For over 10 lakh workers who returned to Marathwada, scheme for migrants offers little help

The scheme for migrant workers’ welfare, however, leaves inter-district migrants completely out of its purview, focusing only on 116 districts across six states which see high inter-state migration.


On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan (GKRA), a scheme to boost livelihood and employment opportunities for migrant workers who have returned to villages from metro cities due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown. The scheme for migrant workers’ welfare, however, leaves inter-district migrants completely out of its purview, focusing only on 116 districts across six states which see high inter-state migration.

GKRA is a programme to provide livelihood opportunities to returning migrant workers by employing them under 25 government schemes. The works include laying of gas pipelines, water supply, internet set up, building housing for the rural poor, waste management infrastructure, rural roads and work on Anganwadis, among others, under 12 different Union ministries.

According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the districts chosen for the scheme are those where more than 25,000 migrant workers have returned in the last few months. These districts are estimated to cover about 66 per cent of such migrant workers.

The lack of a plan to provide employment to returning inter-district migrants – especially skilled workers – is most apparent in Maharashtra’s Marathwada region where more than a million migrants have returned from Pune, Mumbai and other major cities in the state after the lockdown. In most of the eight districts, the administration is counting on the returning migrants to go back to the cities after the pandemic subsides. “Some are already returning,” said an administration official, with a whiff of relief.

Each of the eight districts of Marathwada – a region known for low socio-economic development and migration of rural population – has seen a much higher number of returning migrants than the 25,000 eligibility mark for GKRA since March 2020, when the pandemic started affecting life and livelihoods in Mumbai, Pune and other big cities in comparatively wealthier western Maharashtra.

Numbers obtained by The Indian Express from district authorities show that about 10.8 lakh migrants have returned to the eight districts in the region with each seeing anywhere between 60,000 to 2.5 lakh returnees from cities in the last three months. The highest count of 2.5 lakh is in Beed district, which sees very high seasonal migration of sugarcane harvest labourers to various sugar factories in western Maharashtra, in addition to other skilled and semi-skilled migrants who move to cities such as Mumbai and Pune in search of better wages.

Other districts in the region — Aurangabad (about 2 lakh), Latur (1.43 lakh), Nanded (1.5 lakh), Osmanabad (1.1 lakh) Parbhani (1 lakh), Hingoli (65,000) and Jalna (60,000) — have also received migrants in numbers that are many times higher than the 25,000 threshold fixed by the central government for inclusion in GKRA scheme for inter-state migrants in six states.

Most districts counting on return of migrants, work under MGNREGA

While those looking for manual work back home can, possibly, be accommodated via MGNERGA works, for skilled workers there is very little to do in these districts. In most districts, the only possible solution is going back to the big cities, again, to look for work.

“In the last few months, we have issued thousands of fresh job cards under MGNERGA, of which about 2,000 would be returned migrants. For skilled workers who were working in industrial units in the city, we have very little capacity to accommodate them as there are almost no industries here. We are in talks with a few units, which had earlier employed north Indian workers who have now left, to employ the locals who have returned,” said Hingoli Collector Ruchesh Jaywanshi.

When asked about the district administration’s plan for the migrants, Collector of neighbouring Parbhani, Deepak Mugalikar, said the migrants have returned to their native places, but only temporarily. “They will be going back. In fact, some have already started,” said Muglikar.

“The first priority for us in connection with the returning migrants is to ensure that they do not spread coronavirus. We are keeping them in 14-day institutional quarantine followed by another 14 days of home quarantine. If they seek jobs under MGNREGA, we have ample work…,” he said.

But the Rs 202 per day wage under MGNREGA is nowhere enough for a skilled worker like Pramod Harkal (24), who used to earn over Rs 600 a day as a helper in an automobile assembly unit in Alandi, Pune.

Harkal, who hails from Gunj Khurd village in Parbhani district, said he returned to his village two months ago and has been unemployed since. “I can’t get any suitable work in the village. I tried to find some in Pathri (the tehsil headquarters) but to no avail. I am now looking to go back to Pune once transport opens,” said Harkal.

