After three days of hell on earth, Day 4 of the Narendra Modi decreed 21-day lockdown brought some relief to the thousands of migrant labourers in Kaushambi, a part of the NCR, but in Ghaziabad district of UP.
These migrant labourers from distant parts of UP in Kaushambi had been left in the lurch. Those who could had started to walk back to their homes, 700 km away. Till finally on March 28th, after a major debate on why a government that can bring home Indians stranded abroad cannot send its migrant workers home, the government relented and started limited bus services to different destinations in UP and Bihar.
A fleet of Delhi Transport Corporation buses ferried migrant labour from different parts of the national capital and even Gurugram in Haryana to Kaushambi, where UP state-owned public transport buses waited at the Interstate Bus Terminus, where UP begins. The mad rush to board the buses saw people grabbing hold of any hand and toe hold on the buses or finding sitting space on the rooftop.
Day 4 also finally saw migrant labour and their families get some relief from hunger. Thousands of migrants, men, women, children, old and young, were jostling for food that the police and the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Trust were providing, before they tried to push their way into the already overcrowded buses. Social distancing be damned.
Just one day earlier, on March 27th, the ground situation had been totally different. A group of 300-400 people living in the Bhawapur village had reached the UP State Bus Terminus, claiming a TV channel had announced that buses were available. The police had shooed them away saying there was no such service.
Migrant labour in these areas just outside Delhi have come from distant villages in UP and Bihar to earn a living any which way they can –cycling rickshaws, selling tea, cleaning cars at car parks, altering clothes on a leg machine parked on a pavement, sweeping factory floors, labourers at construction sites. They live in ghettos. They get to eat if they have earned that day. And the flimsy roof over can blow off on the whim of the “malik”.
Those who run cycle rickshaws are a wee bit luckier. They just bundle their women and children and their meagre bagful of utensils and clothes on to the rickshaw and find shelter wherever they can. Others stretch out on the pavements. They have, over time, learnt to deal with the usual irritants—the municipal corporation guys chasing them away, the police constable asking for their share and the RWAs who see them as criminals. Their numbers are anybody’s guess.
At the best of times, these migrant workers need no excuse to go home. The day they have enough money to buy their tickets to their village, they are ready to board the train from the Anand Vihar railway station–regardless of the loss of income when they are away.
But these are the worst of times. Most of them are literally penniless and cannot pay the bus fare back home, forget the Rs 500 that private operators are charging for a place on the roof. While the chances of their having come in contact with a Corona-carrying person are low, there is no data at all on this, or any study on how many of them may get affected if Stage 3 of the virus outbreak sets in. They have no water to wash their hands, let alone sanitisers. Most often, a dozen or more share a tiny tenement or jhuggi, so social distancing is out of the question.
Rickshaw-puller Sunil Das from Muzaffarpur in Bihar has been working in the Maharajpur area near the Anand Vihar ISBT in East Delhi for the last 8-10 years. Three months back, he booked his train tickets for home for March 25th. When he got to the station and saw not a single train on the platform, he panicked. Finally he found a railway employee who told him all trains were cancelled, and he would get an SMS on refund of his tickets.
After returning to his room in Maharajpur, on Day 2 of the lockdown, with not a paisa on him, he came to the Kaushambi metro station, in the hope of picking up at least two passengers. No luck. Sunil then tried to take shelter at the Gurdwara in Madhu Vihar — the nearest for him. But the police at the Delhi-UP border did not let him through. He did not walk to the Gurudwara as he was afraid that his rickshaw would be impounded. Since then, he has been pedaling his rickshaw between Kaushambi and Vaishali, his eyes desperate to sight a passenger. “How will we eat otherwise?” he asked.
That perhaps is the cruellest irony being faced by these migrant labours. Though just a few kilometres from Delhi, where CM Arvind Kejriwal has made elaborate arrangements to house and feed migrant labour and the homeless, people like Sunil are unable to get there as the border is closed.
Their own government is indifferent to their existence. Which explains their desperation to get back to their villages, where there is a possibility of getting some work when harvesting starts in a few weeks time, and where they will be eligible for the food packages announced.
Naresh Paswan, another rickshaw puller also from Maharajpur has been trying to cross the border into Delhi using sided roads and any other track his rickshaw can take. He wanted to reach the Ghazipur mandi nearby in the hope of buying some vegetables and selling them for a small profit, and if he was lucky, also pick up a passenger or two. While he could have walked across the border, he too did not want to leave his rickshaw, sure that the police would damage it.
People like Sunil and Paswan have no access to clean water either, despite working right in front of the Bisleri plant across the Kaushambi metro station. Some of them have had no food for the last few days and now do not have the energy to even ply their rickshaws.
The tragedy of these people is endless. Everyone has the same story to tell—no help where they are, and denied access to places in Delhi where they can get some help. And no money to catch the bus when it is available.