Hundreds of people remained suspended between hope and despair at Zero Point on the Yamuna Expressway on Sunday as desperate migrant workers — forced by a sudden and indefinite loss of employment due to the nationwide lockdown — tried to return home to villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Haryana.
Zero Point is an unofficially-designated location on the Yamuna Expressway, which links New Delhi with Agra, where inter-State buses usually pick up passengers.
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On Sunday, however, only a handful of the several hundred waiting people were fortunate enough to get on a vehicle, most climbing onto the already packed roofs of private buses or squeezing into overflowing minivans.
Many had no choice but to wait endlessly.
Given the near hopeless situation, some decided to return to the rented accommodations they had walked several kilometres and hours, to leave.
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“I left my rented accommodation at Alpha I with my brother around 8 a.m. We made several stops on the way, making enquiries, waiting for a bus — any bus — to go back home to Allahabad (Prayagraj),” said Sunil Kumar Gupta, who runs a paan shop, adding that he had walked for about an hour to reach Zero Point.
In the four-hour wait that followed, Mr. Gupta and his sibling, Anil, like many others, took turns to rush towards every bus to enquire about its destination. As the crowds surged, the police deployed at the spot herded them into groups depending on their destinations — Agra, Aligarh and Lucknow.
On Saturday, the Uttar Pradesh government had announced that it would arrange 1,000 buses to bring back residents, triggering a massive congregation at the spot despite the lockdown to check the spread of the novel coronavirus imposed last week.
Lack of planning
Videos and photos of the tens of thousands waiting on the Expressway and at the Anand Vihar bus station in Delhi went viral, raising questions on whether the government had been adequately prepared to deal with this exodus even as Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal made repeated appeals to the workers not to leave as they could become victims of COVID-19.
“Our family back home heard about the announcement; we also saw how others were leaving. We were already preparing to travel when we got a call from the family to come back; we thought we would try our luck,” a despondent Mr. Gupta said.
Fewer Uttar Pradesh government-run buses seemed to be in operation on Sunday.
A police official deployed at Zero Point during what was supposed to be a two-day drive to help stranded passengers return home, said, “All those fortunate enough” to board them had done so till midnight on Saturday.
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The likelihood of bus services being on offer on Monday was “highly unlikely” he said. “Whoever was destined to go back home mostly went yesterday. From tomorrow, we will begin enforcing the lockdown again using any means necessary,” he added.
After four hours of having run after every passing bus, Mr. Gupta’s roommate, Anand Kumar, was finally able to persuade him and Anil to return to their shared digs at around noon.
“We will go back, what else; there is no point in being stuck here with nothing on either side,” Mr Gupta said as he joined a growing number of disappointed workers returning to the city they sought to leave.