NEARLY 10 km from the Maharashtra-Gujarat border at Talasari, over 500 migrants from various parts of the country stuck in limbo, feel let down by the government that did not think of their plight before announcing a 21-day nationwide lockdown to combat COVID-19.
The fact that provisions were not made for migrant labourers to get their daily bread or return home while announcing the lockdown on Tuesday, forced many to start walking over 500 km to their homes in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.
With state borders closed, migrants, most of them daily wage labourers, have now been kept at refuge places like the Thakkarbappa school at Talasari, where the only fear in the face of a raging pandemic for them is how they would return home. The local authorities’ arrangement for them itself has rendered useless the “social distancing” objective of the lockdown.
“We were 10 km from the border when police personnel stationed on the highway told us that food arrangements have been made for us. We were tired and thought of eating something before crossing the border. Now, they are not allowing us to leave,” said Ram Rakh, who is part of a group of seven Rajasthani youngsters from Udaipur, who used to so odd jobs like masonry in Goa.
They left from Goa four days ago, hitching rides when they could, walking when they could not, to reach here. “We are just 10 km away from the border. Please get us out of here,” said Rakh.
No one, including the administrators, have any clue about what lies ahead for this motley group of people – Rajasthani migrants from Goa, a large group of men from Palanpur in Gujarat who worked at restaurants in Mumbai, Rajasthani youth working at tea stalls and canteens in Mumbai and construction workers from Madhya Pradesh. The only thing common among them is that they were all trying to cross the Gujarat border to go to their home states.
“There are trucks waiting for us on the other side of the state border. We just need to cross the border. Our families are waiting for us and in Mumbai, our workplaces have shut down, so we cannot go back. We are stuck here in the middle of nowhere,” said Yahya Sherasiya, huddled together with 20 others.
For the local administration, however, the challenge is to convince the migrants to return to Mumbai and its suburbs.
After hordes of migrants began walking from the city to the nearest border at Talasari, officials, by setting up checkpoints at various points, began telling people to return.
The lack of communication on any benefits to be received from the government, uncertainty over the duration of the lockdown, loss of jobs and anxiety over the spread of COVID-19, has led the people seeking solace in returning to the safety of their homes. Most of those attempting to leave had been in daily wage jobs and have no means to pay rent of homes without earning a livelihood.
“In Mumbai, they have announced that not even four persons can assemble. Here, the government itself has kept over 500 of us, giving us only one option, to return where we walked so many kilometres from. Do we know for sure that the lockdown will end after 21 days? If it extends by another month, how will we afford to pay rent or ration,” asked Raju Gujjar, who has walked from Santacruz in Mumbai in a group of five.
Gujjar, also from Rajasthan, works in a private firm, which has shut and hence, is not hopeful of getting his salary. “The room rent is Rs 5,000. I will not be able to pay it without a salary,” he said.
Many, earning Rs 500 a day, said that they had just returned from their native towns during Holi earlier this month. “Work has been shut since the day the government announced thali peethna (Janata Curfew on Sunday). We barely got a few days of work this month,” said Pushpendra, who was walking from Virar to Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh.
Walking back, therefore, is not an option for many. A group of five construction workers from Madhya Pradesh, who began walking on Friday, said their makeshift home in the premises of an underconstruction building is not accessible for them since construction work had stopped.
“The contractor has left and we cannot stay at our home anymore. Where will we go back to? Our only option is to go home,” said Mithun. The group comprising two women and two children, including an infant, looks visibly tired and dejected at having to wait at the school with no way out. “The children are tired. I cannot even explain to them why we are here. At least back home, the children will be safe,” said Bharti, while she nurses her baby in the corridor outside a classroom.
Swati Ghongde, tehsildar of Talasari, who is overseeing the arrangements at the school, said: “Many could not leave their homes to find work due to the restrictions but as they had no ration, they left Mumbai. But we are unable to do anything since they are not allowed to cross the border into Gujarat. They are not ready to leave but are insisting on going home. We will be making arrangements for them to stay here.”
Asked if social distancing was followed, Ghongde said that the families will be kept in separate rooms or be shifted to other schools nearby. When asked if this was going to continue till the lockdown is relaxed, authorities said they do not have any clarity.
“Even if 10 of them here have tuberculosis, we will be dealing with another epidemic,” said a health official present at the school.
Even as authorities went around informing those walking on the highways that they will not be allowed to cross the border, the desperation to reach home made people continue. “Soch lia hain bhale jaan chali jaye u-turn nahin lena hain. Agar police rukayegi to Maharana Pratap ki tarah jungle ke raaste se jayenge,” said Siddharth Singh, who was headed to Rajasthan on foot from Mumbai, a distance of over 500 km.
Local authorities said that even if people take internal routes and are found in Gujarat, the police have been dropping them at the Maharashtra border again. “If they can make so much effort for us to be brought back, they can just drop us to our homes,” said Manju from Madhya Pradesh.
While many complained of being beaten up by the police on Friday night, some men showed blisters on their feet from walking. “In Mumbai, the supplies have become so expensive that we cannot afford even 100 gm of vegetables.
We have not even asked for the government to arrange buses for us. We just began walking home on our own. Why does the police have to assault us then? We could have been given at least a few days to return home. Amir ko kuch farak nahi pada isse. Par gareeb ki koi sunwai nahi hai. Modiji ne permission di hai humein maarne ki?” asked a man assembled at the school.
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