Pankaj Gajmal at his hometown Pathri, waiting to return to Mumbai for Work. (Credit: Haseeb Shaikh)

Pankaj Gajmal, a 30-year-old from Pathri town in the same district, had returned in April from Mumbai, where he worked as a support staff in a data centre of a nationalised bank via a third-party contract. “Although my office was open, I couldn’t go as the local train service had sopped in Mumbai. I returned home in April. I tried to find some work online but there isn’t any,” said Gajmal, who plans to return to his earlier job in Mumbai, or get a new one in the city, as soon as the local train service resumes.

Experts believe that schemes like GKRA may help migrants survive the pandemic period by providing them minimum income. But GKRA, like MGNREGA, can’t keep the population of migrant workers back home, who leave their homes looking for better wages.

“A scheme like GKRA will temporarily discontinue the inter-district migration during the ongoing pandemic. Most of the migrants – especially in districts such as Beed – migrate to western Maharashtra looking for better wages and advance amounts from muqadams (contractor) to undertake major expenditure, such as on marriages or tackling an emergency. The government schemes have limitations to provide these benefits and… these schemes may not help them stay back in the native districts,” said Nishikant Warbhuvan, assistant professor at the School of Management Sciences, Swami Ramandand Teerth Marathwada University (SRTMU), sub-centre, Latur.

(This story was published in The Indian Express on June 23 2020)

When Colour Queen of India said ‘Hullo’

Telephone appeared in movies as an instrument that provided a multitude of narrative possibilities and also benefitted, in the initial days, from the portrayal in cinema as a desirable, aspirational commodity.



Both cinema and the telephone are modern inventions – the former about 45 years younger than the latter. During the early decades of the 20th century, the two tools interacted with and complemented each other as symbols of modernity.

Telephone appears in movies as an instrument that provides a multitude of narrative possibilities – as a herald of a plot twist, a conduit of the feeling of love, or as a device whose incessant ringing leads to tension-building.

Hindi films have had numerous songs featuring the phone as a tool connecting two lovelorn beings, crooning at each end (Recall: “Jalte hai jiske liye” from Sujata). In many crime thrillers of the 1950s, telephone lines unravel the tangled plots and help the film reach a happy ending.

The telephone, on the other hand, also benefited from such a portrayal in cinema – a mass medium with great influence –  as a desirable, aspirational commodity providing a plethora of possibilities.

Hence, it is no surprise that telephone companies were among the most prominent advertisers in film magazines of the late 1930s and 1940s. The Bombay Telephone Company, which was established in 1925, issued regular advertisements to filmindia, the most prominent film magazine of the time, in its attempt to expand its subscriber base in Bombay, Karachi and Ahmedabad.

These advertisements had stars and starlets of Hindi film industry seductively holding the receiver to their ears, anticipating a conversation from the other end.

Image 3 December 1937
An ad issued by Bombay Telephone Company, Ltd in December 1937 edition of filmindia.

“Have you a telephone in your home?” asks this advertisement issued by the Bombay Telephone Company in the December 1938 issue of filmindia magazine. “If not you are denying the pleasure of communicating with your FRIENDS and running the risk of being unable to call the DOCTOR or FIRE BRIGADE in the time of need,” it says. The young model, lazily lying on the sofa, is holding the receiver in one hand and a glamour magazine in the other. The target audience here, clearly,  is English-speaking, educated, urban and affluent Indians.

The context to this marketing strategy adopted by Bombay Telephone Company to prominently highlight the social use – the pleasure of communicating with friends – of the telephone along with the more obvious logistical function, is provided by a letter sent by Lord Willingdon in September 1934 to London. In this communication, Willingdon laments that a lack of demand for telephone service in India was slowing down the expansion of the service in the country, largely owing to high cost and inability of a large section of the society to bear it. Indians are making comparatively little ‘social use’ of the technology, says he.


The full-page advertisement, it appears, not only worked for the advantage of the telephone firm but for the young model too.

