“We’ve paid Rs 3,500 per head. There is a truck waiting for us at Thane. I had run out of money, so I asked my brother to wire me some,” said Vivek Tiwari (26), who hails from Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh, and is walking towards Thane’s Teen Hath Naka from Ramghar — a slum hotspot in Mulund (West), where 23 people had recently tested positive for Covid-19.
Tiwari is part of a group of five who have decided to walk and hitchhike their way to UP. Santosh Jaiswal (30), another member of the group, said, “We live in small houses with four to five other people. We are worried we will catch the infection. Also, we don’t have money for rent, we barely have enough for daily needs and the landlord is unrelenting.”
With the government eager to let them return home even during the lockdown, thousands of migrants continue to pour out on the highways of Maharashtra with nothing more than a few rupees in their pocket, a knapsack over their backs, and a prayer on their lips to take them home.
And for trucks ferrying essentials to city areas, transporting migrants after they have emptied their goods has come as an unexpected, but lucrative business opportunity.
Each truck accommodates around 30 to 40 migrants, charging between Rs 3,500 to Rs 5,000 per head. The fare for the Mumbai-Delhi Rajdhani Express is a little over Rs 4,000.
Those walking to the waiting trucks at Thane are not limited to border suburbs like Mulund, but are coming from as far as Goregaon, Sion and Wadala in Mumbai.
Mulund BJP MLA Mihir Kotecha asked how this is possible during the lockdown. “There must be at least six police check points between Sion and the Mulund toll booth. How are these people crossing them? Why aren’t they being stopped?”
He added, “I’ve been trying to convince migrant families not to risk it all or act in haste. We’ve also been promising even those coming from other parts of city shelter and food. But most seem unwilling to stay back.”
But it has been apparent for days that fearing law and order problems, the state government wants migrants to leave Maharashtra, and one of the reasons for the Centre to run Shramik trains to take workers back was Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s insistence that the Railways operate special trains.
Even so, there are “guides” – apparently working on behalf of the truck drivers – accompanying groups of workers to show them roads and lanes that bypass police pickets and toll booths, making it seem more like a hard worked great escape.
Mulund, for instance, has three manned entry and exit points to the city. The guides use the lesser known unmanned exits to take the workers to the trucks waiting at the Thane junction. Bylanes, broken boundary walls and lesser known roads all are part of the escape plan.
Daboo Pandey, a guide accompanying Tiwari and Jaiswal’s group, takes them through a broken wall at Mulund’s Neelam Nagar that opens beyond the Mulund toll naka into Thane. “They are new to the city. I’ve just come to drop them,” said Pandey. But Vishal Jaiswal (18), one of the workers in the group, says Pandey was helping them cross over to the other side.
Traveling thousands of kilometers crammed in tempos, trucks and containers is a risky proposition – some have met with accidents on the way – but that is hardly a deterrent. “The lockdown is being extended every time. We fear the government wants to keep us here under pressure from the industry lobby. We want to be with our families right now,” said Harish Rai (33), who has come from Worli.
Families of migrant workers are also arriving near the Mulund toll naka in “tourist” vehicles, where a policeman tells them to walk towards the exit point, making it clear that he does not have orders to stop them.
“Someone I know said they can arrange for a trip back home. We were running out of food and money. So, we’ve decided to travel with them,” said Ishar Khan (42), who was travelling back with his wife and three children. Khan, a painter by profession, had taken a loan of Rs 10,000 for the trip.
Though Shramik trains have been leaving Mumbai from Lokmanya Tilak Terminus, Bandra Terminus and Borivali, the number of those walking and hitchhiking hasn’t gone down.
Abhay Yawalkar, Director of Maharashtra Disaster Management Authority, said the state had arranged 65 trains, and state transport buses are also being used to ferry migrants to the Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh border. “But many are still taking unnecessary risks.”
Thane Collector Rajesh Narvekar said, “We had stationed buses at various points (in Thane). On Tuesday, 256 buses were used to ferry migrants.” Ram Prasad, a migrant from Bihar, said, “A few days ago, some people in our area made it back to the villages by road, so we decided to go. Sarkar se koi ummeed nahin hai.”
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