Vasudev Singh was sleeping when the announcement came. Officials came to the makeshift labour colony at Sangareddy, some 40 km from Hyderabad, around 11 pm Thursday and told them to pack their bags; they were going home. “We packed a few clothes and rushed. We were screened, given token numbers, asked to show our Aadhaar cards, and then told to board buses. Around 2 am we left for the train station,” says the 45-year-old construction worker from Garhwa in Jharkhand.
Three hours later, Singh was among the 1,200 migrant labourers who left for Hatia, Jharkhand, from Lingampalli Railway Station in Hyderabad on board a special train — the first such to run since the start of the national lockdown on March 25. The 22-coach train was arranged by South Central Railways after the Telangana government made a request to the Railway Ministry.
The workers who were sent back Thursday were employed at a construction site for IIT Hyderabad Phase 2 buildings, work on which is at a halt. Many of the labourers said they hadn’t been paid their dues.
“We have been living crammed in shanties at the camp, surviving on bare minimum food and bad facilities. I hope to finally see my family,” said an emotional Sanjiv Kumar, from Kurgi in Jharkhand, as the train set off.
However, while Kumar hoped this would happen as early as Saturday morning, the Jharkhand government will screen them and may keep them in quarantine on a case-by-case basis.
The decision to send the labourers home followed two incidents of violence at Sangareddy between the men seeking wages and their supervisors. They also clashed with police. Later, the workers petitioned Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren, who placed a request with the Centre to get the workers back. Jharkhand had earlier said it could not get back an estimated nine lakh people stranded outside the state on its own.
Jharkhand Principal Secretary Amrendra Pratap Singh, head of the coordinating team for bringing the labourers back, said the state was informed on Thursday night, and Telangana decided the passenger list.
Secretary Rahul Sharma, coordinating with officials in Telangana, said, “We had sent them a list of 16,000 people stranded in various parts of the state. Initially the Centre said people would be moved by road, but yesterday evening we were informed they were sending a special train.”
Ranchi Deputy Commissioner Rai Mahimat Ray said, “Upon arrival in Hatia, each migrant worker will be welcomed with a mask and a flower. Thermal screening will be conducted along with videography of the entire process. Sixty sanitised buses have been prepared for their onward movement to respective districts.” Ray said they would put the passengers in home or institutional quarantine in their districts, based on medical screening.
Express interview: India handled COVID-19 situation very maturely: Dr Harsh Vardhan
A South Central Railway official said the labourers were screened for symptoms before being allowed on the train. “To ensure social distancing, we removed the middle berth so that instead of 72 passengers per coach there were only 54. It is a non-stop train so the Telangana government arranged food and water.”
Sangareddy Divisional Revenue Officer M Nagesh said they had ensured an adequate number of food packets, including breakfast, lunch and dinner. “They were given eight bottles of water per head and we counselled them on the precautions to take,” Nagesh said.
Don’t miss from Explained: Fighting COVID-19 with phones
A Telangana official said they would make arrangements for the remaining labourers in the state too in the coming days, though this may take time now with the extension of the lockdown. About a thousand workers from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and West Bengal continue to be stuck at the Sangareddy construction site.
Saying they were mistreated by their supervisors, one of the labourers, Devendra Mandal, said, “When we tried to tell them we wanted to go home and demanded our money, they scolded us. They kept saying we would be paid next month. Our families cannot survive if we don’t send money home.”
Speaking about last week’s incident, Sangareddy SP Chandrashekar Reddy said, “The workers said they had not been paid since February and complained of lack of proper food and accommodation.”
District Collector M Hanumanth Rao said he had issued a notice to the construction firm employing them to pay their wages.
However, as several labourers left saying they had been told they would be paid later, Rajesh Singh, 38, from Ranchi was among the lucky ones. Going home with Rs 19,000, his dues since January, he said, “I don’t know when I will return but till that time this money will be useful.”
Among those who said he was owed money was Khusbir Singh, a labour contractor. “The company has to give me around Rs 3 lakh. It paid only a portion of it.”
Speaking to The Indian Express from onboard the train, Vasudev Singh said, “As soon as the train started, we made videos, clicked photos and sent them to our family members.”
Hamid Raja, returning home with Rs 400, said his family in Garhwa started crying when they heard the news. “After a month of uncertainty, this feels like heaven.”
At 11.15 pm on Friday, the train arrived at Hatia. Waiting for the labourers were welcome hoardings, roses, food, masks, doctors ready to screen them, 200 policemen on the ground and drones in the sky, plus buses labelled Samman Rath (Dignity Chariots).