NEW DELHI — Migrant worker Rani Prajapati is desperate to get her three children and husband back to their village in Uttar Pradesh. They have run out of money trying to survive the coronavirus lockdown in Delhi. Her youngest, five-year-old Deepak, has not been well since she started rationing food not long after the lockdown started in March. Her father-in-law at home is so sick with worry that he has stopped eating.
While her husband silently stared into the distance, Prajapati said, “We are fighting to survive every day. We cannot give up. My children are depending on me.”
Two months into the lockdown that unleashed untold suffering on India’s poorest citizens, and almost one month after the Narendra Modi government said that special trains would ferry them to their home states, migrant workers are still struggling to reach their villages. They are either walking hundreds of kilometres or trying to make their way to one of these trains.
The Indian Railways claims to have operated 1,600 trains and transported 21.5 lakh workers home. Over 100 workers have been killed in road accidents while walking, and hundreds more have been injured.
Even with the Delhi government allowing shops and industries to open in the fourth lockdown since March, and permitting construction work in the national capital, Prajapati wants to return to her village in Hamirpur district.
The 40-year-old woman, who used to lay bricks for Rs 300 per day, said, “Honestly, I don’t think there will be any work before one year. We have lost too much. We have suffered too much. We just want to go home.”
Bal Mukund, a construction worker from Bihar, said that he did not plan to return to Delhi anytime soon. The 50-year-old said that he did not have any other source of income, but he hoped that his eldest son would now carry the burden of providing for the family. “I don’t see any construction work happening in Delhi for a long time,” he said. “We have broken our backs trying to educate our children. Now, they must find work.”
Dilip, a tailor from Bihar, also said that he did not plan to return to Delhi. With the economy creaking under the weight of the pandemic, Dilip said that there was no point trying to re-open the shop he had shuttered.
The 19-year-old, who recently passed Class 12, said that he always wanted to pursue higher studies. “I don’t think there will be any jobs in the near future, but I’m thinking about doing an online computer course.”
“I don’t think there will be any work before one year. We have suffered too much. We just want to go home.”
Trying to flee
Fleeing, however, is not easy.
Misinformation and the lack of information on how to get on a train is adding to the misery of long suffering migrant workers.
When this reporter met Prajapati and her family on Monday, they were wearing masks and squatting on the pavement near the vast sandstone facade of the Chhatarpur rest house and temple, which has been turned into a temporary medical screening centre and shelter for migrant workers trying to board trains to their home states.
“We have missed the bus again,” said Prajapati, her voice sounding mournful and muffled from behind the mask.
“We heard this is the place where buses are leaving for UP and we have tried twice in the past two days, but we never get a chance,” she said.
Prajapati who heard this from other migrant workers had been misinformed. There are no buses to UP from Chhatarpur , just buses that ferry migrant workers to the train station.
In fact, Additional District Magistrate Arun Gupta, who is overseeing three spots that have been converted into medical screening centres in the South Delhi district, said the one in Chhatarpur was for migrant workers heading to Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, and the one for workers from UP was at the Delhi Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research (DIPSAR) campus, seven kilometres away. A third centre set up at the Government Boys Senior Secondary School, Pushp Vihar, was for migrant workers who want to reach West Bengal.
“There is an information gap that is part of the problem,” said Gupta. “But the numbers of migrant workers arriving are increasing day by day because more people are getting to know about the trains.”
In a phone conversation on Tuesday, Prajapati said that she and her family were still waiting in Chhatarpur, trying to find a way to get home.
“I thought it was a bus that would take us to UP. I have no education so I just went by what I heard from the other workers,” she said.
Before explaining that her phone battery was dying and she would call after reaching her village, Prajapati said, “We must find a way to get on a train, but it is very difficult to get the right information. No one is explaining anything.”
The previous day, Prajapati had said that she had considered walking almost 500 kilometres to reach her village in Hamirpur district, but had decided that it would be impossible to manage three children.
Prajapati had heard the horror stories of migrant workers and their children dying from exhaustion and in road accidents on the way.
“I would have walked any number of days to reach home, but I cannot risk the lives of my children,” she said.
“I would have walked any number of days to reach home, but I cannot risk the lives of my children.”
While Prajapati and her family had walked several kilometers to reach the Chhatarpur screening centre, Bal Mukund and his wife Manju shelled out Rs. 200 each for a seat in an auto-rickshaw that had dropped four people to the location at four in the morning on Monday.
“Can you imagine? Rs. 200 each. What cheating,” said Mukund, while squatting in a long queue of migrant workers waiting for a medical screening several hours before the Bihar bound train was due to leave.
The construction worker was left with Rs. 150 in his pocket.
Volunteers at the Chhatarpur shelter said migrant workers who could not board a train were bussed to the Radha Soami shelter home, 20 kilometres away. Thousands of migrant workers were also waiting their turn in the enormous hall of the Chhatarpur temple next to the shelter. The Delhi government provides two meals at the government school across the street from the shelter and the temple.
The caretaker of the school said there have been days when the crowds swelled and the food ran out.
Dilip, the 19-year-old tailor from Bihar, who was also in the medical screening queue snaking around the shelter, said that he had spent the previous night on the footpath.
“I don’t care as long as I can get on a train and go home,” he said. “All I want is to go home.”
“All I want is to go home.”
How the train works
Migrant workers trying to leave from Delhi can either get themselves registered online with their respective state government or reach the temporary centers, set up in the 11 districts of the national capital, where they are tested for the coronavirus and put on buses that take them to the railway station.
Gupta, the ADM, said that each district can get a train with a capacity of 1,200-1,500 because of social distancing or a quota of 200 to 300 tickets on a train.
The cost of the ticket and travel was supposed to be borne by the state, but over the past few weeks migrant workers have spoken to the media about having to pay the fare. HuffPost India spoke with four migrant workers who said they had paid Rs. 740 rupees to private persons acting as facilitators in Gujarat to get a train ticket from Surat to their home state of Odisha.
Gupta said while state governments were covering the fare of the train ticket, the district administration in Delhi was paying for buses that ferried migrant workers to the railway station.
On Monday, the day that Prajapati had made her second visit to Chhatarpur shelter hoping to catch a bus to Hamirpur, Gupta said that all 11 districts had Delhi had dispatched trains to UP.
But there were more waiting their turn. That Monday, Kapur said 5,000 people were waiting to leave for Bihar and 2,000 for Uttar Pradesh, just from the South Delhi district .
“This is voluminous work and we can only do it in a phased manner. Every day, people are coming,” he said.
Left home for the first time
Glancing at her eldest daughter, 17-year-old Pooja, Prajapati said, “She is the reason that I left our village for the first time. We have to earn enough to get her married.”
Prajapati left with her husband for Delhi for the first time in November, last year. Between the two of them, the couple earns Rs. 600 every day for laying bricks and mixing cement. They wanted to have a nest egg for the wedding before looking for a boy for Pooja, but ended up spending the money they had saved over the past few months on buying food.
“It’s all gone and I don’t know how we will get it back,” Prajapati said.
Prajapati said all she wants is to get her family home, but they have no means to earn a livelihood in their village. Some of her neighbours have a small patch of farming land, but they do not. They have also ruled out returning to Delhi.
Prajapati had not heard that Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has suspended almost all labour laws in the state including the Acts that guarantee minimal wages and equal remuneration for women and men.
“God, help us,” she said.