Across the country, migrants still forced to walk thousands of miles
Migrant workers continue to walk and cycle back to their homes even as the railways last week began running special trains and some state governments deployed buses for the people stranded because of the Covid-19 lockdown.
Some do not have documents needed to register for the trains; others simply do not want to wait any longer; and in still other cases, the trains themselves haven’t been approved by states that have to receive the migrant workers.
Mohammad Imran, a worker, said he began walking back on Wednesday along with his pregnant wife, children and parents from Rajasthan’s Ajmer to Uttar Pradesh’s Farrukhabad, around 600 km away, as neither bus nor train was available. “If get a ride, it will be good or else we will walk. It is better to move than die hungry,” he said as he walked along the Ajmer-Jaipur highway on Friday with his family.
Many people continued walking or cycling back to their homes from Gujarat, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Some of them said they started walking after being unable to register for travel on the special trains as they did not have identity documents.
“I was unable to register as I do not have my Aadhaar number,” said Suraj Bhan Singh, a worker from Jharkhand in Gujarat’s Surat. Another worker, Raj Singh, in Ludhiana said he has not been able to register as the Uttar Pradesh government’s helpline number is always busy. “I have not been able to connect for a week.”
Neerav Kumar carried puncture repair tools as he cycled with several other workers from Rajasthan’s Jodhpur to Uttar Pradesh. He said he had arrived in Jodhpur looking for work a day before the lockdown was imposed in March. Kumar said he was forced to try and return home as he faced possibility of starvation. “I bought this cycle for Rs 1,500 to go back. We registered on the Rajasthan government website but did not receive any response.”
About 3,000 migrants assembled near the Mangalore railway station on Friday and demanded that they be sent back to their states. Similar protests were also reported from Kerala and Gujarat.
Many workers have been detained from trying to cross inter-state borders ; some have tried to cross over through forests that span two states; others have tried to use boats to cross rivers. Police have launched an operation to track hundreds of workers who entered Rajasthan from Gujarat through forests.
Officials have cited different reasons for the problem and said some states are slow in granting permission for the special trains. And they add that many workers do not have necessary identity documents to registrer for travel on these trains and were running out of patience as factories have not fully resumed operations.
Three special trains left Karnataka for Uttar Pradesh and Bihar on Friday carrying migrants. Officials in Karnataka blamed states such as West Bengal for their reluctance in accepting the workers. “There are 18,800 people from West Bengal who want to go back, but we are yet to hear from that state,” said an official on condition of anonymity.
Officials in West Bengal said they are getting workers back from the districts that were either in the orange or green zone.
Bihar deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi said nobody has stopped trains coming from Karnataka or any other state. “The state government has also given consent to run eight more trains from Karnataka and many more from other states.”
Bihar’s public relation department secretary, Anupam Kumar, said district magistrates have been authorised to issue e-passes to people returning on their own. The state’s principal secretary, disaster management, Prataya Amrit said the Centre has devised a protocol under which states have to issue no objection certificates to receive trains.
Another Bihar government official said the states have to make arrangements for medical check-ups of the returnees and their travel back to their home districts. “Therefore, allowing so many trains at the same time would be a logistical nightmare.”
Jharkhand minister Rameshwar Oraon said trains were coming daily. “We have to also make arrangements to take these workers to respective districts and provide them quarantine and medical facilities.”
Madhya Pradesh’s additional chief secretary, ICP Keshri, said over 1.05 lakh workers have returned to the state and 50 more trains are expected in the next one week.
As many as 2.53 lakh people have registered with the Karnataka government seeking to return mainly to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Assam.
So far, 70 special trains have ferried 82,544 migrants out of 2.5 million workers stranded in different states, according to official data. Fifteen more trains were expected to reach their destinations on Saturday.
Experts said the migrants were desperate to return because they have run out of money. “A migrant worker in Surat would have had an average annual income of Rs 1,07,163 in 2019-20. It implies that a migrant worker is going to lose an absolute amount of Rs 8,930 income in a month,” said Gagan Bihari Sahu, an associate professor at the Surat’s Centre for Social Studies, who has conducted a study on the losses migrant workers faced.
Dilip Ratha, chief economist for migration and remittances at the World Bank, said migrants work in insecure jobs and are the first to be hit by a crisis. “Not only they will lose jobs, they will also lose ability to send back money home,” a World Bank statement had quoted him as saying.
(With inputs from state bureaus)