Shortly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the 21-day nationwide lockdown to fight the Covid-19 pandemic in March, Sanjay Singh, a 45-year-old resident of Mirzapur village in Jalaun district realised that there was a crisis in the making.
Jalaun lies in the plains of Bundelkhand, a region from where several thousand men and women migrate to Mumbai in Maharashtra, Surat and Ahmedabad in Gujarat, Bengaluru in Karnataka and other metropolises, in search of work. When the lockdown began on March 25, Singh saw residents of nearby villages make frantic calls to their family members living as migrants in big cities, fearful of their survival. Within a few days, one of the country’s biggest reverse migration movements began, as migrant workers took to the roads, often on foot, to go back to their home states.
Towards the end of March, such a group of migrant workers had reached Madhya Pradesh’s Datia district, but to enter their home state, permissions from top officials like the chief secretary and additional chief secretary (Home) in Lucknow were required. In the meantime, the police had a tough task controlling the workers who were impatient to cross into Uttar Pradesh. It was also an arduous task for the administration of districts to supply food and water.
That’s when Singh, who runs a voluntary organisation called Parmarth Samaj Sewi Sansthan which works on livelihood and water conservation in Bundelkhand districts across both states, approached the authorities with an offer to help. His volunteers —many of whom themselves had migrant family members — would have no problem in managing the crowd, Singh told the officers.
As the crowd multiplied on the border, the Datia and Jhansi district administrations gave a green signal to Singh to set up a kitchen near the border at of these two districts, to distribute food and water among the migrants. He also set up a help desk to guide migrants to buses and shelter homes as well as transport those exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19, like cough or fever, to health centres.
“The volunteers ran the community kitchen and the help desk till the end of May. They took the assistance of local residents of these districts, including adjoining Lalitpur in Uttar Pradesh, as well as traders and farmers who supplied grains and edible items to run the kitchen,” Singh said.
Singh also ensured that the group of 18 volunteers wore personal protective gear as well as distributed masks and sanitizers among the migrants many of whom had returned from hotspots like Mumbai, Surat and Indore.
From March 27 to the first week of June, around 3.5 million migrant workers have returned to Uttar Pradesh of which 1 million were from Bundelkhand’s districts of Jhansi, Lalitpur, Jaluan, Hamirpur, Banda, Mahoba and Chitrakoot. A majority of them have little money and no source of employment other than the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme (MNREGS). In Uttar Pradesh, already 2.5 million migrants have applied for new job cards under the scheme, but till mid-June, 1 million were yet to receive them.
In June, Singh also began to motivate returned migrants to work in water conservation schemes. “We roped in some of the returning migrants to revive the ponds, lakes and rivers in the Bundelkhand region which is in midst of a water crisis. Work has already begun in Manpur pond in Jhansi district. A canal to connect the pond with nearby agricultural land is being repaired in time for the paddy crop,” he said.
Paddy sowing begins from the end of June.
“We told them that if they do not wish to migrate again, they need to revive and conserve the water bodies. Along with Lalitpur and Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh we have also organised similar revival activities of ponds and lakes in Tikamgarh and Chattarpur areas of Madhya Pradesh,” Singh said.
“We were trapped in the lockdown. We faced hardship and hunger. Now, after returning to the native village we are working for the revival of the pond and the canal to ensure we don’t have to face this again,” said Meera Ahirwar, a migrant worker who returned to Manpur from Indore in May.
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