From a 21-year-old fleeing the sea in Goa to a 54-year-old former bus conductor from Malda who is going to Kerala for the first time, the Antyodaya Express, a fully unreserved train between Howrah and Ernakulam, and its 20 coaches carry the shared burden of a thousand stories and dreams. The Indian Express rides alongside
Fitted with cushioned luggage racks, vestibuled ends for passengers to move through compartments, drinking water dispensers, mobile-charging points, fire extinguishers and modular toilets, the Antyodaya services the Eastern-Southern railway corridor, which sees the heaviest movement of migrant workers in the country. A 2013 report by the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation that was placed in the Kerala Assembly said that four states — Assam, West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha — alone accounted for 62% of the migrant workers in Kerala.
At its launch, Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu said, “Antyodaya Express is a long-distance, fully unreserved, superfast train service for the common man to be operated on dense routes… The facilities provided in Antyodaya coaches are similar (to those) in first class. Our government’s focus is on aam aadmi so we launched the product with many facilities for them.”
Except, most people don’t know about the train. When it sets out from Howrah at 5 pm on March 18, a Saturday, its third trip from Howrah to Ernakulam, only 200 of the 1,600 seats had been filled. Almost everyone on the train had found their way here accidentally, after missing the other train, Suvidha Special, which, curiously, runs on the same date and on the same route.
“The problem is that there has been very little publicity about the Antyodaya whereas the Suvidha Special continues to be completely crammed — if you get an empty patch to sit on the train, you don’t move for the next 36 hours,” says a senior officer of the South Eastern Railways.
So this Saturday evening, as passengers gingerly get on to the new train, complete with the sheen rarely associated with the Railways, many wonder if they have got onto the wrong train.
Like Mohammad Rafiqul. A few minutes after he steps in, the 33-year-old, a veteran of unreserved trains and a labourer in Kochi, realises that all 20 coaches of Antyodaya are unreserved. He sits on a berth and tentatively stretches out his legs. Then, with more abandon, he flings his small bag onto the parallel seat and says with a smile, “It doesn’t smell of sweat. It smells different.”
By 8 pm, the train is rumbling through Odisha and all mobile charging points have been taken. Music from mobile phones, ranging from folk songs of Bengal to Bhojpuri film music, compete with the steady chugging of the train. One passenger points to his GPS, the blue dot rushing parallel to the ocean and asks another, “You think we can see the sea from here?” The sun has set though and the observatory windows — a novelty on unreserved trains — have little to offer.
Home-cooked meals are prised open, filling the train with the heady aroma of mustard and spicy fish curries. The lights stay on, all night. But that doesn’t seem to bother many — as one passenger puts it, a good meal and a place to stretch your legs is all you need to get some sleep.
Much of the journey continues the same way. It isn’t until 12.30 on Sunday afternoon that the train reaches Vijayawada, the junction where the most number of passengers get on. Most of them are migrant workers from Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. But the amazement of the passengers as they get to the train and the shared burden of their stories remain the same, helping workers who don’t speak the same language to somehow find common ground.
Take, for instance, Shaiful Sheikh. The 24-year-old from Mayapur in West Bengal works near Aluva in Kerala. He is engaged in a deep conversation with Hari Shankar Kumar from Jharkhand — about the train, the Narendra Modi government’s plans for the poor and how it all connects with demonetisation. When neither Hindi nor Bengali proves to be a language they can converse in, they throw in a few Telugu and Malayalam words.
“Our stories are all the same. We are all here because of our stomachs,” says Kumar.
Over the next few hours, there are more stories — of drought, rains coming too late or too early, crops lost to blight, parents dying and leaving behind only debt, of industries moving away or eating up their land, of crooked politicians.
It isn’t until 1 am on Monday that the train finally fills up. As it pulls into Coimbatore Junction, hundreds fill the compartments. Some lie underneath the seats to catch some sleep, others balance themselves against the new ‘scratch-proof walls’ of the new train and somehow, manage to fall asleep.
At the start of the journey, many had looked around in wonder at the near empty train. Now, they sit stoic, squeezing in to accommodate more people. Isn’t this how trains for the poor always are, after all?
