The Ministry of Home Affairs may have allowed stranded migrants to return home, but the roads leading out of Mumbai on Saturday were dotted with hundreds of workers who continued to trudge on the Mumbai-Agra Highway, unaware that the state was arranging trains for migrants. While in the past, migrants who were undertaking the arduous trek were being helped by locals as well as district officials who provided them food and water on the way, the new directives from the Centre has led to state officials claiming that they would no longer take responsibility of the workers walking home.
Ashok Kumar (27) began walking from Taloja MIDC with his wife, Shalini (20), and a one-year-old girl and two sons, aged 6 and 4.5, on Friday night. In the sweltering heat, the couple along with three others, all from Sant Kabir Nagar district in Uttar Pradesh, left the construction site they were living in as they heard that the lockdown has been extended.
“Hum raat bhar chalein hai, bina soye, baccho bhi nahi soye. Humaare chote bacche ko itna pareshaan karne ka shauk nahi hai humein, majboori hai isiliye nikle ghar se. (We have not taken a break at all since we began on Friday night. We have no option but to leave, otherwise why would someone put their children through so much?)” Kumar said.
The group said that they worked as construction workers and had last been paid for the month of January. “We were told that the builder will pay our salary for the month of February in March as he had suffered from some losses. In March, after the lockdown began, our contractor ran away. He owed each one of us at least Rs 12,000 per month of salaries,” Kumar says. Ganesh Sohani, also part of the group, said that since they had barely anything to eat as the lockdown kept extending, they asked their old parents back home to mortgage their land. “My parents sent me Rs 5,000 they have taken as loan. Ab aur kya karein, kaise ruke?” Sohani says.
When told about the arrangements being made by the government, Sohani said that since nobody reached them with ration, they are not hopeful that they will be accounted for now. “Agar aur hafta bar bhi rukna pade, toh bhookh se mar jayenge,” he said.
Many of those walking are from industrial areas like the MIDC in Panvel and Taloja, as well as smaller manufacturing units in Bhiwandi, where due to the large number of migrant population, access to food has not been swift and information regarding ease of restrictions has not reached well. Sunita Gautam, another resident of Uttar Pradesh, began walking with seven others on Friday, including her 17-year old son after her landlord asked her to vacate the premises as she was unable to pay him rent. “As the month ended, we were asked to vacate our room by the landlord. We had stayed put so far but now had nowhere to go so we began walking. We are told that we may get some transport once we reach Nashik,” Gautam said, who works in a unit which makes cardboard boxes for bulbs in Bhiwandi.
Many are headed to Nashik first where they are heard the first train left carrying migrant workers to Bhopal.
District authorities from Nashik, however, said that two trains were arranged for those stranded from Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, but only for those staying in their shelter homes. “Those who are walking to their home states can arrange for a vehicle for themselves and we will give them passes to travel. No other arrangements will be made for them,” said Nashik collector Suraj Mandhare.
Another official from the collector’s office explained that they could not take responsibility of these workers walking home. “Those being sent by us were in our shelter homes and were being medically checked regularly. We cannot take responsibility of others who are walking from different parts of the state to the district in the hope that arrangements will be made for them,” said the official. Ironically, the groups walking now, followed the initial advisory of the government to stay put, while those being sent in arranged buses and trains, had been brought to the homes when found walking home during the first phase of the lockdown. The state’s guidelines also do not specify how those having already undertaken journeys should be dealt with.
At various checkpoints manned by police on the state highway, police officials said that they are explaining to workers walking, that arrangements are being made and that they should return where they came from. “We are not taking them to any shelter homes now. We are explaining to them that the restrictions have been eased,” said an official at the Wadpa police chowkie near Bhiwandi.
Many others dot the highways, including workers traveling in groups on bicycles. “We bought the cycles by making our families back home take a loan thinking it will be better than walking. But in this heat, it is impossible to go on. Hum bas soch rahe hai ki sab vote maange haath jod ke aate hai, jab hum bhookhe mar rahe hai, koi zimmedaari kyun nahi le raha,” said Sanjay Kumar Yadav, resting near a close dhaba near Kasara on Saturday.
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