On a hot Monday afternoon near the Delhi-UP border at Ghazipur, hundreds of people are crowded under a flyover. Most have holdalls on their shoulders, some are stretched out with the bags under their heads. In a corner is a dustbin, with plastic plates and discarded food. A child is vomiting into the dustbin. “Dhoop lag gayi hai (she’s had a sunstroke),” her mother says loudly, rubbing her shoulders. Bimar nahin hai aise(she is not unwell otherwise).”
People turn to look at her, a few move away. There isn’t very far to go, though. “They talk of social distancing, but at least 150 people are crammed under this one flyover,” says Murari Mandal, a 32-year-old former security guard. Mandal, like the other migrant workers here, lost his job when the lockdown hit and is in the hope of catching a bus home to Uttar Pradesh. “If we get a bus in the evening, great. Or we will start walking after sundown.”
Walk till where? “My village is near Pratapgarh (more than 700 km away). But others are from further away, in East UP, Bihar.”
But why walk when there are Shramik Special trains and the UP government is plying buses?
“You think walking was our first choice?” asks Durgesh Kumar, 20, who worked as an AC repairman in Delhi, and is trying to go to Laxmanpur in UP. “We know all about the government facilities, but they are using a mug to water a sugarcane field. The process to register for tickets is complicated, the fares are unaffordable, and the number of trains is too few.”
According to the Noida administration, migrant workers are supposed to register on jansunwai.up.nic.in. They will then be SMSed the date, time, and railway station for the train. On the scheduled day, a bus will ferry them to the station, and this SMS will serve as the bus ticket.
“They want us to register online, when internet cafes are shut, we are out of phone data and no recharge shops are open. Still, I managed to register,” says Sukruddin, a 28-year-old construction worker who wants to go to Katihar, Bihar. “But no SMS ever came. See, this is crueler. Just tell us you can’t help. Why give hope and take it away? Since the day I registered, living in Delhi has become impossible. I keep thinking of home.”
Getting on the train too isn’t the complete solution. “I came to Delhi from Doda in Jammu and Kashmir,” says Arun Kumar, 25, a truck loader. “I wasn’t taken to any quarantine centre, I wasn’t told what to do next. I have no option but to catch what vehicle I can till as far as I can, or walk to Aurangabad (in Bihar).”
“I paid Rs 3,000 to come to Delhi from Mumbai by train. I need to go to Aligarh. In Mumbai, I stayed locked inside the Chinese restaurant I worked for. Now, I know I am exposing myself to all kinds of risks. But if it comes to that, I am willing to walk to Aligarh,” says Mohammed Danish, 25.
But isn’t walking unsafe? The sun is beating down, there have been road accidents. There will be no temperature checks or quarantine facilities if they walk, aren’t they exposing their families to risk? Why not just wait in the city?
“Oh I will stay at the village border for 14 days, heck, for a month. But I want to be near my land, my people now. The city was pitiless towards us. We gave it our sweat and blood. It had nothing to give us the day we became useless for it,” says Shambhu, who is from Sasaram in Bihar, and worked in a garage here.
As for the dangers on the road, Sukruddin says: “We will die here too. People will starve, or turn to crime.” He adds, “If I die on the road, I will die with the hope of home in my heart. Here, I will die with no family, no money, no dignity.”
“We are used to back-breaking labour, inadequate food and water,” says Shambhu. “The physical labour of walking doesn’t scare us. Here, we are reduced to living on charity. Listening to the landlord’s insults. Khuddar aadmi hain. Sheher kamaane aaye they, bhikhari ban ke reh gaye(I am a self-reliant man. I came to the city to earn, have turned into a beggar),” Shambhu’s eyes well up.
Most migrants have common complaints. No salaries, landlords pressing for rent. With the small eateries shut, no place to eat.
“We have been eating the khichdi the government or individuals hand out. But you get that only if you reach on time, wait in the queue. And there will always be someone to click pictures. I stopped going because of the damn cameras. Which self-respecting human likes to be photographed accepting charity? Bihar mein hamari jameen hai. Dekh ke do log hath jodta hai. Abhi majboor hain (I have some land, people respect me in the village. I am helpless here),” says Anil Rai, who drove an Ola cab.
What about the government’s assistance schemes? The rule says they can complain to the police if their landlord harasses them. Did they try that?
“We know of all the schemes. But there is no guarantee you will get anything even after registering. Some of us did receive Rs 500 in our accounts. How long is Rs 500 supposed to last? Policewallahs talk with their lathis, they don’t entertain us. The store-owners give the free ration to their acquaintances. Nothing comes to the labourer,” says another youth, not giving his name.
“Basically, we have been left totally on our own. Neither the state nor the Centre has been of help. At least UP is running buses, Bihar has done nothing. I am telling you, Nitish (Kumar) will pay for this in the upcoming election. The abandoned migrant worker will never forgive him,” says Rai.
“Bhai, I am from UP. Which bus do you see coming to take me?” asks Mandal. “Modiji talks of being aatmanirbhar. What is more self-dependent than walking? But when we try to do that, they seal borders, harass us in 100 ways.”
“That aatmanirbhar package in itself will tell you we are nowhere in the government’s calculations,” says Durgesh. “They are offering loans to small businesses. I don’t need a loan, I need money to stay alive so I can get employed by a small business. For people like me, there is only the free grains and chana. But do I have no other need than grains? Maveshi hain, ki khali chara chahiye? (Does the government think we are cattle who need nothing more than feed)?”
“We build your cities, clean your drains. We even vote in larger numbers than the rich. It is the rich who need us, not the other way round. Left to our own devices, we would have been home by now, taking all health precautions. But while the government has abandoned us, it still refuses to leave us alone,” says Sukruddin.