Photo: Passengers rush to board a train in Thane. PTI
Kalyan, Thane: With no work in hand, and uncertainty looming over their future, migrant and daily wagers in Mumbai and Pune have started leaving en masse for their hometowns in the north and eastern parts of India.
People began to panic as soon as the Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray on March 20 said that all non-essential services will be completely shut down until March 31. With this, most migrants working at several construction sites, and several other daily-wage outlets like the tanneries, garment shops and smalls hotels are left with no choice but to head back to their hometowns.
By the evening, people gathered in large numbers and the struggle to get on to available trains was visible.
Social distancing was the last thing in their minds as most fled joblessness and the subsequent struggles of earning a livelihood in a fast city. “Asa hi maran aahe, tasa hi (‘We will die this way or that way’),” said a naka kamgar or a daily wager from Parbhani district in Maharashtra who was waiting at Kalyan railway station to return home.
The scene at #Pune railway station as the Pune-Patna Express rolls in! Such is the extent of migrant labour heading back home! #CoronaCrisis pic.twitter.com/v7xfYWrUBr
— Ananth Rupanagudi (@rananth) March 21, 2020
Central Railway Services, mainly in Mumbai and Pune, were not prepared for this unprecedented huge crowd and were seen struggling to pacify the gathered crowd. Officials also urge them to go back.
Announcements were made urging people to not panic and to plan their travel better. But as the crowd only continued to increase, the Railways had to add another 17 special trains to the existing 47 scheduled trains. On March 21, by afternoon, the crowd at Pune station had reduced marginally but in Mumbai, the situation had only grown chaotic.
Pritam Singh and his wife Aarti, who worked at a construction site in New Panvel were told to “stay home” for the coming few days. The middleman handling their work allocation on a daily basis informed them that they would not be paid any wages until they returned to work. “Kaam nahi toh, pagaar nahi (‘No work, no salary’), the agent told us,” Aarti said.
“But what do we eat if we don’t work?” asked Pritam.
The 20-something couple had unanimously decided that it was better to return to their village in Madhubani district in Bihar until things calmed down. “Our children are back home in Bagwasa village in Benipatti block in Madhubani with their grandparents. We live here in Kalyan in a shanty and have been working at a construction site for the past six years. This is the first time we are leaving the city without any money in hand or any clarity about the future,” said Aarti, as she held on to a small bag and two plastic bottles filled with water.
“We are only carrying our essentials with us. We don’t know if we can even board the train. We have been here for the past five hours and have been hearing that there is a huge crowd at Lokmanya Tilak Terminus and no one is able to board the train,” Pritam said.
The couple was a part of an over-40-person group that had gathered at Kalyan junction with the plan to travel 40 kilometres to LTT station and get on the train there to Bihar.
The group was visibly hassled and narrating their stories to a media person was the last thing on their minds. “I can’t think right now. I just need to find a way to get home soon and also ensure we stay safe,” said another person in his 50s from behind a cloth mask strapped around his mouth.
The situation in Maharashtra has been grim.
Early this week, the state government started taking measures and urging people to stay indoors as much as they can. But the numbers of COVID-19 cases rose dramatically from a single digit to 63 on March 21 and 74 on March 22.
As an extreme preventive measure, the state government decided to shut down every non-essential service, including private offices. Among the essential services, only groceries, vegetable markets, chemists, hospitals, fire and ambulance services are allowed to operate at present. Even government officers are working on 25% staff strength as against the 50% capacity that was available until a day ago.
Images being shared by ppl from Kurla Terminus Mumbai last night. High time to think about mobility more centrally within mobility and precarious migrant lives. Above is an extralopated version of the seasonal and continuing migrant movement experience. pic.twitter.com/PRh7alJ9FW
— Nirali Joshi (@Niralijo) March 21, 2020
Not all parts of the country are directly connected through trains. Several commuters also expressed their anxieties about further travel once they reached the nearest railway stops in their respective state. For example, a family comprising a mother, father and two children were worried about their return to their village in Bhilwara tehsil in Rajasthan.
The father, Nawaz Ansari, worked with a security agency and his two children studied here. But since malls have been shut down in the city, Ansari was informed that he would not be paid any salary until the situation improved in the state.
“WhatsApp par padha ki Bhilwara main chakka jam ho gaya hai (‘we read on WhatsApp that Bhilwara has been completely shut down’),” his young son Amir said. The family was headed to Amli village in Bhilwara.
On March 20, a strict prohibitory order was imposed in Bhilwara after 11 cases were reported coronavirus positive in a span of 24 hours. Most of them were doctors from a private hospital. Since then, the Bhilwara administration had closed down every entry point and mobility has been completely curtailed. “We will wait at Jaipur station until we find a way to get home,” Ansari said.
Very few migrant workers in the city live with their families. Men, young and old, travel from their hometowns and live here in rented shanties. They are dependent on street-side food vendors for their daily meals. “While restaurants and grocery shops are still allowed to stay open, roadside stalls have all been shut down. They have no place to go and eat,” said Madhukant Patharia, president of the Nirman Majdoor Sanghatana, which has been working with naka kamgaars and other migrant labourers in the state for over three decades.
“The only way to discourage people from crowding in trains and other public transport is to make them stay away from work,” health minister Rajesh Tope has said in his media brief on Friday, March 20.
But what the state government did not think of is the panic rush by those who won’t have any jobs or backup to continue in the city without a job. Chief public information officer of the Central Railways, Shivaji Sutar, told The Wire that from March 20 afternoon to March 21 evening, a large number of people had gathered at Pune, Chhatrapati Maharaj Shivaji Terminus, and LTT to broad trains.
Domestic flights curtailed, screening at railway stations, empty roads at Dadar and Chinchpokli. #Mumbai #mumbailockdown #JantaCurfew #COVID19outbreak #covid19 pic.twitter.com/lnWMrm1dVN
— Sachin Kalbag (@SachinKalbag) March 22, 2020
“Most of them were heading to the north and eastern states. We have 47 scheduled trains and had to urgently add another 17 trains to ensure the crowd decreases. The crowding at Pune was brought under control by Saturday morning but LTT continued to be crowded,” Sutar added.
People are panicking and want to leave as soon as they can, he added. But this unprecedented movement is also a nightmare for the health officials. Sutar said, “Since over a lakh commuter had rushed to the station, it was impossible to conduct screening on such a large number. But we are doing as much as we can.” The fact, however, is the passengers waiting anxiously at different railway stations across the state were leaving cities without any checks and in all likelihood return to their hometowns in remote parts of north and eastern states without any checks.
Patharia feels the situation could have been completely avoided if the state had planned things better. “In Mumbai alone, over two and half lakh workers work at constructions sites. Another two and half lakh work in the neighbouring Thane, Palghar and Raigad district. If the state had prioritised these men and women and ensured they were provided with month provisions and alternative work, they would have stayed back,” Patharia added.
Earlier this week, Nirmal Majdoor Sanghatana had written a letter to the state government demanding the rights of construction workers and other migrant workers were taken care of and they were provided proper medical care, free ration and also alternative work for the challenging days ahead.