As Shramik Express, a special train carrying 1,216 migrant workers and their families from Akola in Maharashtra, chugs into Lucknow’s Charbagh railway station on Tuesday morning at sharp 9 o’clock, 23-year-old Brijendra Kushwaha gazes out of the window with the hint of a smile.
Accompanied by his 22-year-old wife, Vineeta, and their two-year-old daughter, Lavi, they step out clutching two bags, filled with clothes mostly, in their hands.
Reminded to maintain social distancing and not to hurry through the public announcement system at the station, they queue up for thermal screening at the exit gate as officials keep a close watch on any symptom of coronavirus.
“For more than a month, the lockdown has been going on. There was no business and returning home was the only option for my family,” says Brijendra, who had left his Kachh Purwa village in Rasoolabad Block of Kanpur Dehat district in January to go to Washim in Maharashtra to eke out a living. There he sold kulfi and made around Rs 10,000 a month.
Brijendra says that he would not have been able to make the journey, had people in his neighbourhood in Washim did not help them. “We had run out of money. We got ration once, and we ran out of that also. People in my neighbourhood collected Rs 5,000 and gave it to me. If they hadn’t given us the money, we wouldn’t have been able to return home,” says Brijendra.
Wife Vineeta says that they had to pay Rs 2,000 to hire a car to reach Akola station from Washim as public transport was not available.
Taking out a railway ticket from his pocket, Brijendra says, “The local Lekhpal took money from us for the rail ticket a day before we left. I paid Rs 1,110 to buy the tickets for the three of us.”
After the family of three is screened and their temperatures recorded, their names and other details are noted down. Officials check the health certificate issued by a community health centre of Akola and hand them a box of puri-subzi before they are allowed to exit the station.
As they come out of the imposing building of the Charbagh station, Brijendra asks an official about the bus for Kanpur Dehat. To his dismay, he is told that there is no bus listed for Kanpur Dehat and instead, he has to first go to Kanpur and from there he could go to Kanpur Dehat.
According to UPSRTC, 53 buses were deployed to ferry the returning migrants to different districts of the state.
Half an hour later, Brijendra and his family get to board a bus for Kanpur city, but to their surprise, the bus doesn’t move for another two hours for the completion of paperwork.
“I will write down each person’s name, their father’s name, age, gender, mobile number, where they have come from, their home address, their Aadhaar number and whether they are symptomatic or asymptomatic as written in their medical certificate provided by local administration of the sender state. Then this form with all the details will go to the Lucknow administration, who will make a copy of it and approve it for travel. All this takes some time,” bus conductor Rohit Gaur, wearing a mask and a face shield, explains the delay.
Around 11.30 am, the 50-seater bus with 29 adults and four children maintaining social distancing finally starts to move. “Now, we will get home soon,” Brijendra assures his daughter in a comforting tone.
The bus reaches Kanpur city, 83 km from Lucknow, around 1.20 pm, where five migrant workers get down. Soon an official of UPSRTC tells the driver of the bus to head to Kanpur Dehat to drop the remaining passengers. A visibly annoyed driver resist. “I was told I have to drop these people in Kanpur city. Now, I have to take them to Kanpur Dehat too.”
Meanwhile, a local revenue official hands over 20 food packets to the passengers as they get down to fill water bottles.
“Haan, raaste mein hain. Abhi time lagega (Yes, we are on the way. It will take time),” Brijendra is heard speaking on phone to his mother. “She has been asking me to come home for a month. I kept telling her that I will come when it becomes possible to travel,” Brijendra says as he ends the call.
“We have around 5 bigha of land. So, we won’t starve in our village,” says Brijendra who has his parents and a sister at the village home. “We don’t have any symptoms. No fever, so we will be going home today even if we reach late in the night,” he adds as the bus starts to head to Rasoolabad in Kanpur Dehat, another 73 km away.
Around 3.15 pm, midway to Rasoolabad in Mati area of Kanpur Dehat district, a UPSRTC official standing on the highway asks the bus to stop. “Yahaan se Derapur tehsil building jaana hai tumko (You have to go to Derapur tehsil building from here),” the official tells the conductor.
As the official speaks with the conductor and driver, Brijendra and others try to eavesdrop their conversation. “There is still no clarity on what will happen after reaching Derapur. The official told the driver that they will be told there,” Brijendra conveys what he hears.
An hour later, the bus enters Derapur, where a team of police at a check-post tells the driver to head towards the tehsil building. After a 15-minute slow drive, making way through a narrow road, the bus reaches Derapur tehsil building. But there an official tells the driver, “You did not have to come here. You have to go to the school on the adjacent road. Who sent you here?”
The driver does not respond and shrugs off his shoulder.
“Ab yahaan bhi corona aa gaya… Corona ke mareezon ko yahaan kyun laya pata nahi. Bhagwaan bachaye (Now, the coronavirus has come here too… I don’t know why they brought coronavirus patients here. God save us),” says a man in his 20s idling around his house near the tehsil building.
As officials brainstorm on what route the bus should take to reach the school building on the adjacent road, Brijendra seeks permission to step out so that his daughter could relieve herself. But in a stern tone, the driver tells him not to step out of the bus.
After half an hour, the bus starts moving, only to get stuck in a drain near the school building.
The passengers are then asked to get off the bus and to stand in two queues – one for men, and another for women and children – while maintaining social distancing.
“All of you will live here for 14 days. The SDM sir has given the orders to keep you all here for at least 14 days,” Derapur Tehsildar Lal Singh Yadav announces.
Initially, the UP government had announced that any returning migrant will be allowed to stay in 14-day home quarantine if they clear health screening and has no symptoms of coronavirus.
But at the same time, the government left it on the district magistrates to take a final call on it. Not keen to take any chance after a migrant worker from Surat testing positive for the virus, the Kanpur administration has made compulsory institutional 14-day quarantine for every returning migrant workers.
Once again Brijendra and his family stand but in two separate queues for the same drill of thermal screening and a host of questions awaiting them.
“I was told in Lucknow by an official that if I don’t have any symptoms, I will be allowed to go home. Now, they are saying I have to live here for 14 days… Now, what will I tell my mother,” he says and walks gingerly for the thermal screening as his mother keeps calling on his phone.
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