Pramod Kumar, 21
No job yet
From: Raigarh, Chhattisgarh
Destination: Salem, Tamil Nadu
After a bit of coaxing, Kumar reveals the truth: he is fleeing Goa. He simply hated the place. A year ago, says the 21-year-old, he went to Goa on a whim after seeing a photograph in a magazine. “I thought it’d be nice to get work near the sea,” he says . But that place was horrible. I used to work on a fishing boat and it was scary. I didn’t know how to swim. I learnt that but what good is a little boat if the weather is bad?,” he says, adding that he is now on his way to Salem, Tamil Nadu, where a cousin works.
After some negotiation, Ram managed to find a train to Vijayawada from where he will travel to Salem. “My cousin said the contractor would give me food and pay me Rs 8,000 or 9,000 a month. That’s better than what I was getting in Goa. Besides, thankfully, there’s no sea in Salem,” he says with a shudder.
In his bag: A ‘GOA’ T-shirt and some clothes
Birender Kumar Ram, 33
Juice shop owner
From: Karihari, Jharkhand
Ram moved out of his village when he was in his twenties. “My family didn’t have any money. I had studied till Class 12, but there was no job in the village. So I started working in a restaurant in Tirupathi and later Hyderabad.”
He worked his way through different jobs — mostly restaurants, sometimes at shops. “I did well because I was educated. The language was a problem, but when your survival depends on it, you can learn almost anything.”
A couple of years ago, Ram and his friend from his village started a juice shop in Tirupathi. “We named it Balaji Juice Shop. It is a good shop… on the way to the temple. I save Rs 10,000 a month,” he says.
Ram says he misses his family — his wife and two children are in Jharkhand — but can’t say that about his village. “Every time I go back to the village, it seems strange, a little alien.”
In his bag: A note his son wrote to him, neatly folded in his wallet
Naresh Sarana, 23
Works at ice-making plant
From: Gossaigaon, Assam
The 23-year-old has a hard time explaining where his home is. “Buxa, in Assam,” he says repeatedly. When told Buxa is in West Bengal, he explains patiently, “Buxa, the forest. Our home is in the forest that starts from Buxa in West Bengal and comes all the way to lower Assam. My family is from Gossaigaon.”
The 23-year-old has studied till his Class 10 and now works in Ernakulam at an ice-making plant. He explains that whenever he travels out of home, he stops at Siliguri, a city known for its wholesale Chinese goods market. “I picked up a new leather wallet there,” he says with a grin.
“I have been working in Kerala for two years. A friend of mine told me about this job and I get paid Rs 7,500 a fortnight. My family grows a little rice on our field but that is not enough. So my parents depend on my income.”
In his bag: His new wallet
Noorwar Mondal, 32
From Mayapur, West Bengal
Mondal has been a construction worker in Kerala for three years. Like his ancestors before him, he had worked as a sharecropper, but soon, found that work was hard to come by as were the wages. By 2014, he decided to join the many people from his village and make his way to Kerala.
“It was easier than I thought because there are so many people from Bengal in Kerala. For instance, my family told me to carry mustard oil with me so that I could make fish curry — mustard oil is hard to find in Kerala.”
His work is tough but pays well, between Rs 450 and Rs 500 a day, along with overtime. “In Bengal, there are too many people and not enough jobs; in Kerala, people are all well educated and don’t want to do the work we do,” says Mondal, who spends six months with his family — wife and two children — and six months “working and saving”.
In his bag: A bottle of mustard oil
Md. Rafiqul, 33
No job yet
From Islampur, West Bengal
Rafiqul used to work as a compounder in a local hospital in Islampur, a town in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district. But last year, after his son was born, he decided he needed to get work that paid more. His friends told him about Kerala and how he could find work laying floor tiles. So he packed his bags and took the train, his first trip to Kerala.
“I am a little worried. Everyone has said that Kerala has good fish. But the fish in Murshidabad is the best in the world. Our Hilsa is the best and there is no one who can cook it the way we do. I can’t survive on dosas,” he says laughing.
