“Jab teen-teen bachon ke saath khane ko nahin hoga to kaise reh payenge yehan. Gaon mein to thoda bahut jameen hai jisse do vakat ki roti to mil jayegi, pardes mein kaya karenge bina kaam ke (When you do not have anything to feed three children, then how can you stay? Back in the village, we have a small piece of farmland which will provide us two meals a day. What will we do here without any work).” Anguish rose in 30-year-old Banita Devi’s voice as she spelled out her reasons for leaving Punjab.
Banita, her husband and their three children, were among the first batch of 1,200 migrants who boarded a Shramik Train from Jalandhar for Daltonganj in Jharkhand on Tuesday.
Not far away in Punjab’s industrial hub Ludhiana, Ram Nishad Kumar, a native of Bahraich in Uttar Pradesh, waited impatiently for a text message to inform him about the train journey that will take him back home.
“I was 17 when I came to Ludhiana, now I am 25. I married off my sister with my earnings, sent money back home. Last year, I too tied the knot. This karambhoomi of Ludhiana has given me a lot, but with no work and no savings, I want to go home. I have only Rs 240 in my pocket, I can’t keep queuing up for food every day,” said Ram, a construction worker.
He is one among the 10.08 lakh migrants who have so far registered at a government portal to return to their home states. Around 5.4 lakh among these are from this industrial hub of Ludhiana alone.
Living in a single room accommodation on Jassian road in Ludhiana, Ram had started by foot – along with with 19 others including two women and children – for Bahraich on Monday morning. The group had barely covered 21 km when they were spotted by Punjab Police personnel who told them about the helpline and asked them to register and await their turn. “There is limited construction activity now. So, why stay here?” asked Ram, who is looking forward to working on the 10 biswas his parents own back home.
Vishwanath, in his late 20s, who does grill and gate installation work and lives in Haibowal, has registered to return with his wife and a baby. Vishwanath said, “There is no work here and the number of cases is on the rise. We want to move out before we run out of all our money. I know we will be kept in a school near my village for 14 days once we return, but at least I will be home,” he said.
The news about the growing numbers is adding to their restlessness and the fear of coronavirus.
“Lakhs have got themselves registered, we have no idea how everyone will go. Crowded trains can give us the virus,” says Mohan Kumar, who is planning to cycle down to Saingnakhera in Unnao district of UP along with 15 others. “We will pedal at night and carry enough water plus gur and chana,” said Mohan, who comes here every year. Banka Yadav, who came here in March, is part of this group. “Every year, we come here for a few months. It is thanks to the work here that I have built a pucca house in my village and married of my sisters. But this year was different.”
Punjab industry is opening up and over 7,000 units out of 2.52 lakh have opened up till now absorbing nearly 2 lakh workers. Industry department figures say that over 15 lakh registered workers are employed in these units. “We will be able to see the impact in a few weeks. As of now, we have hardly any orders and we need only 50 per cent staff to work as per health norms,” said D S Chawla, president of United Cycles Parts and Manufacturers Association (UCPMA).
Most workers live in buildings with multiple rooms called ‘vehras’ . One room is shared by 5-6 men with a common toilet for 20-25 rooms. The lockdown has been a nightmare. “Earlier half of us used to be on day duty and the other half on night shift, so we never felt crowded,” explains Avinash, a native of Gorakhpur, who works in a factory at Dhandari.
He has work here, but he is also going back because he wants want to see his parents. “When they see workers in distress, they cry and ask me to come back,” says Avinash.
Inder Kumar, who is from Barh village near Patna, has also registered to return, for he feels suffocated. “Gaon mein sab khula khula hoga.”
The growing restlessness among the migrants was visible Tuesday afternoon, when over 50 workers from Jharkhand reached the Ludhiana railway station, saying that they want to board a train. Later, they staged a dharna on Jagraon bridge.
Meanwhile, the first batch of 1,200 migrants that left for Daltonganj in Jharkhand from Jalandhar seemed relieved.
Banita Devi’s husband, Nandu Mistri (39), who hails from Chak village in district Palamu, said that his family was left with no money and also they were not getting the any ration from the government except langar by some NGOs in their area.
“I am a carpenter and there is no work for the past 40 days,” said Nandu, who has been coming to Punjab for the past 17 years since 2003.
The couple’s twins — Supriya and Satyanshu – were born on April 9 in the middle of the lockdown at the rented room in —in Basti Shiekh. A doctor visited them for her for the delivery of their twins.
While their three-year-old daughter, Ragini, left with them, their eldest daughter — Ria (6) — lives with her maternal grandparents in Jharkhand.
Nandu says he will return once things return to normal, but Banita will not come back for at least a year.
Videsh Kumar Singh, who came to Jalandhar on March 19 and got stuck in the lockdown after working for four days, says he has not seen such bad days in his life.
“I came to earn money but now my family is sending money to me to survive here for the past over 40 days,” he said.
Rupesh Kumar (25), who had come here in February, says his employer did not pay him even for the month of March. Many said they will return once things get back to normal.
In Ludhiana, Harnek Singh, foreman in a steel factory at Sahnewal, said, “We opened our unit on May 4 and we will continue doing maintenance for another 10 days as it was closed for over 40 days. We hire labour via a contractor. I have told contractor to arrange labour after 10 days, he has assured that he will arrange, let’s see as many are planning to go back.”
Ramdin, from Gonda village, is among those who want to stay back. “I am in a bicycle unit, but I have no plans to go back. However, my parents call me every day. They feel scared after 24×7 news reports on TV. But I feel scared to travel in trains. I could get infected. Yeh bhi guzar jayega (this too shall pass),” says Ramdin, hoping that better days will return soon.
Meanwhile Tuesday, a Pryagraj-bound Shramik Train left Punjab from Ludhiana at 8 pm with the second batch of migrants. Out of 1,200 who were registered to leave on this train, only 900 left. “The rest have been called back to work by their employers,” said Ludhiana DC Pradeep Agarwal.
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