and nights. But now that they are here, that dream is falling apart, infected by reality. Bihar’s villages have no work, no sustenance. It was why they left. And it is why, despite the yearning to be home at a time of crisis, they will have to leave again.

With 63,962 returning migrants, a rising Covid curve, and a town full of aspirations, Bhagalpur is a microcosm of Bihar — where the system is tottering under the weight of numbers and the scale of unemployment.

Bhagalpur is also the focus of a month-long assignment by The Sunday Express to track how lives and livelihoods in smalltown India are coping with the unlockdown.

In a small courtyard in Bhulni panchayat’s Mehesleti village, 20 men share their stories, each echoing the other. No one wears a mask, and social distancing has been thrown to the wind, even though the district, with 430 cases, is second in the state behind Patna, with 557. There are no officials to check, and the residents themselves gave up long ago. Here, fear of the virus has been replaced by fear of hunger.

Rakesh Ranjan Singh left home during his teens in 2004. He was last in Andhra Pradesh’s Kurnool, earning Rs 400 as a daily wage labourer. “I got back by train in the middle of May, and was told by officials that I would get a job. They registered my name at the railway station, and the Hajipur quarantine centre. It has been a month, and there is no work,” he says.

So far, all that he has received is a message on his small feature phone: a number and a message of congratulations, saying he has been registered with the Industries Department. “What do I do with this message?” Singh asks.

Over the past month, Mehesleti has seen promises made on TV, in newspapers, and on WhatsApp for those with smartphones. They read that the state would give Rs 1,000 to returning migrants under a Corona Sahayata scheme, or that MNREGA would be expanded. But not one of them has received the money, or a rural job card. The refrain: “Where will we go to ask? Everything is shut.”

About a kilometre away, the walls of the panchayat building in Chara Badgaon village are freshly painted in yellow, and the trees around show signs of manicure. The foundation stones proclaim that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar inaugurated the building on January 9, 2020. But by May, parts of the block were used as a quarantine centre which, like many others in Bihar, was shut by June 15.

At 11.30 am on a bright morning last week, there was a lock on the Panchayat Bhavan. Inside a complaint box was a pack of torn playing cards. Across a newly built pond, an MNREGA bhavan was open, and manned by Sharan Dev Singh, who identified himself as a “pratinidhi”.

He said MNREGA work was on the rise, but didn’t have the numbers. In front of him, four labourers were digging up dirt for the pond. They were MNREGA workers who had never left the village.

In Bhagalpur, the number of households that worked under MGNREGA declined to 40,118 in May this year in comparison to 43,431 during the same month last year. The number of persondays generated, too, came down to 7.55 lakh against last year’s 9.16 lakh.

In the absence of work, conversation turns to the future. Anil Singh earned Rs 600 a day as a mason in Delhi. More than a month ago, he paid Rs 3,500 to be one of 70 people, squashed in the back of a truck for three nights and two days. He ate one packet of biscuits and six bananas over that time. But now? “Chori karenge (We will steal),” he says, half in jest, half in pain. Then, his eyes begin to well up, “They say soil is gold here. Is the soil more fertile in Punjab than here? There, they put up industries. Here, they put up nothing.”

There is comfort in family, and the fields provide some food. Yet, the residents are buying fewer soap bars and lesser salt; fewer vegetables and no fruit; and, no shampoo. “There is also the weight of debt,” says Diwakar Kumar who worked in Rajkot, and has taken a Rs 50,000 advance on his salary. Others have taken from Rs 4,000 to Rs 5000 from their employers.

For now, these are loans interest-free. “But if there is a medical problem, or something else, where will the money come from? The mahajans (money lenders) will give you money at an interest of five per cent per month. Nobody survives that,” says a resident.

“We must go back to our jobs and earn,” he says. Rakesh Ranjan Singh and Kailash Prasad will stay for a month, until paddy transplantation is over. Some others will hold out till “Chhat Puja”, and perhaps the state elections. But Ranjit, 21, is clear: “I will leave soon.” He worked in an advertising company in Ranchi, fixing billboards. “The company owes me Rs 15,000, and I am afraid I will lose that money,” he says. He is afraid of Covid, too. And when he had set off for his village on a motorcycle, he was beaten by policemen, several times, he says. “All I want is to stay home and work here. But I can’t. Every day, I tell myself, I will leave tomorrow.”

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