A COUPLE of days after trains carrying migrants started running across the country, the three that have left from Ludhiana since Tuesday are seeing many seats empty, with labourers staying back as work has started trickling in.
The train headed for Prayagraj on Tuesday night carried 756 passengers, while the Bareilly-bound one on Wednesday morning had 900 people, against a coronavirus-adjusted capacity of nearly 1,200. The train that left on Wednesday noon for Jharkhand’s Daltongonj, after officials sent SMSs to nearly 1,600 people to ensure more people turned up, carried 1,161 people.
Punjab has seen around 11.4 lakh registrations on its portal for trains out of the state, with 1.32 lakh registering in the past 24 hours alone. Of the 11.4 lakh, 5.88 lakh registered from Ludhiana.
Ludhiana Deputy Commissioner Pardeep Agarwal said, “We have over 1 lakh labourers working in factories now (against more than 10 lakh usually). A number of them are taking last-minute decisions and not boarding after looking at the relaxations being given to the industry to open up.” Agarwal said the fact that those registered had not paid for the tickets, and hence were not being charged any cancellation fee, was also a factor in them changing their minds.
Among those who decided to stay back was Lakshman Kumar, from Tikapur village in Bihar’s Begusarai. “I registered on the portal, but then I felt I might get the virus during travel. My brother Bharat Kumar who works in Haryana has also decided to stay put. When 3,000 people who came from Nanded are testing positive in large numbers, here we are going in lakhs! Then I will have 14 days quarantine in the village and, if I come back, 21 days of quarantine in Ludhiana. It is a waste of time. Moreover, now the unit where I work is open and I am getting paid,” said Kumar, who is in his 30s and works at an automobile unit, Rajnish Industries Pvt Ltd.
Rahul Ahuja, the director of the unit and president of the CII’s Punjab branch, said he opened his unit on April 9 itself, with adequate safeguards, and has managed to convince half of his 800 workers to stay back. “My unit deals in domestic demand as well as exports. Work is not on in full swing, but something is better than nothing.”
Upkar Singh, the president of the Chamber of Industrial and Commercial Undertakings (CICU), and the owner of a unit making agricultural tools, Swan Industries, said some employees who left have been calling him.
Ghanshyam Kumar, who belongs to Patna, has a tempo, and transports goods from factories. “I had registered along with a group of 15 others to leave, but now owners have started calling me for work. It is not the same amount that I used to get earlier, but when work has started, why should I leave?” he said.
Ravinder Kumar and 12 of his friends who work on contract at the steel unit of Samrala said, “We are from Odisha and got ourselves registered. But as units are opening up, employers are calling. If we start getting even 50% of the work we got earlier, we will stay put.”
The Districts Industry Centre (DIC) records show that over 6,000 units at Ludhiana have given an undertaking that they are keen to open. “An undertaking is enough, no other permission is needed… Based on the I-card of a factory, workers can commute. No other curfew pass is needed,” Mahesh Khanna, the General Manager, DIC, said.
The eased rules have meant that the number of open units has been rising steadily from nearly 900 that were functional by April 25. While over 1,500 units registered with the Federation of Industrial and Commercial Undertakings have opened up, so have over 600 units with the CICU.
Gurmeet Singh Kular, the president of the FICO, said, “We are giving a thermal thermometer, a small spray pump, 5 litres of sodium hypochlorite, masks and face shield to our members for free. It costs us nearly Rs 5,000 per member. But it is an encouragement for them to open up units. Workers too feel motivated by this. My 1,200 workers work on alternate days. I will absorb everyone.”
Sanjay Kumar, the owner of Nice Exports, a bicycle manufacturer, said, “I am facing a problem of plenty, rather. I was planning to run my unit with 60 workers, though I had 100. However, all 100 came to me and told me to employ them. Now I am thinking of absorbing all and making them work three days each.”
Kular said, “Recently forty workers staged a dharna in front of a bicycle unit, asking that they be employed. They had left for Uttar Pradesh but came back from Rajpura.”
Gurpreet Singh Gogi, the Managing Director of the Punjab State Industrial and Export Corporation, said they also procured a sanitising machine and sanitisers for their members. “We want the workers to know they should stay back as we are making arrangements for their safety.”
Late in the evening, textile manufacturers and traders approached the Ludhiana authorities to allow them to open their units during night hours (8 pm-7 am) instead of day. Tarun Bawa Jain, the president of the Bahadurke Dyeing Association, said that while they were going to open their units Thursday morning, “This can help us maintain social distancing… all the workers need not come on roads at one time.”
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