On Wednesday morning, 25-year-old Santanu Samanta was camped outside the Calangute office of local MLA and BJP minister Michael Lobo, completing his third round of paperwork in the hope of getting a ticket for a train ride back home to East Midnapore in West Bengal.
Over the past few weeks, Samanta had submitted papers to the panchayat authorities of Calangute—the beach village normally teeming with tourists who frequented the town’s now-shuttered hotels, restaurants and shacks—and done the rounds of the mamlatdar offices in nearby Mapusa town.
“The hotel I work in has been closed since March 20. There’s no work anymore and we are desperate to get back. Earlier, Goa was safer and in the green zone, but now the virus has come to Goa, so we need to get out of here before the situation gets worse,” he said.
At the beginning of May, Goa had been declared a green zone by the central government after not reporting any cases for 21 days. While chief minister Pramod Sawant had warned at the time that the fight was not over, the news was undoubtedly a relief after an ill-planned state lockdown left people struggling to access basic necessities.
However, the state has now lost its ‘Covid-free zone’ status as it has reported 45 active cases after the restarting of train services.
As the tourism industry counts its losses, Samanta, who had been working at Neelam’s The Grand hotel near Calangute beach since 2018, along with 20 others from his district, now just wants to be back home with his parents.
But even if he manages to get a ticket finally, the devastation from Cyclone Amphan in his home state may delay his plans again.
Thousands of migrant workers, living across Goa in small-room tenements, on construction sites, hotels, restaurants, shacks and industrial estates have suffered through the state’s messy lockdown, with police using batons to enforce stay-at-home orders.
Many of these workers tried to stay back for as long as they could, but are now looking for any mode of transport back home, even attempting to walk thousands of kilometres to north Indian states. They are desperate due to lack of money, have lost trust in the administration and fear they will be forced to stay back under pressure from the construction and industrial lobby.
No money for food
The workers milling around the minister’s office didn’t want to dwell too much on their unpaid or underpaid wages. Some have not received any money in the past month, but most said they were allowed to stay on in the accommodation provided by hotels for outstation staff.
Lobo and the local village panchayat had overseen provision of food twice a day during the first phase of the lockdown, which ended on 14 April, but the hardship during that time and since has made the workers anxious.
49-year-old Syed Khan, who used to be a cook at a now-shut local restaurant since 2014, had fatigue writ large on his face. Anxious to get back to his family in Lucknow, he was waiting outside Lobo’s house with his friend Rangilal Kaulik (55), formerly employed as a dishwasher. Both had no idea that two Shramik Special trains had departed on Wednesday from Goa to Lucknow and Rae Bareli.
“Don’t even ask how we managed these last two months. Some days we’ve eaten, some days we’ve not. We’ve run out of money now. We’ve been waiting two months to return home,” said a despondent Khan.
A day earlier, police lathi-charged the crowds of workers milling outside the minister’s office, too anxious about the interminable wait for a home-bound train to consider social distancing.
Waiting for trains and buses
Ever since restrictions eased on train travel, daily crowds of anxious migrants have gathered outside the collector’s offices in Panjim and other centres in the state.
On Tuesday, Nurjahan Mulla (27), Jannat Bi (20) and Mabukbi Jakati (45) travelled by bus from the suburban Chimbel village, where they worked as domestic helps before the lockdown. Now, all they want is to go home.
“There was a bus that was to take us to our hometown Hubballi (in Karnataka), but that’s been cancelled. We are here to find out when the buses will start,” said Nurjahan. Both Jannatbi and Nurjahan have worked in Goa for the past six years, but lost their jobs during the lockdown. Mabukbi who has worked in Goa for 20 years, also prefers to return to Hubballi.
“It’s not possible to survive here without work,” she said.
Migrant workers from Karnataka were the first to try to return home in early May, some by hiring buses on their own with support from contractors. But many were turned away at the Karnataka border because they didn’t possess an exit and entry pass or a vehicle to take them to their end destination.
