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At ‘Zero Point’, flight from hunger beats fight against virus

Arduous journey:Migrant workers and their families in Noida and Greater Noida waiting for transportation on the Yamuna Expressway.Jatin AnandJatin Anand

Arduous journey:Migrant workers and their families in Noida and Greater Noida waiting for transportation on the Yamuna Expressway.Jatin AnandJatin Anand  

As out-of-work migrant labourers try to rush home from the starting point of Yamuna Expressway, physical distancing is a fading mantra

The “Zero Point” on the Yamuna Expressway on Saturday transformed into a surging sea of migrant workers left with no option but to return home. But while they have a pressing need to do so as COVID-19 has deprived them of a livelihood in the national capital, the main casualty of the exodus is the physical distancing required to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Headed to Agra, Aligarh, Lucknow and in some cases, to destinations in various districts of Bihar, wave after wave of out-of-work migrant workers and their families thronged the location, a few metres from where the expressway connecting Gautam Buddha Nagar to Agra in Uttar Pradesh originates, to try their luck at boarding a vehicle.

Early in the morning, the district administration announced that 200 State-run buses had been arranged to ferry commuters to various locations every two hours from the area. The question “If not this, what else?” was as ubiquitous as the confusion on their faces and the backpacks — packed tightly with the odds and ends they could muster in a hurry — on their shoulders.

“I want to go to Kanpur; since there are no trains available, any form of transport which takes me anywhere close to my destination from here will do at this point. I’m going to die soon any way. If I stay here it will be of hunger, if I contract the infection, I can at least die on my own soil,” Manish Kumar said. He used to work at a cloth factory at Kasna, which has been shut for a week now.

“I have a small wholesale fruits business. The weather changed and all my stock got destroyed because there was no one to supply ice or a place to store my stock. I’d rather go home than go hungry or beg here. What else is there to do?” said Kapil, who was looking to travel home to Agra. A head constable attached to the Alpha 2 police station and deployed on the Expressway said the number of commuters had increased since the government’s announcement. “We are trying to help as many people as we can to get on both private and government vehicles after the announcement this morning. Buses operated by the Uttar Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation have been deployed. We are trying to ensure that as many passengers as possible get aboard,” he said.

Set aflutter each time a vehicle — whether an SUV, a minivan or a bus loaded with passengers occupying even its roof — would slow down near it, the gathering of over a hundred-odd hopeful commuters would slightly decrease in number every two to five minutes before more would join it, having walked several kilometres to be a part of it.

Being fed vegetarian biriyani and provided water by some volunteers, the workers would thank their benefactors inattentively, their eyes fixed on the road in front of them.

“Things are really bad here... You know what is happening, then why do you keep asking? I’ve told you I’m on my way. I have nowhere else to go, I will come home soon, trust me,” Animesh, a factory hand, said as he broke down while talking to his mother on the phone as he looked down from the elevated arches of the highway he was on.

“They should have allowed us to come here two days ago,” he complained. “For two whole days, both in the morning and the evening, I tried to come here so I could catch a bus or use any other means to go home in Munger [Bihar]. The police beat me every time I tried to reach the expressway. I will get on any bus, any vehicle; I’ll start walking from wherever it drops me,” he said.

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