Migrant families wait to board buses in Bangalore on May 7 to return to their hometowns after India's government eased a nationwide lockdown imposed as a preventive measure against the coronavirus. (Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP)
Niranjan Mohanty was stunned when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave only four hours' notice of the start of a nationwide lockdown on March 24.For the prime minister, it was a measure to contain the spread of Covid-19. For millions like Mohanty, it meant poverty and hunger.The English teacher in a private school in central India’s Sehore town had no money. He has not been paid his salary since January. His savings were spent on his wife, who delivered their first child just four months ago.
“I had no money left. I did not know how to take care of my four-month-old son and wife,” he told UCA News, explaining how help came from an unexpected quarter — a network of Jesuit priests.Mohanty, a native of Odisha state, had no relatives or close friends in Sehore in Madhya Pradesh state. The only support he had was his school management, but they plainly said they had no money to pay him.
He shared his plight with a friend based in Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka state. He asked Mohanty to get in touch with a Jesuit priest based in Ranchi, capital of Jharkhand state.
The priest immediately arranged to send 5,000 rupees (US$70) and "saved us from potential starvation,” Mohanty said.
He later learned the priest had also helped four other unfamiliar migrant teachers working in Madhya Pradesh.
Jesuit Father Davis Solomon of Bagaicha, a Jesuit social work center in Ranchi, said it has an initiative to help migrant workers. He heads that initiative, which has now developed into a national network.
“We found millions of migrant workers stranded in their workplaces in different states because of the lockdown. We wanted to help them,” the priest said.
They used a social media platform to get connected with Jesuit social work centers and institutes and other civil society organizations. All these groups then connected with stranded migrants, Father Solomon told UCA News.
The lockdown, which is now scheduled to end on May 17, has shut down all public transport, business and industry. An estimated 40 million people, mostly daily wage workers, were left without work, money and food in hundreds of cities and towns, reports said.
“Almost a million people from Jharkhand alone work outside the state. We sought the contact numbers of people needing immediate help. Soon we were flooded with calls for help. We were amazed that we could reach out to more than 4,000 people," Father Solomon said.
He said the original plan was to collect the details of stranded people and pass them to local administrations because most migrants, especially those who work in southern states, do not speak the local languages that are distinctly different from Hindi.
The network helped the priests to reach out to people stranded on roads and at bus stations, Father Solomon said.
In one such case, Sandeep Sadu Atala, a tribal man from Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra state, called them from Tamil Nadu in the south. “We were left at a petrol station by our employers after the lockdown was announced,” Atala said.
Atala joined a private firm engaged in bore-well drilling in Tamil Nadu 10 months ago. His employer made him and four others work without pay. They did not know the local Tamil language and did not know how to make a police complaint.
The Jesuit network passed the information to Father Sahaya Philomin Raj in Tamil Nadu. The lawyer-priest contacted Atala and his co-workers with local police and rescued them.
The five workers are now staying at a Jesuit center in Madurai, where the priest is taking care of them until transport is available for them to go back home.
The center now has 14 such migrant workers who were rescued by Father Raj with the help of police.
“We have filed a police complaint on their behalf. The processes are underway to recover their wages,” Father Raj said.
Atala said that if the priest had not come to their rescue, they would have died of hunger. "We owe our lives to him. Our employer left us on the road. We slept on the floor of a petrol station for a fortnight until this priest, totally unknown to us, came to rescue us,” he said.
Father Raj also helped Arunkant Ranasingh, a teacher from Odisha state who works in a private school in Tamil Nadu.
He has not received his salary since February. It is usual for private institutions to delay payment for a month or two, citing financial difficulties. Employees do not complain to authorities lest they anger the management, who can fire them at will.
Ranasingh already had no money, and the lockdown meant his school was not paying him for March and April too. With no friends and relatives around and no way to go back home, he was facing starvation.
“I contacted the priest through social media seeking help. “Soon came a bag of dry rations including rice, oil, pulses … all I needed for survival,” he told UCA News.
He said local governments and administrations have no system to help migrants like him because they do not have any documents to prove their domicile in the state. State food rations are distributed only to people who have such documents.
“The priests helped us and saved us from starvation when the state failed,” Ranasingh said.