In a renewed push to return to their home states in north India, thousands of migrant workers took to the highways over the weekend, most of them walking towards the Maharashtra border with Madhya Pradesh, hoping to find transport along the way, but determined to reach home even if they could not.
Unconvinced about and weary of waiting for their names to appear on lists for trains that are being run by the Railways to take them back home, or just running around for the required documentation, many have decided it was better to start out on foot. Catching the disease and dying of it in Mumbai and other crowded satellite towns has been one of the main drivers of the new exodus.
Over 50 trains have left from Maharashtra since May 3. On Sunday, seven trains left from the Mumbai Metropolitan Region for destinations in north India.
On Sunday, the Uddhav Thackeray government announced that it would pay for the train tickets of stranded migrants who are unable to pay the fare themselves. The government said it would do this for workers wishing to leave the state, and for Maharashtrian workers wishing to return home from other states.
The government, meanwhile, stayed a free intra-state bus service by Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) to take Maharashtrian workers stuck in various districts back to their home districts, due to opposition from these districts that the returnees might be carrying the infection with them. Before it was stayed, buses from Thane and Nashik transported migrant workers to their villages in Marathwada and Vidarbha on Sunday.
MSRTC has also started plying buses for migrant workers from other states to drop them off at the state border. One such bus left with 22 passengers for Madhya Pradesh border from Igatpuri on Sunday.
A government resolution issued on Sunday assigned the task to respective district collectors of identifying those wanting to leave Maharashtra by train and who cannot pay the train fare. The fares will then be paid by the respective district collectors to Railways from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. Similarly, for the returning Maharashtrian workers, collectors of the destination districts will be responsible for coordinating with the district administration of the areas from where they are boarding and make arrangements for paying their fares.
But those wishing to leave for their home states from Maharashtra are in no mood to wait. The groups of walking migrants were so large in number that they caused a massive traffic pile-up in Kasara Ghat on Saturday, even with limited number of vehicles on the roads due to the ongoing lockdown.
Officials said the movement of both people and vehicles was better regulated on Sunday, with social activists turning out to help.
“Many were under the impression that they could hitch a ride from Nashik, as the city and its adjoining areas receive a high number of inter-state trucks that come to procure agricultural produce,” said Bhagwan Madhe, a tribal activist in Igatpuri, who was witness to a large group of people walking on the highway.
Nandkumar Vishwakarma, a carpenter who was working in Bhiwandi before the lockdown, said he was willing to take a chance than waiting it out. “We are running out of money. Everyday is a test of survival. We were told that it is far easier to board a vehicle from Nashik than from Mumbai. We decided to walk rather than indefinitely wait for a chance to board a bus or train,” said Vishwakarma, who reached Igatpuri by Sunday evening.
Many of the migrants also believe that it may be easier to board a train from Igatpuri, an important railway junction in the state.
On Sunday, the tehsildar of Igatpuri, along with police personnel, patrolled the stretch asking people to refrain from walking on the highway. Arrangements were also made along the highway to provide water and food for the migrants.
Sanjay Patil, Additional Superintendent of Police, Thane Rural, said additional police personnel have been deployed to ensure smooth movement as people were seen walking, cycling or stuffed in private vehicles on the winding hilly accident-prone stretch through the day.
“There is a fear of accident as so many people are walking on the highway. We have made arrangements to ensure that no one is hurt,” he added.
Many of the stranded workers said they were unable to pay for the rail or road travel fares, while others claimed they had not been able to register for the services or had to wait waiting for their turn too long.