Over 2,000 migrants from Srikakulam district work as daily wage labourers in the booming construction industry of Hyderabad narrates the ordeal of sorrow and hunger. No government or public representatives reached yet to feed them properly.

“Our bags had already been packed by evening of April 13 in the hope of catching the earliest bus leaving for Srikakulam,” said 40-year old Mukunda Rao, recollecting the mood of 200 migrants, all from Srikakulam district. They were expecting for the lockdown to be lifted on April 14.

However, shortly after the extension of the lockdown to May 3, Rao, alongwith 150 other labourers set off on foot to their villages in Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh, 700 kilometres away. They were lucky to get an empty truck. However, as they approached Uppal highway, the police flagged them down and after a two-hour negotiation, sent them back to their single-room rented accommodations in East Marredpally.

Over 2,000 migrants from Srikakulam district work as daily wage labourers in the booming construction industry of Hyderabad. Some are masons, while others do tile laying, plastering, painting, and electrical wiring. They hail mainly from Tekkali, Nandigam, Santabommali, Kotabommali, Patapatnam and Palasa villages in Srikakulam; and rent one-room tenements in East and West Marredpally areas of Secunderabad for Rs 3,500 to 4,000 rent. Every day, they go to the labour adda in the morning, are picked up for work anywhere in the city. But since the lockdown on March 22, their livelihood has been put in jeopardy.

*No income, cannot go back home*
“We came here to earn and support our families back home. Now they are compelled to borrow at high interest and support us!” said Chiranjeevi, a young man in his twenties, who works as a mason and earns Rs 800-900 per day. Chiranjeevi, Rao’s cousin, has studied up to intermediate and has been in Secunderabad for the last five years, going home only for special occasions. “It is better for us to go back to the village. We also have to help in farm work back home now,” he added. His wedding, which was to be held on April 25, has now been postponed too.

Rao meanwhile, worked as a mason, and together with his wife who was an unskilled daily wager, earned around Rs 25,000 rupees in a good month. “There’s no shortage of work throughout the year. But with construction work being halted, we’ve had no work come our way for nearly a month,” explained Rao. His wife and he were eager to return to their two children who are in Santabommali village in Srikakulam with their elderly parents.

Unlike the thekedars or builders whom the government asked to support the labourers affiliated to them with cash and/or ration, the skilled Srikakulam labourers were practically left holding their implements as their livelihood meant being picked up work from the labour adda, where each day’s work is with a different contractor.

Most labourers come to work in Hyderabad and Secunderabad as seasonal migrants for eight months in a year, and they return with Rs 1.5 lakh earnings on average, said Avala Khagesh, president of the year-old Greater Hyderabad Outside Gova Union. Gova means scaffolding in the local language.

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Khagesh said that roughly three lakh labourers from Andhra Pradesh are working in the twin cities of Hyderabad-Secunderabad as per the estimates from the union’s 12 branches across the city. Wards five and six of Marredpally area of Secunderabad have 2,700 Srikakulam labourers. “We were actually getting ready to negotiate better wages and conditions when this coronavirus problem came along, bringing up a host of new issues.”

*The current situation, and little assistance*
“Each small tenement of a 10-squarefoot room with a makeshift kitchen is shared by six to seven labourers – either families or single men,” Khagesh said. “After the COVID-19 outbreak, the owners began limiting occupancy to just two persons per room, triggering panic departures. And those left behind are desperate without any earnings, with rents to pay, and new conditions from landlords. They had no help from anywhere.”

Khagesh had contacted G Sayanna, Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Secunderabad Cantonment, sharing their concerns about lack of work, new problems of accommodation, no wages or rations for them to survive. The MLA asked them to contact the Mandal Revenue Officer (MRO) who expressed his inability to support them.

On March 31, the Telangana government announced through an order that migrant labourers are entitled to 12 kg rice and Rs 500 cash. However, the promised ration did not reach them till April 14 and the looming extension of the lockdown until May 3 left them with no option but to head back home.

Sunil Nathani, Marredpally Mandal Revenue Officer (MRO), explained the technical issues in supporting the labourers from Srikakulam with ration. “As per the government order (GO 13), all labourers from outside the state of Telangana are eligible for 12 kg rice and Rs 500 cash, however, the case of the Srikakulam labourers was different.”

“Most of the labourers have spent over seven to 10 years here, earn well and do not fall in the strict definition of ‘migrant worker’. In a rapid survey conducted in Marredpally’s eight different ‘labour addas’ during the first phase of lockdown, i.e., until 14 April, the Revenue Department identified 645 labourers. Of these only 60 labourers from the lot of Srikakulam labourers were found eligible for this relief,” he revealed. The Tehsil office distributed 12 kg rice and Rs 500 to all those labourers.

“However, as the matter of Srikakulam labourers (the instance of their staging a walk back to their village) came to light, a more in-depth survey was conducted in the second phase which helped them identify 950 labourers in the Tehsil, which included 450 labourers from Srikakulam,” Sunil added.

