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Monday, May 25, 2020

Amid yoga, TV and chai, group at Varanasi station asks: Will trains take us home?

These passengers have been waiting for their trains since Sunday, March 22, when the government observed Janata Curfew. The “curfew” ended, but their wait for a train did not.

Written by Avishek G Dastidar | New Delhi | Updated: April 5, 2020 12:37:01 pm
Amid yoga, TV and chai, group at Varanasi station asks: Will trains take us home? The group of 50, from Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra and other states, has been stuck since March 22 (Express photo by Javed Raja)

What do you do when you are at a railway station, waiting for a train?

On Sunday, a group of 50 passengers from various parts of India will perform yoga together in the waiting hall of Varanasi railway station. After that, they will watch the re-run of Ramayan on Doordarshan on a 55-inch TV installed especially for them. After Ramayan, there will be lunch.

These passengers have been waiting for their trains since Sunday, March 22, when the government observed Janata Curfew. The “curfew” ended, but their wait for a train did not.

The 21-day lockdown happened, the city shut down, and the railway station became their home.

Caught in this unintended consequence of the lockdown are daily-wage labourers, farmers, traders, professionals and pilgrims to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple from such far-flung places as Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat. There are women, children, senior citizens – all waiting for that one elusive object: a train.

“There is nothing to do. In the beginning, I used to go out of the station to look for some other ways to go home. But now, we just wait,” says Manoj Shinde, part of a group of 11 daily-wage labourers from a village near Aurangabad, Maharashtra.

Shinde and group did some work around Patna for a few days and were due to return home. The Janata Curfew was still 24 hours away. So from Patna station, the local authorities got them to board a train, which, they said, was going to Maharashtra.

“Around 3 in the night, the train stopped at Mughalsarai. We were told that the train has been terminated here because of the Janata Curfew. We walked to the Varanasi station after that,” he says.

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It took the railway authorities just about a day to realise what had just happened. On Sunday, even as the curfew was on, the government suspended all train services till March 31.

Officials soon realised that there was a group of some hundred people waiting at the Varanasi station. “They were scattered across the station. We quickly got them to the large waiting hall with benches and all. Then we formed a plan,” says Anand Mohan, the station director, whose job, apart from running the station during the lockdown, has also been to take care of this group of stranded.

A couple of days later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the 21-day lockdown. The station authorities realised that these people were now here for the long haul.

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“Slowly, with coordination with state authorities, we started sending some people home, the ones who lived within distances manageable by taxis. But finally, a group of 50 remained – they were some 1,500-2000 km away from their homes. We decided to take care of them as best as we could,” he says.

The yoga class and TV are new additions to their daily routine, starting Sunday. “…so that people have something to do and also stay fit,” Mohan says.

The station officials arrange food. There is tea a few times of the day. Children play, people are on phones, the senior citizens are seen praying daily. Fights and laughter break out in equal measure, people sing songs, play music on phones, clothes are washed and put to dry every day.

It has been 13 days, so by now there is a “system”.

“My husband’s clothes got stolen. We had left them to dry. We were not carrying so many clothes with us here,” says Yogita Adkine from Nanded, Maharashtra, who had arrived in Varanasi with her two children, husband and mother-in-law to immerse the ashes of her father in law in the Ganga.

Amid all this the threat of COVID-19 looms.

Multiple times every day, the station officials sanitise the waiting hall and the bathrooms. Officials have enforced a minimum distance between people. Everybody has been given two face masks.

“I have my wife, aged parents and children at home. They keep asking every day when I will come home. I tell them to not worry. The government has taken good care of us. Police come every day to ask how we are doing,” says Narendra Singh Bhakre, an advocate from Ujjain who had visited Varanasi “for a day’s work”. Like millions of others, he, too, had thought the Janata Curfew was a one-day affair. So he stayed put in a hotel on Sunday and even stood at the window at 5 pm.

“Very quickly, all transport options vanished for me. It is after all some 20-24 hours journey from here to Ujjain,” he says.

The civil administration in Varanasi has standing instructions in place for taking care of the stranded. “Food packet is distributed every day. The law enforcement officials check on them. People of the city also contribute with packs of food,” says Kaushal Raj Sharma, District Magistrate of Varanasi.

Worried relatives often call from villages. Those who don’t have phones are readily helped by others who do.

“My aged sister Sashikala is stuck in Varanasi. She had gone with a group to visit the Kashi Vishwanath temple. I got a call from someone who said something in Telugu and then handed the phone to her. I spoke to her… but when will she come back? And how,” says Ashok from Shimoga in central Karnataka over the phone.

It’s a diverse group that speaks a diverse set of languages. Station staff say it’s the same question, asked in different languages: Will the lockdown end on April 14? Will trains come to take us home?”

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