AT A time when migrant workers are heading back to their home states — on foot, in buses or trains — 222 workers, mostly from Khagaria district of Bihar, opted for the reverse journey as they boarded a special train to Telangana on Thursday.
The train, which left Khagaria in the early hours of Thursday, arrived at the Lingampalli Railway Station in Hyderabad at 1 pm on Friday.
Telangana Civil Supplies Minister G Kamalakar and members of the Telangana Rice Millers Association welcomed the workers with roses, food and water packets.
“The Telangana Chief Secretary had requested that the workers be sent back for the rice mills in the state. The local coordinators, who keep in touch with migrant workers, contacted them, and 222 workers boarded the train,” said Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi.
The rice mill owners in Telangana provided the names and contact details of labour contractors, supervisors and workers to the state’s civil supplies department, which then coordinated with the Bihar government officials.
Arrangements were made for the workers to reach the Khagaria railway station. According to officials, each group of 18-20 workers had a supervisor, whose job was to ensure that the workers reached the railway station. While most of the workers are from Khagaria, a few are from Madhepura district of Bihar.
After the workers arrived in Hyderabad, officials of the civil supplies department registered their names and contact numbers, and then sent them in buses to other districts.
“Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao has assured the workers that they will be well taken care of. We arranged for their journey and provided food and water. We have arranged buses to take them to the rice mills where they work. We will also give them dry rations to start with,” said Kamalakar.
The train fare was paid by the Telangana government. Last week, the train had ferried a batch of migrant workers from Hyderabad to Patna.
Officials in Telangana said the state is facing a shortage of farm labour, as most of the workers who went home for Holi could not return due to the lockdown. While paddy and maize are ready for harvest, the rice mills too don’t have enough workers.
“Without these migrant workers, it will be difficult to operate the rice mills. We are grateful that even in this difficult situation, they chose to come to work. We expect more workers to return in the coming days,” said G Narender, president of the Telangana Rice Mill Owners Association.
Rajesh Singh, 32, who was among those who made the journey from Khagaria to Hyderabad, said he had just Rs 200 in his pocket and a change of clothes.
“I went home in February for Holi and was supposed to return in April-end, but got stuck there. There is no work or money at home. It is a desperate situation. I was in touch with the labour supervisor and the rice-mill owner,” he said.
“I heard that the Telangana government was arranging a train to take back workers, so I registered myself. I am relieved to start work again. I can send some money home by this month-end,” said Rajesh.
Sagar Chaudhary, 32, also from Khagaria, said he had spent all the money that he had taken home during the Holi break. “Without any income, we will starve. Due to the lockdown, there is no work at all… I hope to send some money home soon,” he said.
Anil Biswas, who works at a rice mill in Kagaznagar in Komaram Bheem district, said it was a relief to start working again. “My family of nine, including my wife, children, parents and sisters, depend on me. I called up the labour contractors and the rice mill owner several times. Then I got to know that this train was being arranged, and I grabbed the opportunity. I came with just Rs 200 in my pocket, but I hope to send some money home next week, after taking an advance salary from the rice mill owner,” he said.
Dinesh Saha, a labour contractor, said hundreds of other workers are willing to come, if trains are made available.
The 2,440 rice mills in Telangana employ an estimated 20,000 migrant workers every year. About 90 per cent are from Bihar, mostly from Khagaria district, while West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh account for the rest.
According to Sushil Modi, a rice mill worker in Telangana earns an average of Rs 1,400 per day.
The Bihar Deputy CM said that as trains bringing migrants home will return empty, arrangements can be made to send back workers if there are similar requests from other states.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh is learnt to have spoken to his Bihar counterpart Nitish Kumar recently, asking for farm workers to be sent back. Sushil Modi said the Punjab government has not renewed its request, “but if they they do so in future, the state government will coordinate”.
However, Rail Ministry sources said the Khagaria-Hyderabad train was a “one-off” affair. The ministry’s guidelines for ‘Shramik Specials’, approved by the Home Ministry, state that a train will carry no more than 1,200 passengers and will not run with less than 90 per cent occupancy.
Earlier, the Home Ministry had clarified that the train service was only meant for those stranded in other states. Amid the row over who will pay the fare, the Railways had said that since the trains will return empty, its operational losses are high.
— With inputs from Avishek G Dastidar
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