Content Warning: Some details may be disturbing to readers.
The government of India, when it announced the Janta curfew on March 21, 2020, forgot to relay any information about how the most vulnerable sections of the country would be protected during the course of the pandemic. While a Rs. 20 lakh crore package was announced by the Narenda Modi government to help out migrant workers, it did not involve any cash transfers to them. Moreover, the government did not even have a comprehensive database on migrant workers. Banging plates and switching off lights took precedence over safely transporting migrant laborers stranded in a foreign city with no food, no work, and no family home.
Ghastly videos of children crying next to the dead bodies of their parents, hungry men eating roadkill out of sheer hunger, and young men carrying their aged parents for hundreds of kilometers made its way to our Instagram feeds by April. We watched these videos from the comforts of our home, with privileged citizens wondering out loud why these migrant laborers were risking their lives to get back home, especially when “social distancing was the need of the hour.”
Unfortunately for most of India’s population, social distancing continues to be a luxury and returning home amid the pandemic, a necessity. I have been volunteering with a few groups in Bangalore to help daily wage laborers and migrant workers with ration and other essentials since the lockdown began. What has become increasingly clear is that the government is not equipped to and has little interest in taking care of its poor.
While working with Naavu Bharateeyaru (Hum Bharat Ke Log) in April, my primary responsibility was to round up the names and numbers of people who were in need of ration and food packets, and coordinate with government and non-government agencies in their respective area codes to get the essentials to them. Other volunteers and I regularly reached out to Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) offices, police stations, on-ground volunteers, political and non-political organizations, who were also helping with the deliveries, and so on during this period. Where the government bodies had repeatedly failed to come through for the needy, individual volunteers and grassroots organizations succeeded.
By the end of the month, many people I assisted during the time started reaching out to me personally saying they could not keep living on the mercy of others. They wanted to go home. One of those people happened to be Kumar* from Jharkhand. Most of our conversations would revolve around his one question: “Hum ghar ja payenge kya?” (Would we be able to go home?)
All information was shrouded in mystery at the time, but it was reported that many state governments were working with the railway department to bring stranded migrant laborers home. Shramik Special trains soon became the buzzword on every news platform, and for many migrant laborers, the term became one of hope.
On May 2, 2020, I learned about the SevaSindhu website, where migrant laborers stationed in Karnataka could apply for a permit online, and shared it with Kumar right away. I asked him and his friends to fill their details in. This turned out to be the first of many bureaucratic hurdles Kumar would encounter; at first it appeared the form to be filled by migrant laborers who wanted to leave Karnataka had only two language options—Kannada and English. Only after a baffled Kumar reached out to me did we learn that clicking the tab that said English would also open the Hindi option. That night he filled the extremely lengthy application where he filled the most minute details about himself. After submitting the form, he got a confirmation that his application had been “accepted,” but there were no details about when he would receive a ticket—or if he would receive one at all.
I had suggested that he go to a police station near their home in Magadi road. There, he was made to wait for hours, only to be told that he needed to fill an application on SevaSindhu, which he had already done. They gave him a token and took down his number and a photocopy of his Aadhar card.
Meanwhile, I tried speaking to the nodal officers of Jharkhand and Karnataka, but an ordeal that lasted two days’ worth of ringing and busy tones ended with the Jharkhand nodal officer saying if Kumar had filled the application online he would be on the waiting list. During this entire time, Kumar had not received any ration or food from any government bodies. Volunteers had helped him and his roommates with ration twice, and I covered his electricity bills and rent payment. They kept some money aside for the journey as well—just enough to buy food, because the government had promised that the train journeys would be free.
After a long wait, on May 16, I got a call from Kumar saying he was going home. He had gotten a call from the police station earlier that day asking him to go to Kamakshipalya temple by 7 am next morning. His friends and he packed up all their belongings overnight and reached just in time for an unofficial “medical test,” for which they were charged Rs. 1000 each.
Kumar and his friends were prepared for the usual two-day train journey home, but an unusual route that went through Maharashtra, Nagpur, Chhattisgarh, and Bilaspur, before reaching the final destination of Dhanbad railway station in Jharkhand, turned it into a four-day ordeal. He had given all the money he had, Rs. 1000, for his unauthorized medical test, so Kumar could not afford to buy food. He stayed hungry throughout the journey, except for some biscuits shared among the travelers. “Paani mila, jab station me roka toh,” he assured me. (We got water when the train stopped at stations.)
His village Barkhatta is in the Hazaribagh district of Jharkhand and 100 km away from the town. Kumar was asked to quarantine in Dhanbad overnight and his temperature was checked at 4 am the next morning. Then, without any further warning or context, he was held in quarantine along with the other passengers for nine days. They received food two times a day during this period.
It wasn’t until May 31 that Kumar finally reached home. He told me the story of his arduous journey which began on May 17 when I had called to check in on him. At the time, he still had relatives and friends stranded in different parts of India. Most of them have gone back home now, but they all have a story of torment, anxiety, and terror about their own journeys.
Thousands of Kumars demand to know why their government has forsaken them. How will Modi’s India pay reparations for all the damages that migrant laborers and daily wage workers went through—and are still going through—during one of the country’s worst crises? Like Kumar’s ticket home, reparations seem at best an administrative nightmare shrouded in mystery and at worst an impossible dream.
*Name changed to protect the individual’s identity.