“Who is the girl whose photo we find in the advertisement of the Bombay Telephone Co.? Is she a film star?” asks a curious reader of filmindia R S Mudaliar, a Madurai resident, in the ‘Editor’s Mail’ section of the magazine two months later.

The response to Mr Mudaliar by filmindia editor Baburao Patel informs us that the girl is the new Wadia Movietone starlet Pramilla who was previously attached with Imperial Studio. Elsewhere, the magazine fills in that Pramilla is busy shooting for Wadia’s Jungle King, co-starring John Cavas and Maheru – the monkey. Pramilla, born Esther Victoria Abraham in a Baghdadi -Jewish family of Kolkata, would go on to bag the Miss India title when the inaugural pageant was held in 1947.



Before starlet Pramilla, the telephone was being marketed – in similar full-page ads in filmindia – by Padmadevi, the silent film star. She had appeared in JBH Wadia’s stunt films, most notably Dilruba Daku (The Amazon, 1933) fighting with goons as a masked daredevil. Later on, in 1937, she was the heroine of the first indigenously produced colour film Kisan Kanya directed by Moti Gidwani and briefly earned the moniker of ‘Colour Queen of India’.

One of the advertisements featuring Padmadevi has an interesting warning: Never tap or touch the receiver rest. You will get a wrong number.

In the garb of the warning, it’s a tip – and an allure – to the prospective owners of the telephone, that taking home the device will afford them a hitherto unavailable possibility of making an unexpected contact with an unknown stranger – who could be as pretty as Padmadevi – whom the device may ‘accidentally’ connect you with.

While reliable statistics are not available on the number of telephone subscribers in India, as per a US Department of Commerce report, by March 1945, British India had 1,25,400 telephone lines, most of these operated by Indian Posts and Telegraphs Department, Government of India. In 1933, an international line between Bombay and London was also inaugurated, which was later suspended between 1939 and 1945, owing to security concerns during World War II.

(This write-up appeared on the on June 10. Find it here.)

Why was British officer who controlled spread of plague in Poona killed by locals?

In 1897, 34-year-old Indian Civil Service officer Charles Walter Rand felt the need for strong segregation and containment measures to “stamp out plague from Poona” and deployed the military to search infected persons. Soon, reports and rumours of harassment of locals – especially of native women – at the hands of British soldiers started emerging from the city.

Image 2 Credit George Lambert
Dead bodies of Pune residents who died from plague being cremated at a city crematorium. Pic Credit: George Lambert’s India, The Horror Stricken Empire.

THE FIRST recorded case of bubonic plague in Pune – then Poona – was discovered on October 2 1896 when two passengers from Mumbai alighted at the railway station. By December that year, the city was showing signs of local transmission and the disease had started to spread rapidly – especially in the densely populated Peth areas. Earlier, soon after the reports of plague came in from Mumbai in September 1896, the municipal corporation had appointed a medical officer at Pune Railway Station to watch out for persons with Plague symptoms and send them to special sheds erected at Sassoon General Hospital.

The plague wave that had reached Pune was part of the ‘Third Plague Pandemic’ which had started in Yunnan, China in 1855 and entered India through the port city of Mumbai via Hong Kong. The epidemic would last for well over two decades and would kill about 10 million Indians by between 1896 and 1918, as it ravaged one city after the other.

However, none of the scores of cities that were afflicted by the pestilence would cause as much political uproar as the Poona Plague did.


By the end of February, Pune had recorded 308 cases of plague with 271 deaths. The dread of the disease which such a high mortality rate had caused the locals to flee the city. The municipal officials estimated that about 15,000 to 20,000 locals had left the city to escape the pandemic and had settled in villages in the outskirts. At this was happening, locals, as well as Englishmen, were asking for the appointment of a ‘strong officer’ who would improve the sanitary and health situation in the city, failing which, they feared, “the matters will never mend and go down form bad to worse.”

