The real stories of migrants are some times not discovered on the railway platforms, but outside railway stations. On a sunny afternoon last week, as the Shramik Express train from Amritsar to Amethi was brimming to its capacity, dejection was writ large on the faces of those who were left behind.
A group of seven construction workers, who had been ferried in a state government bus from the neighbouring town of Batala, sat outside the station building weeping. Said 45-year-old Atma Ram, “Hum to khushi khushi ghar jaane ke liye aaye the saaman lekar, gharwaalon se milne ka, achha khaana khane ka socha tha (We came here happily dreaming of a journey back home, to meet our families, to get two square meals) since the construction work was stopped in March. Now, we have been told that the train capacity if full and we can’t board.”
Atma Ram and his friends had registered on the government portal to return home to Amethi about a fortnight ago, duly got SMSes from the authority and even got their medical clearance from the government facility. But when they showed up at the railway station with their luggage, they could not board despite all the due process being followed.
An official explains that in the first few days of running these trains, they observed that not everyone who receives a call shows up at the station. Some can’t reach, some change their minds, while some get work and don’t want to return. “So now, we call around 1,500 people even though the capacity is for 1,200. Those who are left behind will be ferried back to where they were picked up and can take the next train,” he says.
A group of five from UP’s Moradabad was sitting outside the main entry gate of the railway station, brandishing medical fitness certificates from the local government hospital, pleading with cops to let them in. They had incidentally landed in Amritsar in just a few days before the lockdown was announced, and found work in a brick kiln. Even as the work at the kiln stopped, they continued to live there all these days.
Says 25-year-old Najim Ahmad, “When we got to know about Shramik trains, we rushed to register. But it’s been 20 days and we haven’t received any SMS regarding any train going our side.” Pointing to his friends Nizam, Imran, Salman and Usman, he says, “humne to khud hi apna medical bhi karea liya taaki police train mein baithne de (All of us even got our fitness tests done on our own yesterday). We have been sitting outside the station, hoping we are allowed to board any train that’s leaving Amritsar.”
Salman, who just brought a loaf of bread from a nearby shop, to be had with tea for lunch, says, “We have been surviving on langar food and charity here and there, but mostly sleeping hungry. We were told that this train won’t halt anywhere before its final destination, which is Amethi. Moradabad is 447 km short of Amethi, wish we could board this train and jump off at Moradabad.”
Inside the railway station, hundreds had queued up — most of them lock, stock and barrel — to get their ticket to home from the helpdesk. Those who could secure tickets also got food packets, bottled water and canned juice for kids accompanying them. Even as there were more than two hours for their 17-hour non-stop journey to begin, the boarding was complete.
Bir Karan Singh Dhillon, nodal officer for movement of passengers at Amritsar Railway Station, explains the process, “All those who have registered get a call from us once a train schedule is finalised for their destination — which is normally a day or two ahead of the departure date. They are asked to reach the medical check-up centres (some banquet halls on the outskirts of the city have been converted into medical centres), from where we ferry the ‘fit’ persons to the railway station in our buses.”
Inside the train with a capacity of 2,400, only 1,200 are being allowed to allow proper spacing. Even though passengers are encouraged to bring their own food, they are given free food packets. There is no railway staff to manage the non-stop journey, even as the last coach has some security personnel on board.
There is a team of 12, running a 24×7 call centre for migrants from the Red Cross Bhawan. Dhillon says all the migrants seeking to board these special trains need to register on covidhelp.punjab.gov.in. In case they are not able to do it on their own, they can take someone’s help or even walk into the nearest police station.
The catch is: registering on the website doesn’t guarantee them a trip back home. A train will be scheduled only if around 1,500 registrations have come in for a particular destination, and the receiving state has also assured relevant approvals. But the worst is in store for those who register, get the calls, get their medical screening done, reach the station, and still can’t board — because of the first-come-first-served rule.
But this doesn’t augur well with Atma Ram and his group. “If the train can take 1,100, why can’t it take six more? Shall we now walk back to Batala? Will there be another train ever to Amethi?” he says, looking around for answers.
Punjab is one of the few states that are offering free travel to migrants, so registrations have crossed 10 lakh in number. Besides Amritsar, trains are running from Jalandhar, Ludhiana and Mohali, and are mostly scheduled for UP and Bihar. The state has been able to send more than two lakh migrants back home on board.
Shivdular Dhillon, Amritsar Deputy Commissioner, says, “Whenever there is a crisis like this, and there is public largesse, there will always be some people who are able to take advantage of the situation. Even though the trains are meant for the stranded and the needy, there is free travel, there is proper spacing, free food, so even those migrants who want to take their annual trip to home are coming forward to register, while some of those who are actually needy may be left behind.”
As Atma Ram gets up from the pavement, wipes his sweat and picks up his bag to walk towards the exit, announcement at the station says: “Please maintain social distancing. Please keep your families with you. Please sit on the allotted seats, you won’t be allowed to change later.”
Outside the station, the group stands next to Najim Ahmad’s group. As the clock strikes 2pm and the siren blows, all of them wistfully look at the train to Amethi, which begins to chug on.
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