‘If we don’t migrate, we will starve to death here’

(Left) The grieving mother of Md. Farid, who died in Delhi's Anaj Mandi fire on December 8, at Nariyar village in Saharsa district; (above) parents and siblings of Md. Atabul, who also died in the fire, at Haripur village in Samastipur district. Ranjeet Kumar  

On Saturday, December 7, when Parvin Khatun (26) spoke to her husband Mohammed Sadre Alam (28) over the phone, he was uncharacteristically happier than usual. He told her he would be visiting the family around month-end. Ms. Khatun, a mother of two sons, is eight months pregnant and both were excited about welcoming a third child into the family. “He said ‘let me work for some more days to earn some more money and I’ll be with you at the time of delivery’, but...,” she says before her voice tapers off and she starts wailing inconsolably. Nervous and puzzled, her children — Mohammed Hunja Ali (3) and one-year-old Mohd. Humdan — too start crying, as if on cue.

Sitting on a bare wooden cot with a pillow against a faded green wall under a thatch-and-tile-roofed mud house verandah, Ms. Khatun appears frail and pale. Because of her advanced pregnancy, she is unable to sit comfortably and often looks vacantly mid-sentence.

Sadre’s mother lies in the courtyard on a broken cot, a tattered blanket covering her from head to toe. “She is suffering from brain tumour and has not taken anything for the last three days ever since she came to know of his demise,” says the deceased’s father, Mohd. Mansoor. “Sadre had spent ₹2 lakh on his mother’s cancer treatment in Patna and was in heavy debt… now, it seems she too will not survive,” he rues. Sadre’s two elder brothers work as masons in Karnataka and Rajasthan; two of his three sisters are married. “He had promised to bear expenses of my last daughter's wedding but Allah willed something else,” says the father of seven.

Mohd. Sadre Alam’s story of extreme poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, forced migration for a living, meagre income and eventually death is the same as that of eight other young men of this village. Nine bodies of those who perished in the Anaj Mandi fire arrived on Wednesday in Haripur village under Singhia block of Samastipur district, while three others who were injured are still being treated at different hospitals in Delhi. “Not less than 50 men from this village are in the tailoring business in Delhi’s Anaj Mandi area,” says Mohd. Ashiq Ellahi, whose two sons, Mohd. Iman and Mohd. Babur, are fortunate to have survived. “Allah ka lakh lakh shukr hai dono sahi salamat hain (I thank the Almighty that they are both fine),” he says, raising both hands to the sky. Mr. Ellahi, along with a group of villagers, is sitting on plastic chairs near the village mosque waiting and tracking the movement of bodies of the dead on their way to the village from Delhi in ambulances. The village has 700 households. “There are 300 Muslim households... the rest are Hindus,” he says. The village has one primary school and one madrasa, one Primary Health Centre and the nearest police station is 10 km away at Singhia.

Mohd Ulfat, 46, of the same village, has lost two of his children, Mohd. Sajjid (22) and Mohd. Wajjid (18). His third son, Mohd. Wajed, jumped from the third floor of the gutted building to escape and has broken his legs. “He is in hospital in Delhi,” says Mr. Ulfat, a father of five. “Sajjid and Wajjid were the breadwinners for the family. They were working there for the past four years… everything is lost now,” he says. Like others from the village working there in the bag stitching factory, they were earning ₹5,000-₹6,000 a month, he adds.

Similar is the pain of Mohd Farooq, 45, who lost his eldest son Mohd. Naushad, 23, in the inferno. The youngest of his nine children is four years old. In the courtyard, Naushad’s sister Nazni Khatun is in shock and lying with a saline drip inserted in her hand. A group of village women have surrounded her. “I spoke to him on December 7 at 8.30 p.m. and he was all happy, but hours later I came to know about the tragedy from a relative… I tried Naushad’s phone a hundred times but there was no response to my calls,” says the heartbroken father, who was a vegetable loader on trucks in Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh. “I suffer from a number of diseases... now who will look after such a big family?” he says.

