Long wait and hope mark rail journeys of migrants to home
In 2001, Chinak Pherai Nishad left home.
A resident of Gidhaura village of Siddhartha Nagar district of Uttar Pradesh, the 20-year-old aced his school and college examinations but found no well-paying job in the sparse economy of the Gangetic heartland. With a family of eight to feed and an ageing father, Nishad decided to abandon his dreams and become an agricultural labour.
Like millions of young men and women from his state, Nishad found someone from his village working in the fields in Maharashtra’s Thane district and migrated 1,600km west. “I worked as a labourer in Thane along with a person, who belongs to my own village. But soon I realised that this work is not for me,” he said.
The next year, he bought a handcart and started a business hawking garments in Mumbai; the first few weeks were tough but in six months, he was earning Rs 600 to 900 a day – almost five times his daily pay as a labourer. “My proud ‘baba’ (father) used to say you are first in the family to start one’s own business,” he said. In 2003, he bought a second handcart.
His luck ran out in March this year as fear of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) and the nationwide lockdown from March 25 shuttered his trade.
Undaunted, Nishad felt he could ride out the 21-day lockdown in the city he had called home for 18 years. For 10 days, he and 18 other migrants who shared a small 10x10-room house in Yadav Nagar, Navi Mumbai neighbourhood had enough food and supplies.
But problems began soon after. First, the migrants ran out of food and money. Then, as Covid-19 cases mounted and the government indicated it would extend the lockdown, their neighbours started becoming hostile because the workers were seen as virus carriers. Finally, on April 14, when the lockdown was extended, the migrants decided to hit the road and walk down to UP, almost 1,600km away.
None of the workers had any movement passes so they were stopped at a police outpost near Nashik on April 16 after two days and 166km of walking.
“We were stuffed in a small room at an unknown place and then were taken to a school where we were quarantined for five days,” he said. On April 20, they were moved into a local hostel where they were locked in for 25 days along with 300 other migrants from UP. “We were moved after locals started treating us like infected animals. In all these days, the food provided to us was minimal but we survived somehow,” he said.
On May 1, the government announced special trains to ferry back migrants. Later that day, an official visited the hostel to make a list of workers who would be sent back to UP. “Officers said the migrants who can afford to pay the ticket fare of Rs 420 will be allowed to board the train, the rest have to stay for another month or so,” Nishad said.
He didn’t have enough money but was able to beg and borrow the required amount, and got his name on the list. The next morning, a bus came to fetch Nishad and 280 migrants to the station. They were checked before they got on to the bus, and before boarding the train – the first Shramik Special to reach UP.
On every berth, only two migrants were allowed to maintain social distancing. “But I don’t think it makes much difference as we all were using the same toilets and washbasins frequently,” he said.
Though unemployed and penniless, Nishad felt grateful as the train pulled into Lucknow’s Charbagh station on May 3 – 19 days after he had set out from Mumbai. “I have lost everything but I couldn’t believe that I had finally reached my home,” he said.
Nishad is one of 564,000 migrants who have been ferried back home to UP by 450 non-stop shramik special trains, many of them waiting for days after registering their names in lists that often run into tens of thousands of names. Speaking to officials, workers, railway staff and local residents, HT pieces together the arduous journey of a migrant worker from her quarantine centre to a berth on the train and finally back home.
The process to get into a Shramik Special is both long and depends on chance.
Pravin Kumar, a resident of Basti in Uttar Pradesh, along with 25 other people from a Mumbai-based garment unit applied on April 28 to go back to their home state.
In Maharashtra, a group of people wanting to travel to a particular state need to visit the nearest police station and are required to fill a form. The form is then submitted to the district collector.
At the time, the Maharashtra government required a mandatory medical certificate declaring the migrant worker is fit to commute and had no symptoms, and Kumar had to procure this document from a local medical practitioner he knew. Last week, this regulation was removed and workers are now screened with digital thermometers before boarding the train.
“We were a group of people so decided to approach police authorities in the city for helping us to travel back. They informed us that no trains are leaving from Mumbai but asked us to fill forms,” said Kumar.
After they filled the form at the Ghatkopar police station, the police informed the district collector about the number of people who had registered. This number was then collated throughout the city and sent to the chief secretary of the state, said a top government official.
In each state, migrant workers need to apply on an online portal for travel passes. A second government official said migrants can approach the local police stations, who along with non government organisations (NGO), assist the workers — many of whom are semi-literate and do not have smart phones — in filling the travel requests forms for the Shramik Special trains.
