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Coronavirus (COVID-19): Upset over the extension of the national coronavirus lockdown till May 3, nearly 2,000 migrant workers gathered outside the suburban Bandra West station in Mumbai Tuesday demanding the right to return home, and access to food and rations. The police had to resort to a lathi-charge to disperse the crowd.
The gathering comprised largely of migrant workers and their families residing in the adjoining slum settlements. Many of them said they had been hoping that the 21-day lockdown that was to end Tuesday would be lifted — or that arrangements would be made to transport them to their homes in UP, Bihar and West Bengal.
Some workers claimed they had received calls about a meeting near the station on transport arrangements to take them home over the next few days.
NCP leader and Minority Affairs Minister Nawab Malik, as well as Yuva Sena leader Varun Sardesai, blamed the gathering on rumours about trains being arranged following reports during the day that were based on an internal letter issued by South Central Railway (SCR).
Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh said an inquiry has been ordered to find out who spread the rumour and that strong action will be taken against the culprits.
A senior Railways official told The Indian Express that the internal letter was “genuine but wrongly worded”. “No such decision has been taken to run special trains. It is only a proposal,” the official said.
The letter asked divisional commercial managers to assess the number of stranded passengers and submit a detailed proposal for further discussion, the official said.
Police said the workers started gathering at about 3 pm, and squatted on the road. Police pacified the crowd at first, asking them to disperse, using a public announcement system of the Jama Masjid close to the station.
Police and clerics at the mosque, and later local politicians and corporators, also pleaded with the crowd to disperse to avoid infection. However, the situation deteriorated after a scuffle within the crowd led to panic, following which the police used force to disperse the group.
In Mumbra’s Hashmat Park circle, too, 300 migrant workers took to the streets demanding to be sent home. The crowd was dispersed after a “mild lathi charge”, police said.
An FIR was registered at Bandra police station Tuesday night on charges of rioting and under section 188 of the IPC for violating lockdown orders and under section 3 of the Epidemic Act, against “800-1,000 unknown persons”.
“We told them it was not in our hands to give them permission to cross state borders and go home,” ACP (West) Manoj Kumar Sharma said. He said many complained that they lived in small homes with 8-10 others, and feared the COVID-19 outbreak. “We told them that they could shift to shelter homes arranged by the government,” Sharma said.
“We heard that the government will make provisions for people to go home by relaxing the lockdown for a few days. My family members are worried since the number of cases here is increasing. Also, we don’t get food every day. We do not have enough money to spend if we fall ill. We feel we will be better off in our homes,” said 23-year-old Shakun Mondal, a resident of Malda in West Bengal, who lives in Behrampada in Bandra (east).
“We have initiated three community kitchens and have been distributing ration to thousands of families since the lockdown was announced. But many say that since they are unable to follow social-distancing here due to the small size of their homes and use of bathrooms, they were seeking arrangements to go home,” said the area MLA Zeeshan Siddiqui.
Later, the MLA posted on Twitter: “After investigating Bandra incident I have found out that Railway was taking bookings before lockdown was extended, migrant labourers thought trains were open & wanted to go home. I demand the railway to refund their tickets & for the PM to allocate special funds to those stranded.”
In Mumbra, too, the workers said they did not have money to pay for food nor for rent. An official said announcements were made in various areas, and a non-profit roped in to distribute food. “We are requesting landlords to avoid taking rents for April and take the money after a few months,” a police officer said.
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