It was last Saturday that 60-year-old Anwar-Ul-Hasan made up his mind that come what may, he was going back to his village in Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh, 1,465 km away from his one room in Ulhasnagar.
“My aim was to reach my home in two weeks or die trying,” Hasan said. Thirty-six hours later Hasan found himself forcibly cloistered in a grimy, unventilated classroom along with nearly 300 others like him. This is now Hasan’s home for the next 14 days at least.
Hasan was one of the 1,063 migrant workers who had left Mumbai and were headed towards North India to reach their home states when they were apprehended by the Nashik Police and put up in makeshift camps which will be their home till the lockdown gets lifted.
Alarmed at the massive exodus of migrants across India, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs had issued directions to states requesting them to immediately set up relief camps for migrant workers and pilgrims returning to their domicile states. States have also been asked to set up such camps along the highways including tented accommodation.
According to the directive, the shelters need to keep in view social distancing and other precautionary measures while taking care of the basic needs of the migrants. The state has so far set up at least 1,000 relief camps, including the Sukhdev Ashram in Vilholi where Hasan is housed along with 295 other migrants. These camps can accommodate 2 lakh to 2.5 lakh migrants.
Hasan, who has been working as a porter ever since he remembers, is used to living in the rough, but even men like him are complaining about the facilities at the camp. “In the afternoon, they gave us four puris and bhaji. We are manual workers and we can eat anything, but this was so bad that I don’t think that more than 50 people ate it,” Hasan said.
Hasan decided to walk till his native place after his employer stopped paying. “Kaam band hone ke kaaran, pagaar nahi mila. Issiliye pichle chaar rooz khana nahi mila. To maine socha ki ab lautna he behtar hai (As everything is shut down in Ulhasnagar, I did not get any work which affected my daily income due to which I could not eat for four days).”
While Hasan was walking towards his hometown, he happened to meet two men who also happened to be from Balrampur. They offered him some food and water, which helped him going.
He says he was happy when police stopped him at Geware Naka in Nashik and asked him to follow them for food and water. “They told me doctors will examine whether I am infected and if not then they will hand me packets of food and water following which I will be allowed to go.”
He says his wife and son are waiting for him. After being put at the Vilholi Asharm, he called his son and informed the family that he would not be able to make it as planned. Unlike Hasan, there were many who found a truck to give them a ride. They described how the driver sought to evade the police nakabandis. “He would stop some distance ahead of the checkpoint, and would tell us to get down and walk through the police barricades. The driver told us that he would clear the nakabandi and wait for them a kilometre ahead. I don’t know how the police came to know even while we were walking that we were passengers in the truck,” said one migrant, who was still coming to terms with his 14-day quarantine.
The workers were made to undergo a mandatory medical check-up. After dropping them at Nasik’s Sukhdev Ashram, the Nasik rural police locked the gate from outside. The workers said there was a riot-like situation in the afternoon after the police broke the news that they would be lodged here for the next 14 days. They believe that the police took advantage of their hunger and misled them to the Ashram under the pretext of providing food and water.
“We begged to be released as our family members back home are tensed and have been waiting to see us, the police then lathicharged us,” said 18-year-old Sarwan Kumar. Showing his back, he added, “But I was hit on my back and it still hurts.”
Once the situation came under control, the police then stamped their hands with ‘home quarantine’ which some of the migrants later managed to wash off. The workers were reminded about ‘social distancing’ when they queued up for food. But the rest of the time, people from the same village or area formed a group and were seen chatting, maintaining little distance between each other. With no fans, the workers opted to sleep on the muddy floor outside the classrooms while some slept on the playground. A long queue of mobiles phones waited to be charged at the single plug point. “Our phones have ran out on battery, we are waiting in queue to charge our phone, so that we can call our family members and inform them that we have been held up at Nashik. They are waiting to hear from us,” said Yadav.
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