And then, on a serious note, he says, “My friends told me I can earn almost
Rs 1,000 a day in Kerala. From Ernakulam, I will meet a friend and we will go together to Thiruvananthapuram. If what they have promised comes true, it will change our lives — at least my son’s if not mine,” he says.
In his bag: A bottle of mustard oil
Mohammad Isharul Islam, 26
From Islampur, West Bengal
Islam has been in Kerala for six years, working as a construction worker. That makes him somewhat of an old hand. So when he talks about his work in Kerala and why he doesn’t think the good run will last, people around him pull in closer to hear him speak. “Demonetisation was a turning point. Construction work stopped altogether and all of us were stranded,” he says, adding that his employers still owe him about Rs 50,000.
Still unmarried, he laughs and says that his mother is constantly horrified at the thought of him marrying someone from outside Bengal. The 26-year-old works as a construction worker, laying floor tiles in homes. “It’s strange working in these big homes and then going back to a cramped room. But at least I can send about Rs 3,000 to my family. But what they really look forward to is the banana chips I take for them,” he says.
In his bag: A family photograph
Deepak Dhaori, 29
From Jhargram, West Bengal
A carpenter, Dhaori is on his first trip outside Bengal. The 29-year-old is from Chandri, a village in Jhargram, 37 km from Lalgarh, which was the site of the November 2008 clashes between villagers and cadres of the erstwhile Left Front government.
Dhaori plans to alight at Vijayawada and take the bus to Secunderabad in Hyderabad. “Someone from my village is in Secunderabad and they said they need carpenters. In my village, there is no work and it has been that way for years,” he says.
Married, with a boy and a girl whom he has left behind, the 29-year-old says that until a decade ago, people in his village used to die due to lack of medical attention and clean drinking water. “To be honest, I am scared to go to a new place. There are things, habits you never thought you would give up — like the evening tea with friends. But I had to leave home.
In his bag: A new shirt
Sonu Ram, 40
From Jabalpur, MP
On his way to Shoranur, a town in Kerala’s Palakkad district, this is the 40-year-old’s first trip outside home. “There is no work in Madhya Pradesh. The drought last year wiped out the farms. We lost all our crops. My elder son studied till his Class 8 and then went to Kerala for work, the other is in Class 5. My son said only if both of us work can we support the family.”
While his son paints houses, he says he is unsure about what he will do — “I may have to start by laying bricks”.
He had taken a train from Jabalpur to Vijayawada, from where they boarded the Antyodaya Express. Asked about the work and his expectations, he says, “From what my son has told me, I can make about Rs 15,000 a month and not spend too much because the employers give us food and a place to sleep.”
In his bag: A list of phone numbers and directions written on a piece of paper
Rabindra Mali, 27
From Cuttack, Odisha
The 27-year-old has been working for over a decade at a spinning mill in Kozhikode. From a traditional fishing family near Cuttack, Rabindra says he has never been to school. “When I was 10, I went to Tirupati because I heard you can get work near the temple. I started working in a tea shop and then at a restaurant as a waiter. Later, I got this job in a spinning mill,” he says.
Rabindra will get off at Coimbatore and take a bus to his factory. “I work about 12 hours a day and make Rs 390 a day – that’s about Rs 12,000 a month,” he says. The company he works for, says Mali, pays him overtime but no food and accommodation. “My sister and brother-in-law also live in Kozhikode. He works in a company and she works as a domestic help,” he says, adding that he hopes to someday bring his wife and 3-year-old son to the city.
In his bag: A sari for his sister and a new shirt for his brother-in-law
Mahesh Bharti, 24
From Jabalpur, MP
When he is not poring over Hindi film magazines, Bharti has people around him hooked with his knowledge of all things Bollywood, passionately discussing everything from Katrina Kaif’s love life to Salman Khan’s troubles with the law.
Bharti works as a contract labourer in Shoranur, a town in Palakkad district, and earns about Rs 650 a day. “I am going to Coimbatore and from there I will go to Shoranur. That’s where I have been working the past year. Tiles, plaster, wall putty — I do it all,” he says with a grin. His parents continue to live in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, where they have own some land.