The strongman that the Bombay Presidency Governor William Mansfield Sandhurst decided to appoint was 34-year-old Walter Charles Rand, an Oxford-educated officer of the Indian Civil Service, who was then serving in Satara. Rand was appointed on February 10 1987 as an Assistant Collector for Pune and Chairman of the Poona Plague Committee.

“My first duty was to ascertain the extent to which the disease had already spread in Poona,” Rand wrote in the plague report that he drafted but was killed before he could submit it to the Governor. “After examining the current death register of Poona Municipal Corporation and mortality returns for previous years I discovered that … the morality in the city was growing at an alarming rate since the beginning of January…On the same day I also informed the Collector that Poona had become a very dangerous plague centre,” Rand wrote.


As per Rand, Surgeon Captain Beveridge arrived in Pune to assist in fighting the epidemic in the city with the idea of using military men in the plague operations. “Up to the time of Surgeon Captain Beveridge’s arrival, the use of anything but civil agency for dealing with the epidemic had not been considered. That officer, however, who had had considerable experience of the Plague in Hong Kong and methods adopted there for stamping it out, formed a decided opinion that the help of soldiers would be desirable in Poona, especially to search for sufferers from plague, their removal to suitable hospitals, and the disinfection of plague-infected houses,” Rand says in the report.

Image 1 Credit George Lambert

Following this, Poona Collector RA Lamb sent out a formal request to the government of Bombay Presidency for this purpose. “The aid of the soldiers is needed because the men are available, they are disciplined, they can be relied upon to be thorough and honest in their inspection, while no native agency is available, or could be relief on if it were,” he said.

At this time the population of Pune – including those residing in municipal limits, cantonments and suburbs – was 1.61 lakh. The plan prepared by Rand attached the greatest importance to house-to-house search for infected patients and suspects …. There was intense aversion among the townsfolk for taking out the plague-infected family members to the hospital. The families resorted to “incredible shifts” in order to prevent authorities from detecting a plague patient. Such patients were hidden in lofts, cupboards and gardens or “anywhere where their presence was least likely suspected”. This, the administration argued, would leave no option but to resort to “compulsory methods” to ensure isolation of the infected patients.

Five special plague hospitals were erected in various parts of the city, each for Hindu, Muslim, Parsi communities in addition to one general hospital and Sassoon Hospital where Europeans were treated. On the same line, four segregation camps were set up where family members and other contacts of the plague patients were kept under observation.

Plague 4

“There was, it is true, no Indian example of the suppression by strong measures of an epidemic of plague which had established itself in a large town, but the possibility of so suppressing the disease had been demonstrated at Hongkong in 1894. It was certain that if the plague was not to be allowed to run its course but was to be stamped out of Poona, stringent measures would have to be taken,” Rand observed in the report.

The containment policy adopted by Rand and his team was to actively search the localities in the city with the help of the soldiers accompanied by natives for plague-infected patients (or their dead bodies) and take them to the hospitalS (or cremate the bodies under medical supervision). The houses where patients were found were cleaned, fumigated, dug up (to destroy rats) and lime washed.

The work of search parties was carried out between March 13 and May 19 1987. About 20 search parties (later increased to 60) each consisting three British soldiers and one native gentleman were formed for his purpose. A division of 10 search parties had one medical officer and a lady searcher to inspect women in purdah.

“In order that plague patients might not be removed before the arrival of the troops, no intimation as to what area was to be searched was given to the public. The streets in which the search took place were patrolled by Cavalry. The only important complaint about the first day’s work was that doors forced open by the troops were not reclosed. This difficulty was got over on subsequent occasions by attaching to each search division a few Native troops with hammers and staples to fasten up doors after the searchers

As per Rand’s report, the attitude of the residents was “friendly” to the search parties except that of the Brahmin community which was unfriendly and tried to obstruct the searches. The medical officers were supplied with cash advances and had instructions to pay compensation for any articles belonging to plague patients that might be destroyed.

