SUSHANT DALAI is returning home empty-handed. There’s no doll for his five-year-old daughter, no toy car for his six-year-old son, and no “Surat sari” for his wife. “Even my parents would be waiting for gifts from me,” he says.
And yet, Dalai is a happy man.
The 30-year-old from Odisha’s Ganjam, who was working in a powerloom unit in Surat, managed to get a seat on the special train that is taking stranded migrant workers, pilgrims, tourists and students home.
“I learnt about the train from a friend and registered at the Odia school run by the Surat Municipal Corporation on Friday,” he says.
The service began Friday. And Dalai’s superfast was the first of two trains that departed Saturday for Odisha and Uttar Pradesh, a little after 4 pm, amid chants of ‘Jai Jagannath’ by passengers.
Dalai is among the 1,250 passengers on the 20-coach train to Puri — two persons per three seats to maintain social distancing — where they will be quarantined for 14 days at panchayat centres before being allowed to go home.
The journey is expected to take over 25 hours, with eight stops, mainly to manage drivers’ shifts. “Arrangements for snacks, water and other eatables have been made at the eight stops. We have also made arrangements for medical emergencies, if any,” says C M Garuda, director, Surat Railway Station.
On Saturday afternoon, the passengers were taken to the railway station in buses run by the municipal corporation, and medically screened.
According to officials, the list of passengers was prepared by local Odia organisations. “We paid for the tickets after it was approved by the Deputy Collector. The names and details were given to the Railways. We collected the amount from the passengers while handing them the tickets,” says Bhagirath Behra, secretary, Surat Odia Welfare Association.
Surat has nearly 15 lakh migrant labourers, working mostly in textile units. They have been restive over the last few weeks due to the lockdown, with at least three incidents of violence sparked by workers demanding that they be sent home.
Saturday was not without its share of controversy, either, with Navsari MP C R Patil flagging off the train by waving a BJP flag, prompting the Congress to slam the gesture.
On the train, it’s not all about migrant workers. Sharad Chandra Sethy, 25, who is from Brahmapur town and runs a cable television business, had come to Surat with a friend on March 17.
“After visiting Dwarka and Gir forest, we reached Surat on March 21 and stayed at a relative’s place where we got stuck after flights were cancelled. I have never experienced such a critical situation, surviving on limited resources for more than a month,” he says.
Dalai, meanwhile, is hoping that he gets to see his family once before being placed under quarantine. “I told my wife that I will call her only after reaching Puri and finding out about the next leg of the journey home to Brahmapur. I can’t wait to hug my wife and kids,” he says.
And despite having been separated from them for so long, he is sure that he will return to Surat one day.
“How can I forget this city? It has given me money and happiness. If it takes a few more months for things to get normal, I will work in the fields and return when the factories start.”
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