Noida: Sandeep Yadav, 32, a Bihari migrant labourer employed in Noida, is giving the assembly elections in his home state a miss.
“I feel so helpless that I do not want to vote for anyone,” said Yadav, speaking to ThePrint in the 10 feet x 10 feet room where he lives with his wife Rekha Devi (28) and three daughters.
Yadav and his family are among several migrant labourers who live at Parthala Market in Sector 122, Noida, across the road from the plush apartment complexes that dot the skyline of the NCR suburb.
The wounds of the Covid-19 lockdown are still fresh for Sandeep, who returned home in Bihar during the ensuing exodus in May. Sandeep and Rekha, who was pregnant at the time, walked part of the distance and rode a truck for three-fourths of the journey, around 900 km.
It’s at a transit centre packed with thousands of migrant labourers — all waiting to catch buses to complete the last mile — that this reporter first met Yadav.
Rekha had developed labour pains at the centre and he was in distress. With the help of the local administration, the couple was taken to hospital, where she delivered their fifth child, a daughter.
Yadav returned to Delhi a month ago. His wife followed three weeks later, bringing along three of their children, leaving the other two behind with their grandparents.
‘Mahaul is very political’
Yadav was setting up his masala shop for the evening market when a relative called from their village, Balha, to check on him. A village of 5,600 voters, Balha comes under the Supaul Vidhan Sabha constituency, which votes in the third phase on 7 November.
“Mahaul (the atmosphere) is very political back at home,” Yadav told ThePrint after the call. “They are deciding whom to vote for. But I have decided to boycott the elections. The last time I voted in the assembly election was in 2010. Staying back in the village to cast my vote would have meant wasting another one month… I will vote again when they establish a karkhana (factory) there.”
The candidates for Supaul include Vijendra Prasad Yadav of NDA constituent Janata Dal (United), who has represented the seat since 1990, and Minnat Rahmani of the Congress, who is the Mahagathbandhan nominee.
Supaul, a district with 181 gram panchayats and 556 villages, is a part of the Mithilanchal region.
Balha is situated 12 kilometres from the main town of Supaul. The only memories Yadav has of the village are poverty and unemployment. “It is very much still the same as when I left it in 2005. It is mostly featured in the local newspapers for water scarcity,” he said.
The lack of employment opportunities in Bihar has emerged as a major issue in the assembly elections. The Covid lockdown left lakhs of migrant workers from Bihar stranded in alien cities, forcing them to undertake arduous journeys to get back home.
In the course of the lockdown, after the launch of Shramik trains, an estimated 23.6 lakh migrants returned to 32 districts of Bihar, according to state government data.
This has intensified demands for local jobs that don’t require people to move out of their homes. The political parties, including the JD(U), contesting the election with the BJP, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) have responded with promises of creating lakhs of jobs.
But anger among migrant labourers is “still high”, said Pasi, the mukhiya of Balha gram panchayat, over the phone. “Forget about factories, most of the year, we cannot even work in the fields because of floods,” he added.
According to Pasi, in the pre-Covid era, more than 60 per cent of Balha’s population had moved to other states in search of employment. Most of them returned when the lockdown was announced, but “20 per cent of those who came back have left the village again”, he said.
“Sandeep is not the only one to feel this helplessness. Migrants have to feed their families. They cannot afford to lose months after months,” he added.
Another migrant worker who, like Yadav, is missing the election said, “Election is like a mela. You just like the mood of it and feel important. I agree with Sandeep, the feeling of helplessness is permanent. Other than working at brick kilns, we have no means of employment.”
‘Cannot forgive Nitish Kumar’
In the early days of the pandemic, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was seen as reluctant to bring back migrants and students stranded outside Bihar even as other states made arrangements to ferry them home.
It’s something that still riles Yadav up.
“I will not forget those horrifying days of the lockdown, when Nitish Kumar left us to survive on our own. He asked the migrants to stay wherever we were. While other states called back their own people. Without a penny in our hands and rations in our homes, we were left to die. How can we forget that and forgive him?” he said.
During his journey home, Yadav said, he saw “lakhs of people walking home”. “At least 90 per cent of the migrants were angry and vowed not to vote for Nitish. Many have died during this journey but the government only counts them as either votebanks or statistics.”
Angry with Nitish, Yadav isn’t very excited about the RJD’s promise of 10 lakh jobs either. “Now Nitish Kumar is saying he will provide more jobs than what Tejashwi Yadav has promised. I will see who establishes a factory in my region. Then I will go and vote in the next assembly elections,” he said.
Yadav said, “RJD or JD(U), whoever wins, no one fulfils a single promise they make to us”.