At 12.30 pm Saturday, a bus heading towards Bijnor in UP arrives at Ghaziabad’s Lal Kuan.
Within seconds, labourers who had been walking for hours, even days, from Delhi and Haryana rush in. Through both doors — and windows. As the bus gets ready to leave, a girl gets stuck in one of the windows and her father desperately tries to pull her in. The conductor intervenes and manages to get the child inside.
As the doors close, many of those left outside break down, pleading that they be let in. “I will not survive. Please take me home,” a labourer says, as the bus leaves for its destination.
The fears may not be entirely unfounded — on Saturday, a 38-year-old man died while walking from Delhi towards Agra, with authorities saying that prima facie, it appears he had a heart attack. The man, Ranveer Singh, left Delhi on Thursday and was found lying on National Highway 2 on Saturday evening, officials said.
“The post-mortem report lists the cause of death as cardiac arrest. As per initial information, he had a long-standing ailment as well. While we cannot confirm without facts whether he sustained any injuries during travel, it is possible that the exhaustion and fatigue added to the existing condition. He was travelling with friends, who informed us. It is very unfortunate,” said Saurabh Dixit, Circle Officer, Hariparvat.
According to officials, Ranveer worked as a delivery staffer in Tughlakabad and hailed from Morena district in Madhya Pradesh. Officials believe he was travelling towards the MP border through the Delhi-Mathura highway.
What started as a trickle two days ago has turned into a flood of people desperate to return to their villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand amid the coronavirus lockdown, which has suddenly left lakhs with no means of income or food. And despite the central and state governments rolling out measures aimed at migrant workers, most say they don’t have faith they will survive if they stay back in the city, and would rather be home with their families.
And so, Lal Kuan has been swamped by labourers who, after having walked for over a day, are desperate for a bus to take them closer home to their villages in Uttar Pradesh.
On Saturday, the UP State Road Transport Corporation said they are going to provide 200 buses every day, 8 am onward, to help labourers stuck at Noida and Ghaziabad.
Vinay Kumar’s final destination is Hardoi. The 22-year-old waits for a bus along with his daughter, dressed in a bright blue dress, which he recently bought for her as a birthday gift. After his cloth making unit shut shop in Noida, he is left with Rs 150. “There are no free buses. How will I reach my village?” Kumar asks.
This question is on the mind of every labourer and daily wager — they barely have enough for the next meal.
Buses charge between Rs 400 and Rs 1,000. Those willing to sit on the roof pay less, while others have to bargain. Fights break out often between conductors and labourers who can’t afford the fare. Authorities said they will ply buses for free later in the evening.
Daya Ram, 43, worked at a printing shop and earned Rs 800 before the lockdown was announced. Now all he has are two bananas wrapped in polythene. Too exhausted to look for a bus after walking from Mayur Vihar to Ghaziabad, he begs for money at Lal Kuan. “Please, sau rupye (Rs 100),” he asks passersby.
Most labourers have just a packet of clothes they carry along with discarded cement packets filled with bananas. A few have blankets too. Almost none wear a mask, even as policemen overseeing the exodus occasionally reprimand them for now following “social distancing”.
Painter Ramjeet (47), who started walking from Filmistan in Noida at 9 pm Friday night, has reached Ghaziabad at 10.30 am Saturday. He has been waiting for over four hours for a bus to Lucknow. A few metres away, a group of young men sit on top of wooden logs under the shade of a tree. Kallu (22), who worked as a carpenter in Ghaziabad, has three Rs 100 notes. “I was paid Rs 1,000 by my employer because he was kind. We are a group of 12 in the family. Our only hope is to reach Varanasi.”
Next to Kallu’s group, 23-year-old Anil has been asking for a phone. He has a few numbers scribbled on his palm. He is waiting for a group of 20 men, all of whom worked at an auto repair shop in Sonipat. “We all left at 4 am but some got lost along the way. I have all the money; how will they survive?” he asks, looking at three crumpled Rs 500 notes.
Two boys aged 7 and 5 put their fingers inside a parrot’s cage, as their father, Sarfaraz, pulls them away. He used to work at Loha Mandi, earning Rs 1,200 per month, and had bought the two baby parrots with his money before the lockdown was announced. Now his family has just two biscuits and some bird food. “I will not let them (the parrots) die. We will all survive,” Sarfaraz says.
But whatever optimism remains in the crowd quickly disappears as UP policemen, tasked with overseeing bus arrivals, announce that no vehicle will go beyond Kanpur.
A team of five police officers are surrounded by labourers, some of whom ask about bus schedules, while others simply cry and say they miss their families. A constable fumes when a labourer asks him about the schedule of a Shahjahanpur-bound bus: “You are not wearing a mask, you will get a slap.” Many workers leave when they are told there will be no buses for Bihar.
A bus bound for Gorakhpur arrives at 2:20 pm. The driver, Baldev Singh, washes his hands with a bar of soap, which he shares with the conductor. “It will take us 22 hours to reach, and there is no stop in between. Of course, the passengers and I will be starving. But we are doing this for our country,” he says.
As the sunset, a large mass of people gathered at the Anand Vihar Interstate Bus Terminal, to the point that some feared a stampede could take place.
At least 100 buses — some belonging to DTC while others to the UP government — were parked outside the bus terminal. Only a handful, however, were ferrying passengers outside the state.
“I started walking at noon after I heard that UP government will provide buses. I live in Bhajanpura and my business has been hit over the past month. We kept looking for buses to bring us to Anand Vihar but there is nothing. I have my whole family, including women and children, with me,” said Anil Kumar, who wants to go back to his village in Kannauj, UP.
“I have earned very little money over the past month and the landlord has asked us to pay rent in advance. What option do I have but to go back to my village?” he said. At 11 pm at Anand Vihar, DTC buses started to take passengers to Meerut, Lal Kuan in Ghaziabad, and Sahibabad, where police officers said UP government had made arrangements for more buses. The Noida stadium was turned into a shelter for the night and several people who could not find place in buses were asked to head there. The shelters at borders in Delhi are already full.
“We have no option. We are telling people to stay in Delhi. We have assured them that they will be taken care of but they have made up their mind that they want to go home,” said a police constable on duty.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, who met a few men walking home on Friday, said: “Thousands of people are walking and since morning, we have provided buses for them. Some are leaving because they have no food left but most are leaving because they want to be home with their families at a time like this. Initially, a rumour had spread that UP government had made arrangements for buses at the border and thousands of workers started walking there. As a result, people were gathering at the border where there was no facility. We spoke to the (Union) Home Secretary and arrangements for buses were finally made from both sides. Two district magistrate have been on duty all night, trying to convince people to stay and to tell them that we will take care of them, but many want to go home.”
— With inputs from Mallica Joshi & Amil Bhatnagar