Also desperate to get back home to Dindori Zilla in Madhya Pradesh is 30-year-old single mother Narbhadia Bhanwasi, who lost her job as a domestic help in Old Goa village. Bhanwasi’s father and brother, who are construction workers, had returned to their village before the lockdown and were unable to return. She’s now living on a building site with her four-year-old son and seven-year-old hearing and speech-challenged daughter. She’s hoping the officials promising to arrange transport to MP will sort out her predicament.
Goa CM Sawant told the media that as of May 18, 1.25 lakh migrant workers have registered online to leave the state. The logistics of moving such large numbers are daunting and slow, especially for workers who have waited out a two-month lockdown with no wages or jobs. As of May 21, the government was able to dispatch 16,000 migrants, officials said. But that is just a drop in the ocean.
“I have never seen such desperation. Migrants don’t mind going hungry but they just want to return home at any cost. Each day they stay back means a heightened sense of anxiety, feeding their deep fear of being left brutally high and dry as during the lockdown, with no job, no food, no money and not even the possibility of getting top-ups for their mobile phones. They just don’t want to wait another day or take any chances of things changing,” said social worker and lawyer Albertina Almeida, who co-ordinated relief and aid for migrant pockets in the state.
Other state governments have been paying for and sending trains for their residents to return, based on online registration. Passengers and trains are being co-ordinated district wise, said officials.
State police, who have warned of increasing restlessness among migrants housed at stadium shelter camps in North and South Goa, are having a tough time keeping workers from thronging railway stations.
Special trains have departed for Madhya Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh over the past few days. “Bihar and West Bengal have not yet booked trains. The trains have to be booked from there”, CM Sawant had said. He said residents of Karnataka and Maharashtra are being ferried by buses.
The reality is far more daunting for migrants than the pronouncements at press conferences. They have to negotiate filling forms, registering online, finding government health centres to get medical certificates and a seat on a train, and keep track of the SMS messages sent (or not) by the online registration system. Since the lockdown was eased and special trains began service, the process has accelerated but for those who don’t find space on the trains, there is mounting anxiety as the monsoon months approach.
“There is a huge lack of communication and trust between hapless migrant workers and the administration. We have offered to help in any way, even pay the fares, but the administration is simply not willing to let us aid them. So workers with no information or guidance walk miles if they hear there’s a train home, then get despondent and lose hope when they cannot board it,” alleged Goa Congress President Girish Chodankar.
There is also fear among workers that the construction industry and industrial estates will conspire to force them to stay on and work in Goa. In early May, worried that the migrant exodus would cripple construction activity, the Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India (Credai) urged CM Sawant to convince construction workers to stay on. The Goa Chamber of Commerce and Industry made a similar plea, asking the chief minister to form a screening committee and counsel industrial and construction workers to stay on, rather than give them a “free ride” home.
But after the lockdown’s harrowing experience, staying on is a nightmarish scenario for many migrant workers.
“I know 20 workers from Andhra Pradesh who are so desperate, they are even considering paying an extortionist Rs 2 lakh being demanded to hire a bus, that would cost them Rs 11,000 each. I told them they could wait and instead take a flight back in a few days, but they are terrified of taking that risk, lest anything go awry again,” said Almeida.
Migrants from the far-away North Indian states are the hardest hit. From early this week, they have been descending on the railway hub of Margao. Some have been called to board trains, only to find there is no place. Many complained they have run pillar to post, registered at three government agencies, repeatedly got no answer from hotlines either here or in their home state and had no option but to start walking, since they had vacated their rented rooms after being unable to pay the landlord.
The vast distance had earlier kept migrants from far-off states from walking home but now some have opted to begin the long perilous trek homewards in the scorching May sun.
Officials are hoping that an uptick in train departures to Uttar Pradesh, planned over the next few days, will take the edge off migrant anxiety and restore trust levels.