Migrant workers, who have returned from Delhi, at a Malda bus stop on Thursday. (Express Photo by Shashi Ghosh)

By Arti Mitra

For several migrant workers in the districts of Malda and Murshidabad, which go to the polls in the remaining two phases, the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown last year was a traumatic ordeal that left deep scars in their psyche. They are back home this time around to avoid a repeat of last year, and to vote in the Assembly elections as they are afraid of the BJP’s promise to implement the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC).

As the second wave of the pandemic started raging in Delhi, 38-year-old Malda resident Akhtar Hossain started for home — in the district’s Haldibari area — along with his wife and three children.

“I work at a steel plant in Rithala in Delhi’s Rohini area. Last year I was stuck for 53 days in lockdown. I filled up many forms, called up leaders of various political parties. No one helped me. Lastly, I returned home in a truck. I was there almost without food in a huge helpless situation. This year, I could not take any risk. As the situation worsened, I started from Delhi to return home,” Hossain tells The Indian Express at the Rathbari More bus stop in Malda town.

He adds, “Last year the experience was a nightmare for us. So, I could not take a risk this year. I know that will I not get any work here. But, I know I can stay well with my families here and somehow we will survive. I’d have died had I been in Delhi and another lockdown was announced.”

Hossain’s experience is shared by several other migrant labourers from the two districts who were stuck in other states last year.

Rabiul Sheikh, 24, a resident of Dakshin Gajinagar in Murshidabad’s Dhulian area, is a mason by profession. Last year, he was stuck in Chennai.

“This year, instead of Chennai we went to the Milan Mela ground opposite Science City in Kolkata for construction work. There are two reasons — one, following the start of the pandemic work dried up in Chennai; and the other reason, if lockdown happens again, we can easily return from Kolkata. I am back home now for personal work and to cast vote. We are not much eager to go outside for work. This is our compulsion because in Murshidabad there is no work for us,” he adds.

According to 30-year-old Mohammad Kalimuddin, a resident of Chinabazar in Malda’s Baishnabnagar area, there is not much work for migrant labourers like him in Kolkata. “This year we went to Kolkata but we got only 10 days of work. Then, we returned. After the election, if Covid cases drop, we will again plan to go to Chennai.” he adds.

The lockdown last year was not an ordeal for 45-year-old Debkumar Sarkar, who owns a fish and meat shop in Noida. He weathered the shutdown there. A resident of Gajol in Malda, Sarkar says, “I returned with my family this year because we want to cast our vote. We have heard that this year casting vote is very important because we have to prove our citizenship.”

Amid the second wave, several labourers are returning home to vote, confirms 31-year-old Lal Muhammed Sheikh. Both Sheikh and his father, residents of Samsergunj in Murshidabad, are “munshis” or contractors. They arrange work for migrant labourers, who pay them a commission. The “munshis” also receive money from the companies they lease the workers to.

“Every year we used to send around 150 labourers to Ghaziabad and Noida for construction work. Here they can earn only Rs 270 a day. There they used to get Rs 250 a day and three meals a day. During lockdown last year, we brought back every labourer around April and May. This year half of them returned, almost all are back to cast their vote,” Sheikh says.

He adds that these workers want to stop the BJP’s plans to implement the CAA, and the proposed NRC. The ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) is keen to mobilise these workers and breach the Congress’s hold in these districts. Though Akhtar Hossain Hossain says migrant workers did not get any job — including work under the 100 days’ job scheme — last year after returning to the state, “this is the time to stop communal politics in our state and we have to choose those who can defeat the BJP”.

Kalimuddin, however, is more critical of the ruling party. He says, “TMC did not give us 100 days’ work. All the money went to panchayat leaders. So, we are fed up with this.”

In the last elections, 29 of the 34 seats in the two districts went to the Left and the Congress, which are contesting the polls this time as part of the Sanjukta Morcha, or United Front, along with the Indian Secular Front.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress won the Berhampore and the Malda South constituencies, while the TMC bagged Murshidabad and Jangipur. The BJP opened its account in the region by winning Malda North.

The CPI(M) is confident of receiving the support of the migrant workers from the area, claiming that it was the only party that stood with them during last year’s lockdown. A local CPI(M) leader in Samshergunj, Mohammad Jakir, says, “During the lockdown, we were the only ones to stand with the migrant workers. There was no one else to arrange quarantine centres and other facilities for them.”

This story first appeared on indianexpress.com