‘Don’t Their Deaths Matter?’: Kin of 4 Rajasthan Migrant Workers
“We have no idea if the accused has been arrested. It is like our loss means nothing,” Nikhil’s father asks.
"Gharwalo ko sirf ye pata tha ki accident hua hai, jab chaaro ki laash aayi tab unko pata chala ki vo mar gaye hai. Yahaan parivaaro ko nahi bataya jaata agar koi mar gaya (The families were only told that there was an accident, it was when the dead bodies of the four men arrived that they got to know that they're all dead. Here families are not informed if someone has died)," a villager who met the inconsolable families of four migrant workers killed while returning from Maharashtra to Rajasthan during the lockdown, tells The Quint from Rajasthan's Banswara district.
Ramesh Bhatt, Naresh, Kaluram and Nikhil Panndya are four among at least 24 migrant workers who have died due to exhaustion or accidents in their desperate attempt to reach home as a countrywide lockdown was imposed in the wake of coronavirus outbreak.
Lives Cut Short
Travelling on foot mostly, from Mumbai to their villages in Banswara, they had covered 60 kilometers – hitching a ride on a tempo for a few miles, walking on foot for a few others, their long and arduous journey came to an abrupt end when a tempo trampled and killed them on the spot before sunrise on 28 March.
The accident happened at the Khanivade toll booth on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway under Virar police station.
While the families were in the dark, the villagers knew about the sudden demise of the four labourers. So when the bodies arrived on the morning of 29 March via ambulances, the wood for the cremation was arranged in time as well by the villagers and distant relatives who had been informed so they could make arrangements for it. They disappeared soon after as authorities only allowed immediate family to be present at the cremation.
All four families, now distraught over the irreversible loss, want the government to acknowledge their deaths and offer relief.
All 4 Worked at Tea Stalls in Mumbai
It had been less than a year since Naresh and 18-year-old Kaluram had left for Bombay to work at 55-year-old Ramesh's tea stall in Mumbai's Jogeshwari area. Ramesh had worked in Bombay for 25 years, so when he needed boys to work at his stall he decided to take Naresh and Kaluram along as he knew them from Banswara. While the three of them worked together, the fourth migrant worker who died, 25-year-old Nikhil Panndya, also worked at a tea stall which belonged to his brother-in-law.
Men – both young and old – in Banswara, a backward tribal district in south Rajasthan, often venture out to Gujarat or Maharashtra for work. "In the last two years even MGNREGA work has dried up. There is no way to earn money here anymore. Parents also encourage kids to leave," a villager says. They all earned more money in Mumbai than they would never be able to if they stayed home.
While Naresh and Kaluram, both 18, made Rs 6,000 a month, Ramesh Bhatt earned around Rs 12,000 while Nikhil earned nearly Rs 9,000.
"They would send money home usually through other labourers returning to the village, and would return for Holi and Diwali," a friend of Kaluram and Naresh says.
When the lockdown was announced, their livelihood came to grinding halt. Without the tea stall they couldn't afford the rising costs and decided to walk home like everyone else. When they left Mumbai together, they were thirty workers, but in course of the exhausting journey back home, they could hardly keep up with each other.
Each of these men made their last calls to their families on 27 March.
Four Bereaved Families Left Penniless
Recalling the last call Ramesh made, his son, 19-year-old Rahul, says, "Papa said he had stopped to eat too and was reaching the Gujarat border. This was the night of 27 March, hours before the accident had happened."
Ramesh lived with his wife, son and mother in Banswara's Aajna village.
Rahul shaved his head, as is customary when someone in the family dies. His mother was inside the house observing what is called kone mein ratna in the local tribal wangdi language – a period of mourning when she can not be seen by any man, step out of the home, and sit in the corner of a room. "She has not stopped crying and has barely eaten a morsel," Rahul says.
"If they could bring his dead body back home as promptly, why could they not bring him back home? Why did he have to walk for so many kilometers?," he asks.
While Mumbai was familiar to Ramesh, who was supporting his family for 25 years because of his tea stall in Mumbai, Naresh had only started working at his tea stall about eight months ago. Hailing from Lohariya Pada Bhagora village in Banswara, Naresh’s family belongs to an oppressed caste and is poor. Naresh has a younger brother, younger sister and parents who engage themselves in minor construction work in the village.
"He started going only eight months ago as there is no work in Banswara," his father Ramlal says. The younger brother, who is 9, and his 17-year-old sister now weeps and asks: "Why did my brother have to die? How can a tempo just kill people?”
It was Naresh's phone that was used to break the news to the villagers, used by a fellow migrant worker who had also informed the police. A video accessed by The Quint, shows a migrant worker walking on the highway, moving from one body to another, speaking to the police and helping locate ID cards of the workers.
In Kaluram's home in Paroda village, who like Naresh also belonged to the ST Caste, parents are completely broken. It had been a year since Kaluram had begun work in Mumbai. His father Devji, a daily wage worker, was just beginning to rely on Kalu's earnings.
"He was my child. I spoke to him the day before, he had said he was hungry but he was alright. He wanted to come back home soon, and so was walking through the nights and morning," Devji said, breaking down.
25-year-old Nikhil, who lives in Moti Basti in Banswara, has big responsibilities to shoulder. He had told his father, Prakash that he was on his way and was going to reach home soon.
For Prakash, Nikhil was the centre of his world, especially after his wife died of HIV AIDS 4 years ago. The only one earning in the family, he decided to work at his brother-in-law’s tea stall in Mumbai.
"I remain sick often and am never able to work. There is constant fever, aches and pain. How will I survive without him?," his father asks. Nikhil has a younger brother, who has just about completed school and would have joined college, but he is unsure now if he will be able to continue to work.
‘Our Loss Means Nothing’
The family is clueless if the tempo driver has been arrested yet. "We have no idea if he has been arrested. No one has talked to us, it is like our loss means nothing," Prakash says, inquiring about the case.
To find out, The Quint called Virar police station sub-divisional police officer (SDPO) Renuka Waghde who said that two people who were in the tempo have been arrested. She said, "The driver tried to run but was arrested on 28 March itself. They are still in jail and a charge sheet is currently in the process of being filed for the relevant offences."
All these families want is some compensation to be able to sustain themselves now that the one could count one to bring wages home was no more. The Quint has accessed letters by Gadhi MLA Kailash Meena, who has written to Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot, and BJP MP Kanakmal Katara, addressed to PM Narendra Modi, who have appealed “to get as much compensation as possible for the two poor families”.
Speaking to The Quint, Katara said, “I have written to the PM, but I’m yet to receive a response. The Maharashtra government has to provide the FIR and other documents to process any kind of compensation. We are trying to make this happen soon. I’ve gone and met each of these families personally, they are very poor people.”
Nikhil’s brother says the money will help them immensely, and he may not have to stop studying if he is eased of the burden of being the breadwinner for his family. "We are waiting for the Rajasthan or Maharashtra government to offer some relief, till now nothing has come," Prakash says with little hope of anyone paying attention to his story.
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