Manipur so far has done quite well in protecting itself from the Covid-19 disease, although it may not be all due to the hectic planning of the authorities, but also by a quirk of fate. At these trying times, the peculiar geographical location of the state and its landlocked nature has helped, for it can easily be cut off quickly from the outside world by closing its few entry points. But the question that often comes to mind is, how have migrant workers fared in the times of the pandemic, this is especially urgent given the fact of the spectacle of huge hordes of migrant workers fleeing other cities of India, fearful of starvation and destitution.
The latest picture of the migrant population here as of now is that they are safe here and if at all someone may be suffering because of the lockdown, none has any doubt the locals are in no better circumstance. As all wait for the lockdown and curfew to be lifted, many of the migrant workers seem to be content. On the flip side are those among them who seem to be visibly shaken by the lockdown and are anxious to leave immediately.
Norbindo Malik, who does odd jobs as a mistri and stays at Nagamapal, does not show any signs of gloom which may be expected at these times. Originally a Bengali, he migrated to Serou, and likes very much to call himself a Manipuri. His wife is from Hojai in Assam and has been in Manipur for the past 30 years. They have a nine-year-old girl daughter studying in Class III and Norbindo usually spends his time nowadays looking after the child as he has no work at the moment. His wife cooks for them and as their TV set recently apparently blew a fuse and sound went dead therefore they listen and depend on the radio for any news update.
According to Norbindo’s account there are hordes of migrant labourers staying in the localities of Kali Bari, Uripok, Kangjabi, Khoyathong, RMC, all near his place, not to mention scores of other localities and markets in Imphal. However, there seems to be no acute panic amongst them. There seems to be help coming from various quarters, though he cannot think of bleaker times in the recent past. The government supplied him 5 kgs of rice, the local youth club another 5 kgs, and the MLA from Serou another 10 kgs. He had bought another 50 kgs costing Rs. 2000, just in case the lockdown persists, although he couldn’t speak for the many migrants in his area as it was difficult to get information from the confinement.
Once they went to Khoyathong to get free rice but the distributors started charging Rs. 25 per kilo, pinching them hard under the circumstances. Gas cylinders are going for anything beyond Rs. 2000 and he is managing with charcoal for Rs. 750 a 50 kgs sack. This kind of spending has put him in debt as he does not earn the Rs. 600 a day he would usually earn on days he works. This is the second month he is going without work, he said.
Normally Norbindo would be cycling down to various places in the city in the morning, but now he does not go beyond Kangjabi Khongnang. “If I don’t go I don’t get,” he says with practical wisdom, “God will look after me. I am alone with my family with no help.” Sometimes they have three meals, sometimes two, and nowadays they get by sometimes with hardly anything also. “Konare chare, konadre chadre (if we have enough, we eat, if we have don’t have enough, we still manage),” he says in accented Manipuri. But he feels safe and says there is no threat from the police or other elements as in other states right now. “We love everybody, and everybody loves us,” he paraphrases these difficult times.
The government has deposited some money in his and his wife’s accounts which they believe is Rs. 500 but are not sure as the ATMs are hardly functioning. He also says he will stay on in Imphal. His wife is not downcast either and her husband’s nonchalance rubs off on her. She is waiting for the lockdown to be lifted so that she can go to her favourite temple in Imphal which she visits on Sundays. Her husband though does not accompany her there as he is busy in kirtans at the Kalibari on weekends.
Most migrant labourers in the capital’s Thangal bazaar seem to be surviving on savings kept for the rainy day. Shambhu Rai from Bihar’s Sitamarhi works as a labour and says, “Pehle ka rakha hai, bada me dekha jayega (We have some, for future can’t say).” Without the lockdown he would be earning between Rs. 300-400, but now owes the landlord Rs. 1200 for rent; the Manipuri landlord, though, is willing to help and not push him. There are four to five more people staying in rooms next to his; and otherwise, there are thousands of them staying in the area. The only immediate regret he feels is that if the shops were open, he could have earned some money by pulling thelas (loaded carts).
Ravikumar, another resident of Bihar, a student, was chatting with his friend when I came across them. He said in comparison with other places it is badiyan hai (better), but also added soon afterwards that many others from his state want to go back home, which is not possible at the moment. People they know are helping each other for now but the general refrain seems to be that they are at great inconvenience and are very anxious to leave. He informed that the Hindustani Samaj had contributed Rs. 1 lakh to the CM’s Covid-19 relief fund, but at the same time rued the fact that many did not have voter-ID cards and so there was no quota set apart for them. The Kalibari temple has also contributed another Rs. 1 lakh to the CM’s fund although they have no supplies for even themselves and are offering only spartan rice and dal bhog to the deities, said the purohit of the devalaya.
Another load carrying labourer, Nandalal from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, was a bit tipsy when I met him, but seemingly not without worries. He said he doesn’t want to stay a moment longer and as soon as the lockdown is over he would head back home; though he speaks to his people every 15 days to one month. There is too much problem for water and food and for rent also; which if he can’t pay, he will be thrown out. The mahajan insists on getting the rent in time and many like him are facing this situation. He stays alone with a small mobile for company and can’t meet his friends who are on the other side of the market area. “Nobody will ask me anything. I have to arrange myself,” he says. Nandalal was also disappointed that the government gave no prior information about the lockdown. Everyone was kind of enjoying the thali banging and hands clapping and didn’t know the trains and public transport would be stopped, he said. “It’s like a jungle animal. Taking some food and idling away all the time,” he observed about the amount and manner of the time lost.
The Sikh gurudwara, a place of refuge for the needy, had provided cooked food for 400-500 people for 4-5 days, a week back, but after a prohibitive order from the DC’s for everyone to stay indoors, this practice has stopped. Now the sevadars of the Singh Sabha gurudwara in Dharamsala are giving limited number of BPL families essential supplies at subsidised rates. However, as its just 15 Sikh families here who have taken on themselves the financial burden, the distribution will stop if they cannot raise the funds anymore. The volunteers were concerned for the poor in the present situation but could not say how much they could help, especially with no permission from the DC. The sevadars said it’s a community effort in the name of the Sikh gurus, and they don’t take any individual credit for the work they are doing.