In cities, police commissioners are the nodal officers for this work while in rural areas the collectors have been assigned this responsibility, the second official said.
After the forms are filled and the numbers collated, the chief secretary of the originating state then speaks to his counterpart in the destination state for permission of train operation and to cross check the names and address of the labourers.
Then, the chief minister of the destination state decides on whether to grant permission to the train, and on which day the train should be allowed to enter the state.
“We have put nine officers to coordinate the train movement of migrants with the states of the country and the CM reviews the situation daily. He has directed that medical screening be done, they be taken to quarantine centres, their documentation details should be complete and then they should be sent home with proper respect and bagful of rations for 15 days. In the village, they are supposed to be monitored by the village monitoring committees so that home quarantine should be ensured,” said UP additional chief secretary (ACS), home, Awanish Awasthi.
After this decision is taken, a no-objection certificate is granted from the destination state, and a permission is sought from the Union home ministry, after which the train schedule is planned. The entire process can take up as few as two days, according to railway officials in Mumbai.
In Kumar’s case, it took 10 days.
“I got a call on Friday morning saying that a train will be operated towards Uttar Pradesh and we will be allowed to travel. The feeling of being able to go back to my home and be with my family was amazing,” said Kumar, who boarded the train on May 8 from Mumbai.
The Indian Railways comes into the process once the clearances are received from the originating and the destination state.
Once the permissions are received, the originating state writes to the Union home ministry and the Railways with the request for a train. “After home ministry’s nod comes, the ministry of railways provides the train and the tickets for the total number of passengers to the state government,” a senior railway ministry official said, requesting anonymity.
The originating state has to make the arrangements of buses for taking migrants to the railway station.
“We then provide them the tickets for the trains, then we take the migrants inside and go through all the social distancing protocols and screening before boarding them on the trains. The nodal officer/ district magistrate of the state has to make arrangement for the buses. For each train, nearly 70-80 buses are required for ferrying the migrants to the station,” the official quoted above said.
A similar process is followed once the train reaches the terminating station of the destination state. The local district magistrate arranges for the buses to take the migrants to their villages and then put them under home-quarantine, the official added.
The passengers have to be screened by the originating states and only those found asymptomatic are allowed to travel. The originating state will have to bring these persons in batches that can be accommodated in the train to the designated railway station in sanitised buses following social distancing norms and other precautions, the railway ministry’s guidelines stated.
But the process of registration – the first step – can be difficult for many migrants, say experts.“The issue is that most of them do not have smart phones, and most who have not been paid have not had the currency to be able to recharge their phones. The government should ensure a paper-based registration in every ward and town,” said Rajendran Narayanan, an assistant professor at Azim Premji University.
Currently, the single-destination Shramik Specials are allowed to carry up to 1,700 people. They have 24 coaches, each with 72 seats. The fare for the train is paid in most cases by the state government.
To ensure the safety of their staff, the Railways sends their locomotive pilot on leave after every trip. The loco pilots and Railway Protection Force (RPF) personnel are screened before the journey and only asymptomatic crew is allowed on the train.
“We adhere to safety norms while operating the Shramik special trains. I piloted the Shramik special train from Lokmanya Tilak Terminus(LTT) to Igatpuri. There are no halts to the train and loco pilots are changed on major stations. I operated the train on May 10 and was given leave for two days. I will resume work on May 13,” said Mukesh Meena, the pilot of Shramik train that operated between LTT and Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh on May 10.
For most migrants, the ordeal ends once they find their names on the passenger list of a special train. But for some, the long wait can be too much to bear.
Kanhaiya Lal realised this the hard way.
The 29-year-old painter from Bhavnagar in Gujarat was on his way back home to Baijwari village of Sitapur district in Uttar Pradesh. He spoke to his family when boarding the Basti-bound Shramik Express (09491) on May 8, elated that he was going back home. “He sounded very happy, he said he is going home after 6 month, will have home-cooked food first,” a passenger who was sharing a berth with Kanhaiya said.
But that was not to be. His lifeless body was removed the moment the train stopped at Charbagh Railway Station at 3.30pm on May 9. Police recovered an empty wallet, a certificate certifying him as Covid-19-negative, a non-branded mobile and an ID card.
“Bhai had called me a few days back, was saying he didn’t have anything for the last five days, we insisted he come back home. On Friday he called saying he managed to board the train and is coming home,” said Pramod Kumar, Kanhaiya’s elder brother.