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A pan-India effort to send home those lost, lodged at Mumbai shelter during lockdown

On Thursday, three volunteers, two drivers and the last two guests from the shelter drove around Varanasi in a large utility vehicle searching for a familiar ghat or locality.

Written by Kavitha Iyer | Mumbai | Published: July 13, 2020 1:49:22 am
Migrant workers, Coronavirus Lockdown, Mumbai shelter, Mumbai news, Indian express news Minaben Patel (third from left) after being reunited with her family.

Picked up by police from under flyover bridges, or found disoriented, hungry and lost on highways or outside railway stations, they arrived at Mumbai’s first public-private shelter camp for migrants in Versova in April. Nearly three months later, after a pan-India effort, five men and three women are about to return to their families.

On Thursday, three volunteers, two drivers and the last two guests from the shelter drove around Varanasi in a large utility vehicle searching for a familiar ghat or locality. “We reached Benares on Wednesday night after first going from Mumbai to Gujarat, then Odisha, then West Bengal,” says Dashrath Yadav, a former Mumbai autorickshaw driver and activist with the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao (GBGB) Aandolan, speaking over the phone from near Rajghat in Varanasi.

One of their last two guests, hearing and speech-impaired, still unidentified and who arrived at the camp with no documents or phone, is heard in the background making sounds at the sight of something familiar. Over three months at the camp, after various failed attempts to communicate with him in sign language, the frail man’s face had lit up upon being shown photographs of Kashi Vishwanath, nearby temples and the famous ghats of Varanasi.

Anil Hebbar of Helping Hands Charitable Trust says these guests had nothing on them by which their native villages could be located. Two men were hearing and speech-impaired. “When the Versova camp was closing towards the end of May, of 283 guests who were still there, 210 were sent home on Shramik special trains with police help. The remaining were brought to the Ghatkopar training centre of the Maharashtra Home Guards, from where many more continued to be sent home. We booked a flight for a small group to Odisha. Many went on buses organised by actor Sonu Sood. But these eight had no Aadhaar card, no identifying documents, so flights and even the Shramik trains were impossible,” Hebbar says.

One woman, Minaben Patel, 46, spoke Gujarati, but couldn’t correctly name her village. She had been separated from her family during a visit to Mumbai a little before the lockdown. The woman said she had come to Mumbai to attend a rally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but activists later found the family had actually made the trip for a spiritual leader’s gathering where they were separated in the crowd.

“Her mother and brother were in tears when we reached them last week in a remote village near Navsari,” says Yadav. Minaben only knew she lived near Vapi, and the team followed her instructions from there for the next 50 kilometre or so. The family had tried to register a missing person complaint in Mumbai and then in Gujarat, but had not been able to do so due to the lockdown.

Yadav and the others then headed to Odisha. On being shown various scripts on the back of a currency note, one of the disabled guests had pointed to the Punjabi script, but then had scrawled something that was so unintelligible that Twitter users could not even say which language it was. Eventually, the unidentified man appeared to recognise photos of Naveen Patnaik and the Jagannath temple in Puri, but once the team arrived in Odisha, at an institution for the speech-impaired, experts managed to glean from him that he was from somewhere near Howrah, over 500 km away.

“We went around Howrah bridge many times, then finally we made him stand on the bridge, and see if he had a sense of which direction home is,” says Yadav.

Eventually, the man recognised Howrah station where he seemed to be at home, and indicated that he wanted to be dropped there. He’d been an expert cook, dishing out samosas on occasion at the camp. The volunteers bought him a new shirt, handed him Rs 500, shared a last cup of tea with him, and turned westward, to Varanasi. Here, they hope a boatman or other resident will recognise their second-last guest, who can only communicate with sounds.

The last to be dropped will be Ganesh Thapa, 35, from Nepal, who arrived in Mumbai early this year in the hope of finding work. “Instead, I ended up with tuberculosis, found no work, and was quite sick when police took me from Lokmanya Tilak Terminus to the Versova camp,” Thapa says, speaking on Yadav’s phone. With two little children waiting at home, Thapa says he knows how to get to the border from Lucknow, and will be given cash for the taxi ride. The camp volunteers had also put him on medication for TB.

Two others, an ascetic from Kurukshetra and a homeless man who had been kidnapped at the age of five and later served time in prison himself, boarded a train from Bandra Terminus last month, minus the mandatory Aadhaar cards with some help from kind policemen. Both left for New Delhi. Hebbar remembers the former convict as the most hardworking at the camp, raking leaves and composting them every day. Another woman who had arrived in Mumbai after a fight with family members returned home to Tamil Nadu with relatives who were contacted via social media.

Of the eight, only one, a mentally unstable woman, continues to be homeless. She had told camp organisers that she was picked up from outside the Haji Ali shrine where she usually begged. She left one day, all of a sudden, and was tracked later to a road outside a mall in Kurla. “Even beggars’ homes are demanding Covid-19 negative certificates, and she wouldn’t allow anyone to approach her,” says Hebbar.

In addition to the eight, aspiring actor Lakshmi Harihar from Davangere in Karnataka was also among the homeless who arrived at the Versova shelter, with four large bags of her belongings in early May, having been asked to vacate the flat where she was a paying guest. On Thursday morning, after a nearly three-month stay with nuns at a convent in Bandra, she boarded a train to Bengaluru, from where a volunteer will help her board a bus to her hometown.

Their longing for home, coupled with the inability to describe where home is, was apparent through the three months they spent as the camp’s guests, says Hebbar, who raised money via Ketto and through some large donors. Ultimately, it was his acquaintance and philanthropist Shamini Murugesh who undertook to pay whatever it cost to get these guests home. The volunteers from GBGB Aandolan, drivers and guests drove out of Mumbai on July 1, sleeping and eating at dhabas, sometimes inside the car.

At nearly 5,000 km, Hebbar expects that bill to be about Rs 1 lakh. “Entirely worth the homecoming to loved ones during a pandemic,” he says.

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