As soon as it stopped raining, Ramautar started his march to his village in Sambhal with his wife and 12-year-old son from the Link Road in Ghaziabad. A daily labourer in Delhi’s Burari, they started at 4 in the morning.
“Before I lose my meagre savings and my father, who is ill, I should reach my village,” said Ramautar. He is not alone, even two days after the lockdown, hundreds of migrant workers could be seen walking through Ghaziabad to reach home.
On the U.P. government promising help for people like him, Ramautar said: “ Sarkarki madad aane main time lagta hai (government help takes time to reach).”
On a day when two more COVID-19 positive cases were found in Ghaziabad, there were many like him on the road for whom the imminent danger to their livelihood overshadowed the virus scare. They had no clue of helpline numbers being published in local newspapers. They only see the police, with whom they maintain a distance.
A few hundred metres ahead Hashim, a fruit juice seller in Loni, and his three colleagues were keen to reach Kaushambi Bus depot to take a bus to Lucknow.
“We have been told one U.P. Roadways bus will go today [Friday] but when one of my friends reached there, he was turned back by the police.”
When The Hindu asked the policemen posted at the bus depot, they did not give a clear answer on the bus schedule. “It could be answered by the assistant regional manager (ARM),” said Station House Officer, Link Road. However, the labourers alleged that they were not allowed to enter the bus depot.
R.K. Tripathi, ARM, Kaushambi bus depot said: “Even I don’t know the schedule. It comes straight from the district administration. On Thursday night, we sent some buses from Kaushambi and Lal Kuan.”
With no Civil Defence around, many labourers were scared to approach the police. “There is no point, we have been told that a vegetable truck would go from Mohan Nagar in an hour. It will take us closer to Budaun. Then we will see,” said Girish Chandra, who works as a mason in Delhi’s Tughlaqabad, dressed in a safari suit. Asked about his sartorial sense in the face of a calamity, he said: “When we go to our native village, we have to go well-dressed. They don’t know what we do in Delhi.”
There were some like Mukesh who was anxious to reach home to contribute to the impending wheat harvest. “I work in a factory in Shahdara. With no work here, I better earn some money by working in the fields in my village near Dibai in Bulandshahr district.”
Then there were some who were simply homesick. “I know [Delhi Chief Minister] Arvind Kejriwal is offering food to people like us, but we want to go home,” said Asif, who makes bags in a factory in Paharganj. “When there is a problem, people want to be home with the family. Why is it so difficult to understand?” he wondered.
Later, Shailendra Kumar Singh, Additional District Magistrate (City), said most of the labourers were from other States.
“The idea of a lockdown is to ensure that people do not move. But now that they have come out because of various reasons, we are making sure that they reach their destinations,” he said, adding: “On Thursday evening, 50 UP Roadways buses plied from Lal Kuan and Kaushambi.”
“Today [Friday], we have decided to put 250 on the road. We have asked the conductors to screen the passengers for symptoms of COVID-19, particularly temperature. Those who are found symptomatic will not be allowed to board. The addresses of the rest would be passed on to the district administration of the destination,” said the senior official, adding that the policemen were being directed to pass on the information to workers.
Later in the evening, like the Gautam Buddh Nagar administration, Ghaziabad administration also decided to establish shelter homes for workers where food will be served, confirmed Rajesh Mishra, Deputy Labour Commissioner, Ghaziabad.