The last train home

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Between the blithe privilege that most of us enjoy, and the dire circumstances that accompany any economic lockdown, the social neglect being faced by many classes of people tends to go unnoticed and unaddressed.

The whole point of human society is to ensure that none of its members go hungry or suffer inordinately. | PTI

The migrant crisis, as it is called now, has brought to the surface many issues that we have long preferred to ignore. I confronted some of these issues in recent weeks, in our effort to help in the journey of 300 people home, from Mumbai to Tamil Nadu. We battled not only red tape, a host of manmade road blocks, and insensitivity about their plight and right to go home, but of a system that was failing.

Three hundred may not seem a big number. But these were 300 stranded Tamil workers stranded on a footpath outside a railway ground in Mahim, Mumbai. People who were hungry, moneyless, and cramped during an unplanned and sudden nation-wide lock-down, with no way to go home. The great irony was that, having come to Mumbai for railway work, they were being denied passage home. Among them were 60 children and 10 pregnant women, and they were close to starvation. Their contractor initially assured them, paid them and gave them food, but as the wait seemed indefinite, he disappeared leaving them helpless.

Life on a footpath without any money or security is scarring. There were women in the group pregnant in their third trimester, seeking desperately to go back to where they could safely deliver their babies. They were denied health care in the hospitals for fear that they were infected. There were 60 little children waiting in the interminable heat.

A group of us got together, strangers to each other but bound by one purpose, to help them home. The Hunger Collective, a voluntary civil society initiative started in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, reached out to them. And after their plight became known, the spirit of Mumbai took over, providing them with food. A lawyer who could speak Tamil helped with the complex process of collating the data needed — aadhaar & residence details and more.

After waiting for 60 days, we reached out to the Government of Tamil Nadu. While there was sympathy there were questions and concerns about how to handle a train load of people entering a State that was already struggling with a high rate of infection and a huge gap in infrastructure for quarantine and testing. By this point, many other migrants in Mumbai had chosen to walk home. Some were stopped by police and sent back to the footpaths.

The obstacles put before us seemed trivial and meaningless. Too few for a full train, we were told. We asked why a central authority could not simply collate a list rather than leaving it to disparate citizen’s groups to do. Then there questions about their aadhar cards and addresses. Rules that were being thrown at us were rules that were less than 70 days old, rules made in a hurry and oblivious to those on the ground, around whom the crisis was unfolding.



We received help from unexpected quarters. A large-hearted policeman agreed to accept the blanket responsibility of collating names, even of those not in his jurisdiction. Soon, the list exceeded the capacity of the train, causing yet another problem. We were then faced with the terrible task of choosing who could go back, even if, you would think, the optimal solution would have been to have two trains, not one.

When the green light finally came, it was as sudden as the lockdown. It was also just as chaotic. We found out at  3 p.m. on May 24 that a train had been organised. It would leave at 9 p.m. that same day. We had four hours to bring 1,000 people from different parts of Mumbai if they were to make the last train home.

Four hours to mobilise more than one thousand people across a city and bring them to a station. A mad scramble ensued as buses were pressed into service and everyone taken on board. Several lists were compiled, many policemen approached for signatures, a variety of government officials in both States had to be constantly begged for various approvals. Of course, good samaritans continued to help bridge the financial gaps during all of this.

The problems didn’t end there. The railways initially managed to provide food and water for all at Gulbarga except the last three compartments, which had 300 people in it. Our team immediately swung into action and contacted people through social media at the next stop, Guntukul, a small town in Andhra Pradesh. There were two groups of people who offered to provide cooked food (upma) for 1,700 people in under three hours. The railway officials were called and requested to delay the halt a little so that the food could be distributed. Raghu, who runs an engineering college, drove 40 km. Matangi coordinated from Chennai. The SP of Guntukul, the CRPF and railway officials all came together to provide food to the passengers in this truly special train.


Home is a place that every one longs to go to especially in times of crisis and strife. And home is place that every one must have the right to go back to if they need to or want to.


The reason for the delay all those weeks was singular: the receiving State said it had no infrastructure in place for COVID-19 quarantine facilities. Which left me wondering: what were governments doing during the past two months of lockdown? How many more lockdowns will they need to be ready? And what will all the stranded migrant labour do in the meantime? How long must they wait without access to resources? In its absence, who will take responsibility for them? How does one expect them to practice social distancing or maintain hygiene on the railway premises or footpaths? How can we expect them to follow protocols that are a privilege of those who have food, homes and space to spare?

One can only hope the crisis offers us an opportunity to dig deeper and try to understand the roots of the problem that forced hundreds of people onto footpaths. We must make use of existing infrastructure such as hotels, educational institutions, marriage halls, etc., and ensure that these families and individuals go where they want to go, and not where we want them to go. Telling them to organise themselves, make lists, go to police stations to verify their details and register online when they don’t even have phones or the Internet is ignorance at best, heartlessness at worst.

I still take away some positives. This may be one train, but it showed me we don’t know what we are capable of when we work towards bettering lives with focussed effort. It showed me that we can still make a difference, that we can deal with similar situations better. Rather than be deterred by this, we are looking to get more trains organised as soon as possible before Mumbai bears the brunt of the monsoons.

At the same time, the stress that was created due to the lack of a point of contact as well as the apathy of the government in ensuring the safe return of their own was utterly avoidable. Perhaps what was most disappointing was the lack of empathy. We encountered this even as we went about seeking help.  Why do they want to go home when they can be safe in the city? Why don’t they realise the risk they will pose when they go back and infect their villages? Why do they want to go home?

Home. A simple word that invokes so many images. Images of security and love. Of people you care for and who are your life. A place where the smell of the earth and feel of the air is like no other, no matter how long you have lived elsewhere or whatever comfort you have found elsewhere. Home is a place that every one longs to go to especially in times of crisis and strife. And home is place that every one must have the right to go back to if they need to or want to.

How rich these questions are, coming from people who are safe in their homes, complaining of getting bored, while those on the footpath have to eat what we give them? We impose on them the gigantic burden of responsibility to sacrifice their human lives for the greater social good, while we sit satisfied in exercising our privilege to maintain physical distance.

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