Moumita Vishwanath Majumdar, a woman in her late twenties, is sitting with her face covered at the base of an iron pillar outside the main gate of Howrah station, the key railway station that connects West Bengal to the rest of the country. When asked what her name is, she breaks down.
“Please get me out of here, I cannot take this any more,” Ms. Majumdar says, weeping. Weeping turns to sobbing in a few seconds.
“I will die…I need to go back to my mother…I have never seen this before,” says Ms. Majumdar, who came from Nagpur early on Monday and is sitting at the station’s portico for two days. She can neither visit her brother in Nadia district nor return.
She has had one meal of rice and lentils in the last 48 hours, which came from the Howrah District Magistrate’s office. The policemen of Howrah Railway Station Traffic Guard, manning the station, do not have an idea when the next meal will arrive. However, hunger is only a secondary problem for many hundreds of people stranded in the Howrah station over last 40 to 96 hours.
“We have no toilet,” says Ruby Acharjee, a 42-year-old woman from Silchar.
Ms. Acharjee, worried about her five children, who “must be turning desperate” as her phone went out of charge, is travelling from Chennai, where she works at a cardboard box manufacturing company. She left Chennai immediately, reached Howrah in three days and got stranded. Once the platform was vacated, Ms. Acharjee was shifted to a temporary home at the passengers’ area, outside the platform where another group of about 500 people is waiting with her.
“There is one toilet outside for women, also used by men and it’s a hellhole,” she says. The men can relieve themselves anywhere, she says, and the space outside the station has turned into one giant toilet. The area is stinking. All women and men are sitting close to each other, tightly packed, “like in a match box, waiting to explode,” says Ms. Acharjee.
“Look at him…,” Ms. Acharjee points to a man sleeping on the edge of the shade. The man is covered head to toe in a white cloth, with flies swarming over him and he is profusely stinking.
“He has no flesh on his bones, he is rotting…decomposing slowly, everyone is scared to touch him. He is excreting in one place for last three days and no one is touching him,” Ms. Acharjee says, with her mouth covered with the end of her saree.
Hardly any of the men standing next to her has any protective gear. Many do not have soap, access to clean water, unless they visit Ganga next to the station, where the water is polluted, according to reports. Most of them have not heard the word “sanitiser.”
“We have not eaten for three nights…how do you expect us to have handwash,” asks Ukesh Kharia, a 26-year-old man, who works at the Mangalore port.
Mr. Kharia, a resident of Dimari Tea Estate in Alipurduar in north Bengal, is still to procure a proper mask, but his friend Krishna Mohli and the rest say they have a financial crisis.
“I have about ₹2,000 with me. Can I afford to spend ₹200 on a mask?,” asks Md. Azim Ansari of Tejpur in Assam. He reached Howrah station on March 22 and got stranded. “The buses are going from here to many parts of the country but not letting us in…why did they declare this curfew without giving us a chance to reach home?,” says Ansari.
“Bimari toh is tarah se jyada phaylega [COVID-19 will spread faster this way]”, says Mohli. Many have their mobile phones stolen, as petty theft in the open space is continuing.
The buses, however, “have their capacity and there has to be a route plan to evacuate”, says Sukanta Karmakar, the Inspector-in-Charge of Howrah Railway Station Traffic Guard. He says they can accommodate 130 men and women on a north Bengal-bound bus on Tuesday.
Aloke Kumar Roy, a 36-year-old Guwahati resident, a hotel manager in Pune, complains that the State Government is “dispatching only Bengal residents to districts”, an allegation that police refute.
“A group of 291 went to Odhisha via Midnapore in south Bengal, all in State transport buses,” Mr. Karmakar says.
But Mr. Karmakar is alarmed at the influx of workers from different parts of the country to Kolkata. “They are coming in hundreds and often the head count we make does not tally as some are coming or some are disappearing,” he says.
Many, who are using the Howrah station as a transit point, do not live in West Bengal. The majority stranded in Howrah on Tuesday night are from Assam, and a few are from Punjab, Chennai, Kerala and Bihar.
Government officials opined trafficking of women and children could be a cause of major alarm, as the largest redlight district Sonagachi in north Kolkata is about five kilometres away in north Kolkata.
“If some of these starving and poor workers end up in the redlight areas, they cannot be blamed, escalating the risk of virus spread,” a government official says.
The area, however, is cleaned by the Railways daily, says Assistant Sub-Inspector Srikanta Das.
“But the stench is increasing as beggars, mad men and vagabonds who stay in the platforms have been forced out,” says Mr. Das.
He says he does not have an answer on how to reduce the “stench that is spreading.”