After ISBT Kaushambi shut, migrant workers begin long walk to Lal Kuan
After walking for days to reach ISBT Kaushambi, the hoards of hungry migrant workers had hoped to finally get a bus home to their villages across Uttar Pradesh late Saturday night, but it was not to be. The hundreds of buses deployed were too few to accommodate the thousands who had gathered in desperation. The services came to a standstill forcing the workers to walk another 18km towards Lal Kuan, from where the bus operations continued even on Sunday.
Twenty-five-year-old Pradeep Kumar has a leg deformity, yet he walked from Kapashera, near Gurugram border, to Kaushambi (36km) with the help of his crutches. Late Saturday night, he was forced to walk yet again to get a bus to his hometown—Jhansi in Madhya Pradesh.
“There was a huge crowd in Kaushambi and I lost hope that I will be able to get a bus. Then I and my friends decided to walk to Lal Kuan. We work at a garment stitching factory and it has been shut because of the lockdown. So, we are returning home as all money and food is finished. We are not worried about Coronavirus ; it is mostly related to people who have travelled to foreign countries. But we poor people are suffering as a result,” he added.
Most migrant workers at the bus stop had carried their children on their shoulders and old parents on their backs.
“There is no money left with us now. I hope to go home and do some farming work. I have heard that the lockdown will be for three months and I cannot afford to stay in Delhi. I may not return as we cannot afford to relocate again and again,” said Mukesh Kumar, a daily wager who stayed at Nand Nagri in Delhi.
Meanwhile, local bus drivers, tempos, three-wheelers and truck drivers made hay charging ₹50 per person for dropping workers to Lal Kuan, some 18km apart.
Those like Abhishek Singh, who had the luxury of owning a bike decided to ride to Lucknow with his friend from Panipat in Haryana. “The factories have been shutdown and there is no clarity on whether we will get buses or not. So we decided to reach Lucknow on our bike from Panipat, Haryana. We have taken petrol in bottles for refuelling midway. There is no social distancing measure in buses and they are packed to capacity. So we opted to travel by bike,” he said.
People such as Inder Mandal, a native of Samastipur in Bihar who works in Haryana, were also looking for buses. “I travelled through Haryana Roadways bus to Lal Kuan on Sunday morning. Before this, I was stuck up at the Panipat railway station for two days as our company has closed down and our contractor has run away leaving us behind. I earned ₹240 per day but there is no money after lockdown. In Panipat, police chased us away and five of my co-workers got separated. So I am travelling back alone. The respite is that Haryana Roadways buses are not charging any fare,” he said.
Though the UP Roadways buses deployed to ferry workers back home were offering free travel, some have reported being charged hefty fare.
“Since many people like us are leaving the region, residents here in future will see dearth of workers, domestic helps, drivers and construction labourers. Many of them may not come back and will do their small farming jobs,” Mandal said simply.
Early Sunday morning, the UP government officials finally decided to shut bus operations from Kaushambi and completely shifted base to Lal Kuan. Haryana Roadways buses, a state UP shares its border with, also arrived to share the burden of taking these migrants back home.
Ghaziabad district magistrate Ajay Shankar Pandey said, “The uses continue to operate from Lal Kuan. We decided to stop bus service from Kaushambi. Haryana Roadways buses have also come in large numbers to help us. We are trying our best to restrict people to shelter homes in Ghaziabad and offering them food, but they want to their hometowns. The state officials have conveyed to the officials of the other districts to take up medical checkups and ensure 14-day quarantine when workers arrive to their hometowns to check spread of Covid-19 disease.”
Prashant Kumar, additional director general of police (Meerut zone) also arrived at Lal Kuan on Sunday afternoon. “The UP government has directed that people should stay at their respective places. But we cannot leave them alone when they are travelling long distances and coming here. We are making them aware about the health concerns, which can arise if they do not maintain social distancing. But there is huge influx of migrant workers,” Kumar said.
Many Good Samaritans also joined the administration in helping with distribution of food and water to migrant workers travelling to their hometowns. However, the intersection at Lal Kuan was also busy with private buses.
Many of these private buses promised to drop passengers for ₹1,600 per person to cities like Gorakhpur (790 kilometres) and ₹900 for a drop till Lucknow (522 kms)-- about four times higher than the fare of government buses for the same journey.