For nearly a month now, Ranjan Baspor (27), his wife and their four little girls have made a pedestrian bridge at Malad in suburban Mumbai their home, after being evicted from a rented shanty.
Three weeks since he filled out forms for the Shramik special trains, the migrant family walked 17 km to the Bandra Terminus on Thursday, his younger brother Sonu (19) helping Ranjan carry their two suitcases and two younger girls.
Frightened by the thousands of men crowding Jayprakash Road, tucked away at the rear of the railway station, the family squatted among the dozens milling around Nirmal Nagar police station in the vicinity. “I just needed to ask someone in authority when there will be a train to Jharkhand. Every time we approach a policeman, they threaten to swing their lathi at us. They abused me, using dirty words about my mother and sister,” said Ranjan, a native of Madhupur in Jharkhand.
The Baspors planned to spend the night hidden on a pavement near the station, too tired to walk back to their Malad bridge and also hopeful that hanging around the station will win them a sympathetic policeman’s help to get on a train even without verification.
Pay-and-park operator at Bandra (East), Ayub Qureshi, and Behram Nagar social worker Hassan Qureshi, who help distribute food sent by BMC’s H-East administrative office, said hundreds of migrants have been rendered homeless amid their desperation to go home. Returning to the shanties is often not an option, especially without means to cough up the rent. “Dozens have slept here at night,” said Ayub, pointing to a clothesline strung up behind a row of parked bikes.
As weeks go by since the first Shramik train ran on May 1, and with no word about their turn, social distancing, hand-washing and sanitation are all abandoned in pockets outside major stations from where these trains depart.
Around 11 pm, an electrician employed by the Nirmal Nagar police rode his bike around the dark bylanes off the police station, telling sleeping workers to move to the Garib Nagar masjid where locals have arranged food and pedestal fans.
If two months without wages impoverished them, the continuing struggle to return home has pushed them further into destitution, said Ranjan, whose children were accepting leftovers and biscuits from passersby.
Outside Lokmanya Tilak Terminus (LTT) in Kurla, hundreds of men, women and children walked towards Lal Bahadur Shastri Marg just before midnight, unsure of where to spend the night. Some had tried their luck at Bandra Terminus and also at LTT, and were enquiring about buses plying from nearby Dharavi.
Behind Bandra Terminus, between one train and the next, the queues of people on Jayprakash Road keep trying to approach the station, about a kilometre away, only to be beaten back by baton-wielding policemen.
A far cry form the controlled narrative from within stations where passengers are made to sit a few feet from one another and provided free food and water, outside there is anger and frustration at the lack of information from the Railways, and crowding, rushing and fights breaking out among groups.
Suddenly, somebody calls out, “Darbhanga, Darbhanga.” A few dozen men scramble, tripping, face masks falling to the ground. There’s more shouting as a message is relayed to the back of the crowd – there could be a spot on the Darbhanga train. But closer to the station, a policeman forces the hopefuls back.
One group of men from Behrampada paid Rs 20 per head for the bus ride to the station, which is just a five-min walk away. While those being sent to the station on buses are usually those whose verification and travel confirmation are complete, this group was sent back from the station while the train to Darbhanga left. They were brought on the bus around 11 am, at 5 pm, they were still standing outside, many of them observing Ramzan fast.
Abdul Aahad, who presses clothes for a living, wanted to return to Allahabad. Now he has nowhere to go back to, Abdul said, limping away with a small bag of belongings as a policeman chased him out of the shade of the Bandra Terminus approach bridge.
Susheela Gond from Gorakhpur has lived in Mumbai for decades, but with her husband Vinod, a house painter, out of work since March, there’s no way to pay the Rs 7,000 rent. Living in the Nirmal Nagar slum, Susheela said she visits the station and the police station everyday to enquire how to find a spot on a train. Living off one bigha of land is tough, but better than starving here, she reasoned.
Tailor Moin Alam and his family came from Bhayander, bags and children in tow, and said they would now stay near the station until they board a train. “No message or call has come even two weeks after we filled the form,” said Shaikh Jahajuddin, a zari worker at Golibar in Santacruz, who hail from West Bengal.
Many, hailing from West Bengal, are prepared for a longer wait with trains to Howrah cancelled owing to Cyclone Amphan.
Many claimed there are middle-men who could be paid to get a spot on the trains. The electrician from Nirmal Nagar police station said that local policemen were trying to fill vacant spots on the trains when some verified travellers didn’t show up.
Ranjan said he saved about Rs 5,000 a month, most of which he sent home to his parents. A trader of old clothes, he would ride the local train everyday from Malad to Mumbai Central, purchase used clothes at Chor Bazar, and then set up his stall near Malad station. “Things were good enough… I got my children and wife here three months ago. This time, I’ll come back alone. Provided we all make it to Jharkhand alive first.”
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