Shortly after midnight, 38-year-old Mohammad Alam from Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh reached the Vadodara railway station in one of the city buses sent by the district administration to fetch 1,209 migrant workers from UP stranded in Vadodara since the lockdown was imposed in March. They were part of the first batch of migrants from UP to return home by the special Shramik Express from Vadodara to Lucknow that departed at 2.30am Monday.
Clutching on to two pieces of paper, Alam picked up his red and brown bag and followed the instructions of the police officers making sure that the groups maintained distance and boarded their designated compartments.
The two pieces of paper included a blank chit block, rubber stamped by the Vadodara City Mamlatdar, which had “700/-” written in Gujarati under his name and a medical certificate issued by the doctor from the local urban health centre where Alam stayed for over a month. The medical certificate issued by the state government mentioned that Alam had no symptoms of acute respiratory infection, fever, cough, cold, breathlessness and was “valid for three days for the purpose of travel only”.
“The Mamlatdar’s paper is proof that I have paid for my train ticket to Lucknow, from where the UP government will make arrangements for my further travel to Saharanpur. If I lose this, I am scared they will ask me to get off the train. I am going to keep it safe,” he said.
The special train with 24 non air-conditioned coaches would cover the distance of about 1,110 kilometers in under 22 hours. Each coach would carry 50 passengers to maintain social distancing as per the protocol decided by the Centre. While no one would be allowed to get into the train at technical halts, railway officials confirmed that batches of migrants would be allowed to alight at important stations in UP where the train would halt, especially Kanpur, which comes before Lucknow.
Railway officials said that the decision to run the trains had been taken by the Gujarat government in coordination with its counterpart in UP. “The entire decision and transportation of migrants and social distancing has been handled by the administration. The railways was only informed and instructed to provide the logistical support as needed. Even the ticket costs have been decided by the government and the process of issuing the tickets has also been handled by the nodal officers appointed to coordinate locally,” a top railway official told this newspaper.
Vadodara Commissioner of Police Anupam Singh Gahlaut said the administration had drawn up a list of all migrants from UP who wished to return, including those who were sent back from Gujarat-MP border in Dahod on Sunday and those prohibited from travelling on foot and without permits on Saturday. “This is the first batch of migrants leaving today. The second batch is also ready and we will be sending them shortly,” Gahlaut said.
Another labourer, who worked as a driver in Surat after trying his luck as a factory worker, Mohit Yadav (28) from Kanpur district, said, “I haven’t spoken to my family for almost 10 days because my mother, wife and three daughters would only keep crying. It was driving me mad. Today when I told them that I was leaving for the station, they were excited and also relieved. The big sorry is arranging money for the family in the next few days. I have exhausted all the money I had in trying to hitch rides on trucks back home, which did not materialise. My salary for March and April has not been given yet and I don’t know if it will even come.”
When a team of medical officers arrived at around 9 pm at the VMC-run Dayanand Saraswati Vidyalaya in Vadodara to screen the 24 migrants from UP who have been housed there since the lockdown began in March, Rajkumari Nisad (25) had only one question for the doctors: “What should I do to safely travel back to Kanpur in my advanced pregnancy stage?”
“Going back home is important. I just hope that the journey is not too taxing. I have already taken risks during my fifth month when we had left from Pandesara in Surat (where her husband worked as a textile weaver), walking a long distance and climbing in and out of multiple trucks on the way. Now, I just want to go home and deliver my baby safely,” she said.
Another migrant family from Makrandpur in rural Kanpur — Dharmendra Kumar (30), his wife Mamta Devi (26) and two children aged 5 and 3 — borrowed Rs 1,400 for two tickets for the adults from other labourers.
“We did not have the money. Luckily our children have not been charged because they are under 12 years of age but for us to arrange the money for two tickets was tough. We borrowed from two people who live in a village close by in Kanpur. We will pay them in installments,” said Dharmendra.