Coronavirus lockdown | Migrant exodus chokes Maharashtra-M.P. border

With restive workers desperate to return to U.P. and Bihar, screening and checks take a back seat

Updated - May 11, 2020 11:30 pm IST

Published - May 11, 2020 11:26 pm IST - Bhopal

Desperate attempt:  Migrants returning to U.P. and Bihar at the Maharashtra-M.P. Border at Sendhwa on Monday.

Desperate attempt: Migrants returning to U.P. and Bihar at the Maharashtra-M.P. Border at Sendhwa on Monday.

Having walked and hitchhiked from Navi Mumbai for almost a week, Sonu Kumar, 18, was both elated to sit at last when he boarded a Maharashtra government bus. “ Hume laga ab ghar jaayenge seedha (I thought I will directly reach home now),” he said, peering outside while gripping the window grille.

Full coverage on migrant workers

But just a few miles into the journey, the bus took a u-turn at the Bijasan border with Madhya Pradesh. Mr. Kumar, a mason, almost lost the little hope he had salvaged after the lockdown rendered him jobless and hungry for two months. His heart sank as did his hopes of returning home to Madhubani in Bihar, around 1,500 km away.

Dropped back 2 km from the border, as an array of trucks, buses, motorcycles, scooters, cars, autorickshaws, bicycles and trailers — all carrying migrant workers — clogged the Mumbai-Agra Highway, he trudged back to the border, hailing every passing vehicle for a ride in vain.

“We were told the Madhya Pradesh government will take us onward,” said a desperate Mr. Kumar.

C OVID-19 | Interactive map of confirmed coronavirus cases in India

Hunger seemed a greater threat than the coronavirus at the State border. At 3 p.m. on Sunday, as the inflow of workers from Maharashtra and Gujarat swelled, an overwhelmed police force gave up checking for permits. No one was being screened for illness nor were social distancing norms observed.

Vehicles — especially open trucks — were stopped intermittently to allow waiting workers, clutching backpacks and cycles, to get in. “SP sahab has given orders. Don’t drop them midway,” a young constable warned a truck driver.

For the stranded and hapless workers, the searing heat had flipped the daily rhythm — they walked and pedalled at night, and slept through the day.

“Just look how they are going back,” said a policeman from Madhya Pradesh. “This is a humanitarian problem, not a law and order one.”

On Saturday, around 50,000 workers had crossed the border, but by Sunday night, twice that number had entered Madhya Pradesh. A policeman from Maharashtra, slumped in a chair, wondered: “Will our economy work if they leave like this?”

When Madhya Pradesh had earlier refused to accept workers bound for Uttar Pradesh, he confessed that the police had suggested the workers take alternative routes to avoid detection. “How can someone be stopped from going back home,” he asked. Then, the held-up workers had begun throwing stones, injuring three policemen.

Among the vehicles were several auto rickshaws and taxis, bearing the Mumbai, Pune and Nashik registration numbers, heading for Uttar Pradesh. “For the first time, I am riding my rickshaw this long, on a highway,” said Umakant Sharma who was returning to Prayagraj. “I will return after the lockdown ends.”

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