He sounded surprised at the Union’s claim of the presence of 2,000 labourers. “If the Tehsil office has still left out migrants eligible for support, we are willing to consider them favourably,” he said, when asked if the second survey could have further missed several labourers.

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*Lack of administrative coordination*
One of the biggest challenges with migrant workers is getting the exact number, said Dr Usha Seethalakshmi, an independent researcher and member Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch (MAKAAM), a national forum that works with women farmers and workers. Pointing out the discrepancies in numbers, Seethalakshmi said the labour department website records 15,45,845 labourers in the state, including 6,23,714 women. However, as per GO 13, the state came up with the figure of 3,35,669 labourers.

“This is a gross underestimate of migrant workers given the phenomenal growth of real estate, irrigation infrastructure in the state, especially in the last six years,” observed Seethalakshmi. “Most obviously the allocation of 12 kg rice and Rs 500 cash will be inadequate,” she added.

Acknowledging the difficulty of recording data of migrant labourers in a city like Hyderabad, especially the 650 square kilometres of Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) area, Ravinder Reddy, the Deputy Commissioner of Labour for Hyderabad-1 said that the discrepancies arise from lack of coordination amongst departments.

During COVID-19 response, GHMC, Revenue Department and Labour Department, all came out with their own separate lists of migrant workers. The Revenue Department’s first list of migrant workers in Hyderabad city alone showed a figure of 34,000 workers; a second, more comprehensive survey identified 20,000 more workers. Subsequently, a final consolidated list of all surveys by all departments established 84,000 workers. As per the government order, 12 kg of rice each and Rs 500 were distributed to some 60,000 workers. For the rest, the distribution is still ongoing, informed Reddy. This, on April 22, almost a month after the lockdown began on 24 March.

*Contractors not following norms hurts workers*
The real estate boom in Hyderabad, actively promoted by the state government, has attracted large numbers of skilled and unskilled interstate, and in much larger numbers intrastate, migrant workers.

Every contractor is expected to register under the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Act, 1966 (BCOW), explained Seethalakshmi. The Central Act, binding on builders and contractors, was enacted with the objective of ensuring the safety, security and regulating the working conditions of the workers. But most builders and contractors evade registration of workers and payment of cess – one percent of the cost of construction – towards workers’ welfare fund, she said.

“The provision of self-certification — brought in as part of a larger policy framework of ‘ease of doing business’ — and the inspections by the labour department made non-mandatory for an enabling environment, has allowed builders and contractors to get away with several violations,” explained Seethalakshmi.

According to COVID-19 Advocacy Lockdown Collective, a collective of social activists, the Telangana government has collected Rs 1,201 crore as cess towards workers’ welfare fund and as of December 31, 2018, and has spent only Rs 263 crore. In a letter addressed to the Chief Minister dated 12 April, the Collective urged the government to extend a one-time financial assistance of Rs 2500, in addition to the 12 kg rice and Rs 500 to workers, using this fund. To minimise the distress, it appealed for immediate payment of all pending claims of workers from the welfare fund, along with the wages due to them, to arrange for their safe transit, accommodation with adequate sanitation, and crèche facilities for children.

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As the government struggles with data and definition of migrant workers, many have begun to hit the road. Some are turned back, but many managed, almost, to reach their homes.

*The yearning to go home*
“We were not the first batch of labourers to start our journey back home,” said Mukunda Rao. Out of the 2,000 labourers in the East Marredpally area, 200 had already left for home in the previous week in smaller batches, said Rao.

Rama Rao, Rani, and several others were relatively lucky to have jumped past Telangana border, but they have still not reached home to be with their families as they had desired.

35-year-old Rama Rao along with his wife Rani and nine others had left their single-room tenement in East Marredpally at about 10 am on April 12. After walking for some distance, they found a truck willing to take them. However, they had to get down and walk past check posts to avoid being stopped while the truck was allowed to pass through. With eleven hours of journey behind them, it was a matter of another one and a half hours to Vizag and further two hours to Srikakulam, their home district, before they could reach their village Santabommali. They were excitedly looking forward to meeting their two sons aged 11 and 12, staying with their aging mother.

At Payakaraopeta, two kilometres after Tuni, their hearts sank, when the police waved their truck to a stop. All of them were off-loaded there. After gathering their details, the police sent them to Vizag city in the same truck, where they were detained at the MRO office for two days. The police then collected the names and other details of everyone and sent them on a state transport bus to Srikakulam, to a degree college to be quarantined, where Rama Rao and Rani are presently lodged.

“The place is big, but there are too many people in every room. Some rooms have nearly fifty people in them,” says Rama Rao. “Luckily, the 11 of us are on the second floor in a room. We were brought here on April 14, and are just told to stay here till the lockdown is lifted. There seem to be some doctors downstairs but no one has come so far to check us, but they are saying a test will be done on April 25,” Rama Rao said.

Despite being quarantined 45 kilometres away from Srikakulam, Rama Rao and Rani were happy to be closer home than in Hyderabad, thankful they have their phones to stay in touch with their children and elderly mother. #KhabarLive