‘People had to snatch food’

 “Bombay mein sirf chamak dhamak hai” – There is only glitter and shine in Mumbai, are the words of 23 year old Bheema, a migrant worker from Majha Manpur village in Basti district of Uttar Pradesh. Bheema works as a delivery man for goods in my father’s office in Bhiwandi. He lives in Bhiwandi with his 22 year old wife, Rupadevi, who worked in a tile shop in Bhiwandi.

Rupadevi is currently six months pregnant and surviving the lockdown in Mumbai without any support was extremely difficult for them. As soon as they heard that the Government had started trains to take migrant workers back to their homes, Bheema and Rupadevi packed their bags and left Mumbai with the hope of safely reaching home.

I spoke to Bheema and Rupadevi about their journey back home:

“We were told in the morning of 20 May that a train is leaving for Gorakhpur at 10 pm that night, and we were asked to reach a bus stop in Kalina by 5 pm. In a hurry we packed our clothes into two bags, leaving some of our belongings with a friend, and left from Bhiwandi in an auto-rickshaw to reach Kalina well in time.

The hour-long auto ride cost us Rs.1500, but we had no other way of reaching our destination. When we reached the bus stop, we were asked to line up and get into an extremely crowded bus with no place to sit. Once we reached Bandra Terminus, we heard announcements on the station that the train to Gorakhpur had been cancelled, and there was only a train going to Allahabad that night.

I thought I would at least be a little closer to home if I reached Allahabad, and would somehow find some conveyance there to reach my village.

There were five queues of people at the station and all the people from the five queues were asked to get on the train. People got into the train in a mad rush and occupied all the seats. Humein gaay bhains ke jaise train mein bhar diya (They filled us in the train like we were cattle).

No police officer got on the train or tried to regulate the crowd. We were told there would be only two people on one seat, but four to five people ended up occupying each seat. Unfortunately we did not find a seat, and had to sit near the toilet for the entire journey. Due to the toilet stench we were not able to eat, but helpless to reach our village we had to sit there. Nobody even came to clean the toilet for the entire journey.

As soon as the train would stop at a station, people would rush and push over us and ask us to get up as they wanted to step out. Throughout the journey we had to keep getting up to let passengers move in and out of the train.

The train started at 10 pm on May 20 and ran the full night, but at 6 am we had only reached as far as Jalgaon. Around 11 am we got only one potla of khichdi for the entire train compartment. Sab jaisa kutte khate hai, waise halat hue; cheen cheen ke khana pada (People had to snatch food and were eating like dogs). Since it was a mad fight and the entire crowd had gathered in one place, we did not go to fetch any khichdi for ourselves.

The following day, on May 22 in the morning, some chapatis, bananas and chatni were distributed in scarce quantities and we again could not get any of it. There was an extreme shortage of water and we could not find water in any place where the driver was stopping the train.

At one station, we had to steal water. When the train reached Mankapur station we broke the glass door of the locked fridge where water was stored to quench our thirst. There were police officers, but they didn’t say anything to us. There was a fight for food and water throughout the train and we could hardly get any of it. Luckily we had carried some biscuit packets and peanuts for the journey. We were surviving on biscuits and water. Without these packets we would have died of hunger during the journey.

Usually it takes 22-24 hours to reach our village in Basti district by train from Mumbai. But in this journey, we had no clue when we would reach Allahabad. We were all feeling that we would take about 4-5 days to reach Allahabad at the current speed of the train. It was stopping for hours at multiple stops and signals. My wife couldn’t sleep at all during those two nights. We were both feeling feverish and developed a lot of body pain during the journey.

We finally reached Allahabad on May 22 at 6 pm, after travelling 44 hours. Food was distributed only twice during these 44 hours and we couldn’t even get any of that for ourselves due to the mad rush and fight. We finally got some food and water at Allahabad station.

We had been told in Bombay that there would be checking for COVID-19 symptoms when we reached Allahabad, but there was absolutely no checking at the station; nor was any compulsory quarantining stamp put on our hands.

After this, people started lining up at the bus stop to go to their villages. We stood in line for the bus going towards Basti. We got a place to sit as it was not as crowded as the train, and it dropped us off at Hariya station at 3 am. There we were stranded until we found a goods tempo, and requested the driver to drop us off as close as he could to our village. The driver was a kind man and dropped us off at Babhnan around 4 am.

The journey from there to my village was still long: my brother and my sister’s husband reached us on two motorbikes at 6 am and drove us home. My brother had to borrow a motorbike from somebody in the village to come and get us.

We finally reached home at 8 am on May 23 after a long journey of 58 hours, extremely tired and exhausted, but very happy to see my family. My mummy papa broke into tears on seeing us and hugged us feeling relieved as we finally had reached home. Throughout the journey we could not speak to them and they were extremely worried as we had left three days ago and had still not reached.

Once the lockdown is lifted, I will have to come back to Mumbai, even if it causes me a lot of hardship. There are no factories here around my village where I can work. There are agricultural fields where I can work, which pay a daily wage of about Rs.150, but there is no guarantee of finding work every day.

In reality, if you ask others too, Bombay aane ka kisika dil nahi hai (Nobody has it in their heart to return to Mumbai). We don’t get food and water in our train journeys, Mumbai is shut for two months without any arrangements for us, we face so many difficulties – who would like to go back? Bombay mein toh sirf chamak dhamak hai, baki kuch nahi hai (There is only glitter and shine in Mumbai, nothing else).”

Chandni Chawla is an advocate at the Bombay High Court

courtesy The Citizen