Coronavirus lockdown | Back in U.P., migrants stare at an uncertain future

Many heave a sigh of relief after returning to their home State, but they have no means of livelihood once lockdown ends

Updated - May 07, 2020 02:07 am IST

Published - May 07, 2020 12:02 am IST - LUCKNOW

Manfur Nishad and his sons wait for a bus at Lucknow’s Charbagh; (right) a passenger shows his train ticket.

Manfur Nishad and his sons wait for a bus at Lucknow’s Charbagh; (right) a passenger shows his train ticket.

The palatial red-white façade of the Charbagh railway station towers above Manfur Nishad and his two young sons.

As the evening light fades, his emotions reflect a sombre mix. While he is relieved to be back in his home State after being stranded in Gujarat during the lockdown, he is disappointed to find that he doesn’t have a direct bus to his village near Kalpi town. The bus will drop him in the district headquarters of Jalaun, 45 km west of his destination, and 220 km from the State capital.

“If they drop me in Jalaun, I will be stranded. I don’t have a single penny in my pocket to pay for any fare,” said Mr. Nishad, desperately calling his relatives on the phone for guidance.

It is 7 p.m. on Tuesday, an hour since Mr. Nishad and 1,200-odd passengers got down from a special Shramik Express at the end of a 1,126-km journey from Vadodara.

In the labyrinth of parked State-run buses, the migrants, most of them labourers, workers and artisans, try to locate the designated vehicle that would take them home free of cost.

While the migrants said they were charged for the train journey, ranging from ₹600 to ₹800 each — they carried tickets displaying a fare of ₹555 — Mr. Nishad and his 12 colleagues managed with some monetary help from a senior policeman at Rajpipla in Narmada district.

Attempted walk

Mr. Nishad spent more than a month under quarantine in a school in the Gujarat town, 130 km from Surat, where he worked in a sari firm. After the lockdown was declared, Mr. Nishad and others tried to walk back home in Uttar Pradesh and even managed to reach near Rajpipla after three days of toil before being stopped by police. Like lakhs of workers across the country, Mr. Nishad had no option but to return home. The textile firm he worked for shut and his ration ran out, forcing him to survive on the food provided by the government. But Mr. Nishad says he got bored of the “tehri” (spiced rice) served to them. “ Ek mahina toh buri tarah se kata [We passed the month with much difficulty],” he says. The ₹500-₹600 he had with him before being sent to quarantine was spent on bidi and tobacco, he admits.

“Had they run the train then [in March], we would not have had to go through this difficulty. Many people are still stranded,” Mr. Nishad says, echoing a common refrain among the other migrants.

Unemployed and back home for an unknown period, the migrant workers stare at an uncertain future. Like many migrants, he hopes to use his time and energy on farming; his family owns 8 bighas.

Unfair fare

A little distance away, Ajay Kumar, 24, was frantically trying to locate the right bus to Mainpuri. With a bag hanging on his left shoulder and a food packet, he says the ordeal would have been avoided had the government acted sooner and made the journey free of cost.

Nai kiya toh kya kare, mazboori thi toh aana pada. Itna takleef nahi jhelna padta [But what can we do if they haven’t? We had no choice but to return. However, it could have been made less arduous for us],” he says. In Surat, he worked at a dye and painting firm.

After arriving at Charbagh, the migrants were made to queue up at screening booths before being sorted for boarding buses. All the while, they were asked to maintain physical distance through the public announcement system.

Vinod, a native of the backward Siddharthnagar district, said he had to pay a total of ₹2,800 for his wife and three minor children. “It should have been less,” complains Vinod, who sold ‘khari toast’ in a Gujarat town. Kusma, who is travelling with her son, 7, and husband, has argued that the migrants should not have been asked to pay. They paid ₹1,200 for the journey by bus to Vadodara and train to Lucknow for three members.

Strength of home

Kallu Nishad of Kanpur faced a peculiar situation. He lost his Aadhaar card during the journey and approached officials for help. He heaved a sigh of relief when he was told that the medical certificate issued to him during quarantine in Narmada would serve as proof of identity. “Store it carefully,” an official told him.

Kallu is an artisan in the embroidery sector in Surat and paid ₹600 for the journey with the money borrowed from a relative. Just before the lockdown, he was due to receive his wages for 12 days, but the manager delayed the payment till March 25, when the lockdown came into force. He then tried to walk back but was stopped. He stares at an uncertain financial situation, but argues that staying hungry at a familiar place is better than being stranded in an alien city. “ Wahan khane ko nahi milega toh kya karenge, ghar mein jo rukha-sukha hai chalaenge [What would I do if I did not get food there? At home, I can manage even with meagre means],” he says.

Hariom, his wife, young child, ageing father and another female relative, also waited at the station for their bus. He was not sure if and when he would return to Tejgadh, near Vadodara, where he sold chowmein. “ Sochega, abhi kehne ka nahi hai. Dhanda chalega toh jayenge, warna yahin rahenge [I will think, can’t say anything now. If my work resumes, I will go back. Or else, I will stay here],” he says. He has five bighas of land to farm.

A young migrant who sold juices in Godhra said the government should have brought the migrants free of charge as they were without any income. He was dismayed by the entire experience and did not want to work outside any more. “ Ab idhar hi padenge. U.P. mein hi rehke kamaenge [Now I will stay back to study and earn in U.P.],” he said, as he advanced in the queue for thermal screening.

The enigma of return

Many like Pinki Srivastava of Kannauj, who drives an auto for a living, look forward to going back to work after the lockdown is over. But Suraj, a native of Agra’s Bah, is unsure. He sold namkeen in Gujarat. Along with financial instability, migrants ran the risk of infection. “ Kya pata, zindagi rahi toh phir aayenge [Who knows, if all is well, I will return],” he says.

The lockdown has not only affected workers and labourers but also derailed the lives of students. Arjun Patel of Varanasi is one of them. A PhD scholar in physics at M.S. University in Vadodara, Mr. Patel says he was not planning to go back home but had no option after the lockdown was extended. All research work has been suspended till September. “What will I do there? Our work will be pushed back by six-seven months.”

He is unhappy that the migrants were not informed beforehand that they would be charged for the travel. “I don’t mind the fare. It’s up to the government. But they should have given us the correct information. We were under the impression it would be free,” he said.

Many migrants had attempted walking back home or hiring a vehicle before being put under quarantine. Amir Ahmed, a construction worker in a Vadodara village and native of Budaun, did not take the chance. “People told me not to go back. What if someone thrashes you? How will you handle it,” he said from inside the train moments after it arrived.

The passengers said their journey from Vadodara was smooth and they received food in Jhansi.

Situation so far

Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has asked officials to prepare a strategy to provide employment opportunities for 15-20 lakh people who have come back to the State or are on the way. While those migrants without symptoms will be put under 14 days of home quarantine and given a ration kit, suspected cases will be sent to institutional quarantine.

So far, 19 trains from other States have arrived in various districts of Uttar Pradesh, including Agra, Kanpur, Jaunpur, Gorakhpur, Lucknow, Bareilly, Prayagraj and Ballia, said Awanish Awasthi, Additional Chief Secretary, Home Department. Each train carries around 1,200 persons.

Of the 19 trains, 13 were from Gujarat and four from Maharashtra. Nine more were expected on Wednesday, while clearance had been given for 38 fresh trains, said the official.

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