Long before dawn on May 15, Om Prakash Tiwari slipped out of Mumbai with his family of six on a 1,500-km journey in his taxi to home in UP’s Pratapgarh district. He had registered 10 days ago for tickets on the special train for migrants, but couldn’t wait any more for the answer to his question: “When will my turn come?”
Around sunset on May 8, Adil Khan, a 25-year-old zari worker in Jogeshwari left the city on a special train to UP. He had submitted his application just three days earlier at the local police station.
Wedged between the two journeys is the despair that has forced thousands of migrants away from railway stations and onto highways in a desperate and dangerous bid to reach their homes, driven by the lack of jobs and rapid urban spread of the coronavirus.
For many, getting a seat on these special trains is like a lottery, based on a convoluted registration process and completely dependent on the destination states that either approve or put on hold district-based lists with no clear explanation.
In Maharashtra, the country’s industrial powerhouse and key destination for migrants from across the country, the numbers are telling: 2.25 lakh people left on 191 Shramik Specials between May 1 and 15 — of the first 100 trains, 50 were to UP and 25 to Bihar; over 1 lakh others are estimated to have left in private vehicles and buses, based on permits issued.
And in Mumbai, which has emerged as the epicentre of the Covid crisis with 17,671 cases and 655 deaths, at least 1.13 lakh migrant workers have left the metropolitan region.
On Friday, these migrant trains were at the centre of a political firestorm with Railways Minister Piyush Goyal accusing West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan of not giving permission to receive these trains, drawing strong rebuttals from the states — the first train from Maharashtra to West Bengal left Saturday.
Meanwhile, Tiwari’s story illustrates the situation on the ground.
“We filled up the forms on May 6, with 25 others, at the Kala Chowki police station. But no one was clear about when my turn would come. We tried to get a permit for a bus but failed because the vehicle’s tax papers had not been cleared,” he said.
“That’s when we decided to leave in my taxi. But they still would not give me a permit, saying only one other person was allowed to travel. There were trucks leaving with hundreds crammed inside, but they didn’t allow me. So at 2 am Friday, I left without any permit,” said Tiwari, 59.
According to Maharashtra government officials, the first step is for ticket hopefuls to submit registration forms at the local police station, where the names are grouped in batches of 25-30 based on destination districts.
Then, the DCP’s office clubs the lists received from the three-four stations under its jurisdiction in larger bunches based on the same criterion. The districts are verified with the home address on Aadhaar cards, a copy of which has to be submitted with the application.
“A request is made to the receiving state independently by the respective DCP while informing us at the same time for follow-up action. Once the request is confirmed by the receiving state, usually by the next day, we sent it to the Railways. It takes another day for the train to be arranged and simultaneously, those who had registered are informed and buses organised to take them to the stations,” said Additional Chief Secretary (Revenue), Nitin Kareer, the IAS officer who heads a nodal team for the process at Mantralaya, the state secretariat.
Shivaji Daund, divisional commissioner of Konkan Division, said the police commissionerate in Mumbai and the district collectors also coordinate with the Mantralaya team to facilitate the process.
Daund said that “all those who have registered” will get to board the trains based on the receipt of approved lists. “The station from where the train will depart is based on the number of people on the list residing in the vicinity,” he said.
Referring to cases like those of Tiwari and Khan, another senior official acknowledged that there is no clear order to the process — for instance, the destination state may not clear a list of migrants headed to one specific district, but clear another for a different location.
“The states have several issues to be sorted out, including arranging buses to ferry the migrants to various districts, organising for transit and food, and ensuring quarantine. This has posed major challenges,” said the official.
“Also, as the Shramik trains were started from May 1, there were not more than two-three trains per day until about three days ago. But now, we have at least seven-eight trains leaving Mumbai each day. The state government is arranging for at least 200 more trains for which applications have been received, and requests for NoCs sent to other states,” the official said.
That, however, is of little consolation to people like Tiwari. “My money was running out in Mumbai, I could not afford to wait for the trains any longer,” he said. By Saturday evening, his taxi had reached Kanpur, just about 250 km from home.
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