In his bag: A few Hindi film magazines
Tapash ‘Pappu’ Maity, 26
Tapash Maity, or Pappu as he calls himself, worked as a waiter at various outlets of Kwality Walls in Kolkata until three years ago. The 26-year-old married two years ago and now has a year-old son.
He says, “The job in Kolkata was okay — the money wasn’t too good, but it was good, steady work. But the problem was my salary was stuck at Rs 8,000 a month for far too long. In Kerala, I work for Lazza Ice Creams — I serve at their parlours and earn about Rs 24,000 a month.”
It helps to be from a “big city”, he says – “nothing surprises me. Others, you know, they see women roaming around late at night in malls and get a shock. Not me.”
In his bag: Photographs of his wife and year-old son
Milan Mondal, 23
From Murshidabad, West Bengal
Destination: Ernakulam, Kerala
When he was 12, Mondal borrowed Rs 400 from his parents, saying he was going to Kolkata to see the city, and ran away with an elder cousin.
“My first job was at a construction site in Kolkata — a club house run by the Left that was being renovated. In the mornings, I would fetch water and in the evenings, when the party people sat down to play cards, I’d serve tea and get some bakshish. I had left home with Rs 400; when I went back eight years later, I had Rs 4,000.”
Mondal has been in Kerala for three years, working at a construction site in Idduki. “I earn Rs 6,000 a week, much more than what I earned in Kolkata,” he says, distracted as he fiddles with his smartphone. “Gadgets are my real love. Tonight, I am going to watch movies on YouTube — old Bengali films. Those stories are from a simpler time.”
In his bag: SD card with movies
Sheikh Hasibul Arinde, 40
The 40-year-old is a trained electrician, having earlier worked for a government-run electrical agency in Bengal. He now works as an electrical contractor for Larsen and Toubro, on a project near Coimbatore.
“I have been working as an electrician for decades now. My father was an electrician at the Kolaghat Power Plant near Kolkata and I learnt from him. But to be able to work in Bengal, you need a licence and for that, you have to pay bribes to the party,” he says, adding that he is glad he moved to Coimbatore.
“My daughter and son are in school in Howrah. I don’t want them to become electricians, but I always tell them to see and experience new things. For instance, when I first went to Tamil Nadu, I had a hard time with the language. Not anymore,” he says.
In his bag: A new shirt that his in-laws gave him
Abhishek Sarkar, 29
From Nabadwip, West Bengal
Sarkar met Arinde while in Kerala and the two now work together for the same company in Coimbatore. Their friendship, they admit, is rare “for these times”. “He is Muslim, I am Hindu. We live together and eat together. I celebrate his festivals and he does mine. But when we go back home, people give us strange looks. What they don’t understand is this: Hindu or Muslim, our problems are the same. God doesn’t come into the picture when you’re not getting paid,” says Sarkar, talking about how demonetisation hit people like him.
“For almost two months, we didn’t get paid. Employers still owe us about Rs 75,000. One of the contractors from Odisha said he would pay us soon; now he doesn’t even pick his phone,” he says.
In his bag: His mother has packed a packet of sandesh from his favorite shop
Arshad Rahman, 37
From Kamrup, Assam
Destination: Katpadi, Tamil Nadu
When asked what he does, he says, “Businessman. I am a labour contractor.”
“I am a migrant, but not a labourer. I arrange for labourers,” he says repeatedly. He says he first went to the south around 15 years ago when he got an order to get labourers to work at a Sewage Treatment Plant (STP) in Chennai. “My men have made almost all the STPs in Chennai. My labourers are the best,” he brags. Talking of how he began his “business”, he says, “There were so many people in the Northeast and East looking for work that I realised it was a great opportunity.”
Rahman, who says he has worked in several states, including Gujarat, Telangana and Kerala, saves about Rs 30,000 a month. “Work has slowed down in Gujarat because all the big projects have already come up. In Kerala, too, it will slow down. Right now, I am going to Katpadi near Vellore (Tamil Nadu) and after that, I may have to go to Telangana.”
