Fighting Covid-19: After the long walk, jobless migrants head home by bus

The long walk of migrants, captured non-stop in striking visuals for the past few days, came to a halt on Saturday as the Centre and state governments stepped in to send them home. To begin with, some 1,000 buses were pressed into service to carry migrants from Delhi to many parts of Uttar Pradesh. If it’s any relief, the bus journey would be free for migrants, who lost their income after the 21-day coronavirus-linked lockdown forced companies to shut factories and plants. 

Ever since businesses took harsh steps due to Covid-19, migrants, constituting a large chunk of  the country’s unorganised sector, expressed their frustration through a mass exodus from several cities without caring about the prescribed social distancing norms. With luggage on their shoulders, toddlers in arms and other family members by the side, thousands of them decided to leave the cities they had known as their own, catching the administration unawares. 

After days of indecisiveness, the governments on Saturday decided to come together in resolving a growing crisis. As soon as the word spread that the Uttar Pradesh government had lined up buses at Anand Vihar station in New Delhi to take them to their towns and villages, jobless and mostly cashless migrants gathered in thousands in the hope of reaching home, and that too not by foot or makeshift rickshaws. 

At Anand Vihar bus station, it was like a human chain. While social distancing was impossible, authorities attempted some degree of hygiene through distribution of masks and  thermal screening. The bus station was sanitised too, not with sanitisers  but by sprinkling tap water.

“We are noting down the details of all the passengers and their destination,” Ghaziabad’s Additional District Magistrate Shailendra Kumar Singh said.

“We will send these details to the village-level authorities so that they are in isolation to avoid the spread of the virus. There are about 1,000 buses that are being deployed,” Singh added.

On Saturday, there was hope in the air in the midst of despair. It was the same for 35-year-old construction worker Raheez Ahmed, who covered some 16 km on foot from Okhla to Anand Vihar bus station to catch a bus to Hardoi (Uttar Pradesh) — over 400 kilometers away. 

“I get paid on a piecemeal basis and generally in the range of Rs 400-450 a day. I’m not eligible for the announcements made by the government so far related to welfare of workers as I am not registered for these services. With cash drying up and no work, I have no option but to head back,” Ahmed said.

Although police high-handedness has come up for criticism over the past few days, on Saturday cops were seen helping workers board buses to reach Anand Vihar for onward journey to UP. “The images of workers walking on foot to reach their domicile states have sent out a wrong signal. And we are doing our best to help them reach the bus stations so that they don’t have to walk all the way to get there,” a sub-inspector manning a police checkpoint said. The officials dealing with the crisis were however cautious about the lockdown rules and provided logistical help discreetly, a source pointed out. Nobody wanted to give an impression that the administration was going easy on lockdown. 

Migrant workers wait to board a bus to their homtowns during a nationwide lockdown imposed in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, at Kaushambi in Ghaziabad. Photo: PTI
The Home Ministry issued a statement on Saturday saying that the government had committed “all support to migrant workers during the lockdown period as per the directions of the Prime Minister.” 

The press statement, however, had no mention about the bus services. It stated that the Home Secretary had written another letter to the state governments to “immediately set up relief camps for migrant workers or pilgrims who are returning to their domicile states or trying to do so during the lockdown period.” The states were also advised to set up relief camps and tented accommodation along the highways for people on the move, to ensure lockdown rules were not broken.

Uttar Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation managing director Raj Shekhar wrote a letter to all the district magistrates in UP seeking their cooperation in sending the workers home. “Government has now taken a decision to allow these passengers en route to reach their destination,” the letter read. The transport services will be available on Sunday as well, according to the letter. 

Volunteers on the road distributed food and water to those  boarding the overloaded buses. Rajesh Sahni was one of them. With the help of 25-30 residents of Kilokari village in Maharani Bagh, he distributed home-cooked food to thousands of migrant workers over the last two days.

Passengers waited for hours to catch the bus that would ultimately take them to where they belong.

But not everyone was as lucky.  “Bengal bohot door hai (West Bengal is too far away). How will I walk 1,400 km from here? We thought lockdown would be for one day, then it got extended till March 31 and now till April 14,” 40-year-old Gulal Mandal from Malda (West Bengal) said, showing the last few hundred rupee notes in his pocket.

If during the last few days, migrants’ walk has reminded many of migratory birds in search of resources, the jury’s out on whether the latest developments would be a turning point.

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