“It was found at the beginning of the operations that rather too many articles were at times destroyed as rubbish. Orders were accordingly issued on March 26th to Officers commanding limewashing divisions to visit, if possible, all houses to be limewashed and to decide what should be destroyed in each. It was also laid down that when a property of any value to the owners was destroyed by limewashing party, the Officer commanding the division should note the approximate cost of replacing what had been destroyed in order that compensation might afterwards be paid. In practice nothing was destroyed after the first fortnight of the operations except in the presence of an officer,” reads the report.

Image 3 Credit George Lambert

The searches, the Committee claimed, bore results. Between March 13 and May 19 1987, it searched 2,18,214 houses and found 338 plague cases and 64 corpses.

The Committee also claimed that it had given instructions to the limewashing parties to limewash all articles in the house, in case a plague patient or dead body was found, all rubbish found in the house should then be burnt, but no property of any value to the inmates should be destroyed, the whole interior of the house should then be limewashed. If the floor is of earth it should be dug up to a depth of 4 inches and disinfected with liquid chloride of lime.

All entry and exit points to the city were manned by British soldiers to ensure that no one from infected area enters Pune or plague suspects flee the city or smuggle out the dead bodies to escape testing by the authorities.

As per the British, there were very few complaints about the conduct of the soldiers – both British and Native – and whenever any complaint was made action was taken against the violators. In a letter written to Rand on May 20 1987, Major A Deb V Paget who was commanding the operations lists six cases which were found to be true involving stealing of money while conducting house searches, stealing goods and receiving money from the native residents.

Poona Mortality Curve
This curve shows mortality in Pune City plotted with deaths in each five-day interval on the Y-axis between December 20 to May 30. As per Surgeon Captain Beveridge who made the curve, it shows a steady rise until the first week of March and then a marked fall which could be accounted for by measures taken by the plague committee.

The committee also claimed that these “energetic measures” carried out by military officers with “praiseworthy zeal” led to the decline of the disease by the end of May 1897 after a peak in March.


Local experience of these search operations and forceful segregation of plague patients and suspect, however, was not as benign. The complaints sent to senior officials – including Rand – and news reports in the local publications suggests that residents looked at these operations as a reign of terror.

As per the petitions, as summarised by Rajnarayan Chandavarkar in his essay ‘Plague Panic and Epidemic Politics in India: 1896-1914’ published in the book Epidemic and Ideas, there was wanton and indiscriminate destruction of the property during searches. The segregation and limewashing parties would dig up the floor, put gallons of disinfectant in the nook and crannies of the houses, at times broke open the doors and left them ajar, took away “perfectly healthy” persons and, in some cases, even neighbours and passers-by.

“…There were complaints that ‘all the females are compelled to come out of their houses and stand before the public gaze in the open street and be there subjected to inspection by soldiers. Soldiers were said to behave ‘disgracefully with native ladies’ and the tenor of the official response was that they had ‘merely joked with a Marathi woman’ suggest that sexual harassment probably did occur. Shripat Gopal Kulkarni, an octogenarian, complained that ten or twelve soldiers had burst into his house, forced him to undress, ‘felt…the whole of my body and then made me sit and rise and sitting around me went on clapping their hands and dancing,” writes Chandavarkar.

It was at this backdrop that Bal Gangadhar Tilak wrote in Mahratta, his English newspaper, that the” Plague is more merciful to us than its human prototypes now reigning the city. The tyranny of Plague Committee and its chosen instruments is yet too brutal to allow respectable people to breathe at ease.”

No doubt that the regulations and measures as they were imposed in Pune were the most stringent among all the cities which were afflicted by the pandemic. In fact, Antony MacDonnel Lieutenant-Governor of the North-Western Provinces had observed in July 1897 in a communique that “If the plague regulations had been enforced in any city of these provinces in the way in which …they were…enforced in Poona, there would have been bloodshed here.”


Blood was indeed shed. On June 22 1897, Chapekar brothers – Damodar (27), Balkrisha (24) and Vasudev (17 or 18) – shot Rand and Lieutenant Charles Ayerst while they were returning from Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Celebration at Government House in Ganeshkhind (now Pune University). While Ayerst died immediately, Rand succumbed to the injuries on July 3.