In his bag: A new pair of jeans
Sheikh Shamim, 29
From Pandua, West Bengal
This is Shamin’s second trip to Kerala, where he works at a construction site. After spending almost an hour worrying if he was on the right train, he finally settles down.
“A year ago, a contractor from our village asked me if I wanted work. I said yes, and here I am. It is hard work, but the money is better than anything you get in Bengal,” he says.
The 29-year-old from Pandua in Hooghly district, who dropped out after Class 3, used to work as a rickshaw driver. With his wife expecting their second child, he says he had to find a way to earn more money. “I came at a bad time, though. Within a few months of my coming to Kerala, work dried up because of demonetisation. Contractors said they couldn’t pay us anymore, so I went back. This time, I am planning to stay for as long as I can,” he says.
In his bag: Puffed rice and naaru (sweet made of coconut and jaggery)
Sheikh Mantu, 54
From Malda, West Bengal
The 54-year-old worked as a bus conductor for close to four decades, but three years ago, after a near-fatal accident, his family said they wouldn’t let him to do that work any longer. “I was a conductor on the Malda-Kolkata route. I did that for 36 years. But once, our bus met with an accident — the driver was killed and my rib cage was shattered. My family was scared after that. They still call buses vehicles of death.”
But with his family — wife, three children and an ailing father — to take care of, Mantu had to find some work. “There were others from my village working as labourers in Kerala so a year ago, I decided to come with them,” he says.
The work in Kerala, he says, is strenuous, but the money is good. “I do plastering and painting. I used to make about Rs 400 a day, now I make twice that. But to be honest, I didn’t think I would have to work at this age.”
In his bag: A pack of cards
Shamwar Hossain, 20
From Mayapur, West Bengal
Destination: Aluva, Kerala
Hossain has been to Kerala only once before. He works as a construction worker there, earning Rs 450 a day. “I work for a contractor who tells me where to work. The hours are regular in Kerala and pay comes on time. The government is also more sensitive to the needs of the poor. For instance, I am told that they will give me a identity card,” he says.
Hossain’s family are sharecroppers, but with agriculture in Nadia, his home district, failing, labour is no longer in demand and his father has been unemployed for five years.
“I don’t plan to go back to Nadia. There are others who miss home. I don’t. When I think about home, I think of people suffering because they can’t find work and my mother skipping meals to let us to eat. In Kerala, life’s good. I earn well, I work hard and I sleep peacefully at night.”
In his bag: Four packets of chanachur (a snack of chickpeas, lentils and nuts)
From Kharagpur, West Bengal
Destination: Katpadi, Tamil Nadu
Mritunjay says never wanted to leave his home in Kharagpur. But with no formal education, the 24-year-old says he couldn’t have found a job in his village. “There are schools for us Adivasis in Kharagpur, but I never studied. That was a mistake.”
He learnt carpentry from his uncle in Kharagpur, helping him make tables and chairs for government offices. He had earlier worked in Thane as a labourer but returned to his uncle’s shop. Not only did they not pay well, he says, “but they were cheats and the city is too crowded and people unkind”.
Mrirtunjay says his uncle’s friend is a construction worker in Vellore. “My uncle said his friend would help me. He even bought me the train ticket. I have been told that I can earn Rs 500 a day and if I do a lot of overtime, over Rs 15,000 a month. That’s almost double of what I was making in Kharagpur.”
In his bag: Two new gamchas
Mohammad Firoz, 26
The 26-year-old first came to Ernakulam in 2008. He knew an “uncle” in the area, who quickly set him up to work as a bricklayer.
Since then, he has progressed to being a “wall putty specialist”. “Initially, I had some trouble with the food in Kerala. Everything is cooked in coconut oil. I don’t like that. There are others who will eat just about anything. But that isn’t me. I enjoy my food. Luckily, there was good beef in Kerala — that was a life saver.”
Firoz now earns about Rs 500 a day, plastering walls at a Kendriya Vidyalaya in Ernakulam. “It’s a government school so we get paid on time. I make about
Rs 3,400 a week, including overtime. That is enough for me to live comfortably – eat beef and fish once in a while whenever I don’t feel like eating the food the contractors give me.”
In his bag: a photograph of his parents