Unable to book train tickets, migrants start out on the arduous journey home on foot
Until Tuesday, 26-year-old Lala Ram Kewat lived at the construction site he worked at. With more than 50 days without a job and his paltry savings dwindling day-by-day, Kewat is now walking 463 kilometres to his village in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh from his home Delhi’s Inderlok with his wife, two children and some friends.
Behind him is a group of young men walking to Bihar’s Katihar. They offer to carry his seven-year-old, who is tired of walking. All these days, since the lockdown began, the young men, all of whom work as labourers, were staying at an under-construction site and were dependent on assistance from the local police for food.
Abu Kalan, 19, the youngest in the group, says they could not arrange a train ticket to go home. “We don’t even have an internet-enabled phone. On Wednesday, eight of us walked to the New Delhi railway station to see if we could buy a ticket from the counter but the police refused to let us inside as we did not have valid e-tickets. We cannot live in Delhi anymore without a job,” he said.
Starting Tuesday, the government began eight special trains, including three from Delhi, as a step towards restoration of passenger train services in a graded manner. The government had also started special Shramik trains to send stranded migrant workers back home. At least five Shramik trains have left for Madhya Pradesh and Bihar from the national Capital. But to avail of this service too, the passengers must apply online or through the district magistrate’s office for a seat. Government officials helped migrants who were staying in shelter homes but a majority of the migrant workers, however, were staying on their own at their workplaces such as construction sites, among others, who were not able to avail of direct help.
Unable to register for Shramik trains or buy tickets online, migrant workers from across the city are starting out on foot back to their villages every night. The booking counters at railway stations are currently shut, which has rendered workers such as Kalan and Kewat helpless in getting a ticket.
To avoid heat during the sunlight hours, the workers are covering the distance at night. They spend their days in parks near state highways trying to arrange food from good Samaritans or NGOs. The day is also the time they search for water -- each of them carries at least two bottles.
On Thursday, the day temperature was 40 degrees Celsius in the national Capital while the minimum temperature the previous night was 24 degrees Celsius.
“It is better to walk at night. It is difficult to walk with children during the day; they will faint. We stayed at the Jasola DDA district park today. The guard was kind enough to allow us to use the bathroom. He understood that we are travelling with our families. The trees in the park provided us with cover from the sun. It will take me at least five nights to reach Jhansi. We will start our journey again in the evening,” Kewat said.
According to government officials, only 20% of migrant workers are now housed in state-run shelter homes and school premises. Apart from the government’s 223 shelters for the homeless, 256 school buildings were opened as shelter homes for tens of thousands of migrant workers who were stuck in Delhi.
Bipin Rai, member, Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), which is the nodal agency for arranging shelter for the homeless in the city, said that only about a fifth of the stranded migrants are now remaining at the shelters.
“We have been appealing to them to stay back and return to work, as some sectors are opening up. Many have stayed back. Others living in rented rooms or shanties feel they have run out of money and won’t be able to survive longer. Also, there is a belief among most of them that the coronavirus (Covid-19) is an urban disease and that they will be safer in their villages, which they feel have so far not been infected by the virus,” said Rai.
Sunil Aledia, a social activist who works for the homeless, said that most migrant workers leaving the city are those who live with their families. “They do not have money left to sustain themselves anymore. The NGOs give them food and rations but they don’t even have gas cylinders or utensils now. The government must find jobs for them if it does not want these thousands of migrant workers to leave.”
As migrant workers continue to leave Delhi on foot, they say they have hope across the border. It took Kalan and his friends seven hours to walk the 39 km distance from Nangloi to Badarpur (Delhi’s border with Haryana) on Wednesday night.
“Some of our friends found a taxi in Faridabad to cross Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. We hope we also find one. We may die walking to Bihar but we don’t have a choice,” he said.