Damodar Chapekar, who is said to have planned and led the assassination, said in his confession (which was later retracted by him) that the search operations carried by British soldiers were behind his decision to kill Rand.

“In the search of houses a great zulum (atrocities) was practised by the soldiers and they entered the temples and brought out women from their houses, broke idols and burnt pothis (holy books). We determined to revenge these actions but it was no use to kill common people and it was necessary to kill the chief man. Therefore we determined to kill Mr Rand who was the chief,” Damodar was recorded to have said on October 8 1897 in front of a magistrate following his arrest.

This roadside sclupture in Pune depicts the assassination of Rand by Chapekar brothers – Damodar, Bal Krishna and Vasudev – in a rather erroneous manner.  As per police records, Damodar had shot Rand at “point blank range” from behind by climbing up the moving tonga and throwing up the curtain. (Picture: Atikh Rashid)

While none of the Chapekar brothers or their other accomplices hinted so, the British also surmised that the attack may have been inspired by the “peculiarly violent writing of the Poona newspapers regarding the plague administration” and “some of the recognised organs (of the Poona Brahmins) have, in articles that shortly preceded the murders, almost openly advocated the duty of the forcible resistance to the authority. The reference here was Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s editorials in Kesari as well as writings and reporting in other newspapers such as Sudharak and Poona Vaibhav among others.

The government – startled, embarrassed by the murders – booked Tilak of sedition under Section 124 of Indian Penal code for exciting feelings of disaffection among the public through his writings in Kesari. It was also alleged that by glorifying and justifying Shivaji’s killing of Afzal Khan in the 17th century, he directly supported violence and resultantly caused murders of the two British officers barely a week after the publication of the articles. The court found Tilak guilty and sent him to 18 months of imprisonment.


The alleged atrocities committed by British soldiers during plague control operations also caused an uproar in United Kingdom when Congress leader from Maharashtra Gopal Krishna Gokhale who was visiting England to appear before Welby Commission gave an interview to The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) on July 2 1897 (published on July 3) in which he levelled serious accusations against the British soldiers. These “rumours” were the talk of the town in India but were raised outside the country with such prominence for the first time.

Apart from detailing how soldiers “ignorant of the language and contemptuous to customs” offended scores of ways, he also made allegations of “violation of two women, of whom is said to have committed suicide rather than to survive her shame” attributing the information to his contacts back home in Pune. This caused an uproar in the British parliament as well back home in India. The Bombay Presidency government called it a “malevolent invention” and challenged Gokhale to prove them or share with the government the names of the persons who had shared this information with him.

After his return to India, Gokhale tried his best to gather evidence from the persons who had written to him about the atrocities against the women – especially the two cases of rape – but nobody was willing to come forward, especially in the light of the severe crackdown in Pune post-Rand’s assassination including sedition case against Tilak. A detailed account of this episode has been given by Stanley Wolpert in his book Tilak and Gokhale: Revolution and reform in the making of modern India.

Unable to substantiate these claims, Gokhale published an “unqualified apology” to British soldiers which was published the Manchester Guardian and The Times of India on August 4.

As per, Chandavarkar the rumours of these violations – which may or may not be confirmed – should be seen as the nightmarish experience of the local population of their private places being “invaded and violated” by uninformed foreign agents.

“Stories about the behaviour of the soldiers may have borne a considerable measure of truth but they also reflected the nightmarish invasion and violation of privacy – even god-rooms and kitchens – by the most frightening, powerful, uniformed foreign agent of public authority. Sexual harassment by the soldiers and their ‘disgraceful behaviour towards the native ladies’ almost certainly occurred – ad, indeed, physical examination, ‘the exploration of the native’s body’ in the street of at railway checkpoints may themselves be regarded precisely as that – but reports of them also served as a metaphor for the violent eruption of the state into the privacy of people’s lives,” Chandavarkar writes.

The plague, meanwhile, continued its killing spree in the city for several years. By May 1904, it infected 45,665 and killed 37,178.