On Saturday, says 28-year-old Bhupendra Singh, his lie was caught. For seven days, living in difficult conditions — with no food and money left — Singh had been lying to his family in Morena that all was well.
Singh is among the 50-odd pantry staff of 12779 Goa Express, stuck in the vicinity of Vasco-Da-Gama with nowhere to go since the Janata Curfew was announced. The train runs between Vasco da Gama, Goa and Hazrat Nizamuddin in New Delhi.
Another batch of pantry staff — similar in fate — are stuck in makeshift slums behind the railway yard at Margao railway station. Together, these men are the staff who cook and serve 500 to 1,000 meal plates a day to passengers travelling on the Konkan Railway network.
On March 22, Singh’s train, Goa Express, reached Vasco railway station at 6:30 am. “It was to leave again for its journey ahead when sirens went off, and since then, everything stopped moving,” he says.
While earlier he did make up stories, Singh, a server in the train for years now, says no stranger has reached to feed him in the past eight days. “I first faked stories, then invented them. But there is only so far you can stretch a lie. My wife finally understood that something was wrong. Now, for the past two days, I have been convincing her I will return alive,” he says.
His manager, Sher Singh, 33, has been running from pillar to post — trying to see if they get permissions and some government help to reach their home back in Madhya Pradesh. While some boys are from Morena, others are from Bhind, and then there are some who have to go ahead to Agra. Many have not eaten for days now — which makes Sher Singh wonder if they will end up like the photographs of migrants he now sees on his WhatsApp window.
The men first stayed in the train eating the pantry dry — “every little particle of food that was there in the pantry” is over now, says Sher Singh. They then moved to use the resources of the station.
Eventually, with the state too announcing a total lockdown, the men took refuge in a nearby Ram Temple — which they say, is not a permanent refuge as the temple pujari’s ration is getting over too.
For Sher Singh, the going has been tougher.
“Since I am the pantry manager, the boys are looking up to me for a solution — like they do inside the pantry during duty hours. I am on the same boat now. None of us has much money left and I have to now be like their father, a guardian. Hear their stories, of home, of parents and of the longing to go home. For the past four days, I have been walking to the offices of all officials, from railway to railway police, to collector to SP, to police. No one has answers. They all say no orders till April 15.”
Having initially been promised food packets from officials, Singh claims that too was taken away when they “realised we have some cement structure like a temple. They said temples have money and they will feed you,” he said.
Sonu Singhwat, 21, who otherwise had a full job of delivering water inside the train, says, “I will always value that bottle of water. It’s been tough. We have been sleeping in the open, eating whatever we get, are at the mercy of a temple staff who till now have been nice, but their stock and patience is running low. We don’t know where the next meal will come from.”
“Yesterday, when the lockdown opened for a bit, we collected whatever was left between us to buy food, but were stopped by cops and sent back. I returned just our of fear. looking at them,” Singhwat adds.
His calls now to his parents are “very simple and beautiful”. “Yesterday, I told them Goa is so beautiful and so nice. I tell them its such a nice place with nice people. They believe me. They better believe me.”
In Margao, too, a similar narrative runs — with 100-odd staff now sharing four rooms and two charging points between them in the slums. Here, the staff belongs to the Konkan Kanya Express (10111) and is in a worse situation, having no place to eat or use a latrine.
A staffer who didn’t want to be identified said, “It’s a little disgusting to note that every one is always excited about Mumbai-to-Goa travel. We are the staff that cook and feed all. Today, no one is there to even wonder how are we surviving. Our bosses too cannot do anything. They keep checking on us on phone, but the borders are sealed and this state has full lockdown with no one coming to our help.”
On Saturday, the Goa government finally introduced a system by appointing a secretary to look into the affairs of stranded migrants and labourers in the state. Sher Singh says now his next rounds will be to find out who is the officer on ground taking the “roll-call of the stranded” to avail benefits. Till then, he says, “I will keep listening to my boys and reassuring them. Even that will run dry if no help comes.”
When contacted, Chief PRO of Konkan Railway, LK Verma, said, “We have checked our station premises and there is no one stuck there. If there is some staff in the city area, it is the state administration’s responsibility to look after them.”
He further explained that Konkan Railway over the past one week had provided accommodation to all staff that was stuck and facilitated their journey back home as the trains were sent back to their parent railways.
One must also check if they are the railway staff or the vendors of IRCTC, he further added.
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