Like them, Mohd. Hassan has lost his third son Mohd. Ataul (18); Mohd. Moti has lost his son Mohd. Samiullah alias Chotu (20); Mohd. Mosim’s son Mohd. Sajiid (21), Mohd. Mehraj’s younger brother Mohd. Guddu (20) and Mohd. Razzak’s son Mohd. Akbar (19) too have lost their lives in the Delhi fire. The entire village sports a grim look. Stark poverty stares every bylane and home of Haripur village in the face.

A village in mourning

Almost 70 km away from Haripur village is village Nariyar in neighbouring Saharsa district. Seven people from this village have died while three were injured. Four days after the tragedy, villagers were busy digging mass graves on the outskirts of the village with the bodies expected to arrive by late evening.

“This graveyard is encroached with no boundary wall. Please ask Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to fortify the graveyard and ensure it is encroachment-free... we’ll bury our boys on our own,” says Mohd. Shakim, taking a break with Mohd. Shagir and Mohd. Mohsin before they would start digging again.

In the village, Bibi Kamrun Nisha, mother of Mohd. Farid Alam (22), is wailing outside her thatched one-room hut. Her mother and a daughter try to console her as her husband Mohd. Alim alias Bhola has gone to Delhi to bring back the body of their son, the only earning member of the family. Her family appears to be among the poorest of the poor in the village — the hut has no cot, no vessel, no almirah and no foodstuff to eat. The mud oven seemed dried up for long.

“She has not eaten anything for the last four days… she faints often,” says Farid’s grandmother. The deceased’s 12-year-old younger brother Mohd. Nazir looks distraught and lost.

Similarly, two cousins from a family — Mohd. Sanjaar Alam (19) and Mohd. Rashid Alam (19) — too have lost their lives in the Delhi fire and their wailing mothers in adjacent houses are lying on the ground on a faded blue plastic sheet with tarpaulin overhead, surrounded by village women trying to console them.

“Our whole world came crashing in a moment. I do not know how we’ll survive now,” says Sanjaar’s elder brother Azhar Alam. Mohd. Faisal (24), Mohd. Gyas (18) and Mohd. Sajimuddin (54) too have died in the blaze and their family members were waiting for the bodies to arrive on the fourth day after the tragedy.

Flood-hit region

Every day hundreds of people from these flood-prone areas of north Bihar districts Saharsa, Samastipur, Sitamarhi, Purnea, Madhepura, Katihar, Madhubani and Darbhanga migrate to cities like Delhi, Gurugram and Ludhiana in search of their livelihood.

“With floods wrecking their lives every year and no employment opportunities, these youth from the Kosi area migrate in hordes every day to eke out a living for them and their family. They are forced to leave their children, old parents and wives at home waiting for their monthly remittance to come,” says Shreekant, director of the Patna-based Jagjivan Ram Institute of Parliamentary Studies and Political Research.

According to an estimate, around 45 lakh youths migrate from Bihar every year to make a living. The exodus is exemplified by scenes at platform no. 2 of the Saharsa railway station any given morning. The Jan Sewa Express, train no. 15209, leaves from here at 8.45 a.m. every day for Amritsar in Punjab. It is locally known as the “Palayan Express” or migration train. Every day, passengers are crammed cheek by jowl in all 22 general compartments of this express train with a fare of ₹335 from Saharsa to Amritsar.

“Most of the passengers reach the platform a day before to board the train and get a seat in the compartment,” says Mohd. Shakim from Nariyar village. Many relatives of those killed in the Delhi fire too caught this train on December 8 to reach Delhi to bring back bodies of their kith and kin, he says.

“It doesn’t matter if death awaits us in the cities... if we don’t not migrate, we will starve to death here. We have no option but to catch this train to eke out a living for ourselves and our families,” says Mohd. Shagir from Nariyar village, before he goes back to digging the graves again.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2021 8:08:24 PM |

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