"Hum kab tak phanse rahenge, madamji, hume ghar jaana hai, aap please kuch keejiye, humein bas ghar bhijwa dijiye (How much longer will we be stuck here, Madam? We want to go home, please do something, send us home)."
Ludhiana, Punjab. Maulana Helal and 35 other migrant workers were trying to return home. They had somehow navigated the various required steps, filling in all the forms despite the lack of clear instruction. Then they waited long days for news that they would be granted tickets home. They had given up their lodgings, had a confirmation ticket on SMS but were still stuck in a shelter home, desperate to get on one of the last few trains leaving. They were trapped in a system that is opaque and seemingly random.
Helal would eventually get home to Katihar (Bihar) with some help from the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN). But his experience shows the many breaks in the system at Ludhiana. In the past two days, trains have stopped running altogether. Despite the Supreme Court order requiring trains to run to get migrants home, and full information to be provided, Helal and his fellow travellers were among the last ones out.
As volunteers at SWAN, we've talked to over 600 groups of migrant workers from Punjab, including more than 450 groups from the industrial belt in Ludhiana. In the early weeks of the lockdown, they called, desperate for food. We helped them with immediate relief in the form of cash transfers, and connected them with local organisations or the government. But increasingly we came to realise that they were also desperate for information. We became one of their only guides through the system.
Helal and any other worker who wants to return to their home state faces an unknowable and uncertain bureaucratic maze. First, they must register themselves in an online portal. Twice. In Punjab and in their home state. Most of our callers were unaware of this. Even if they successfully register and receive an initial registration SMS, it's followed by silence on the next step of a complicated process.
There's no way of knowing if further action is required, or if there's another registration that's needed. There's no way of telling when news will come that you can go home. There is no way to check your status, nobody knows which authority to ask. Helal and others like him must send off their forms, and then wait. Many have waited with this uncertainty for weeks. Uncounted others lost faith and began walking, or paid thousands for a place on a crowded truck.
And it's not just the uncertainty. The randomness of the process splits families apart. Two brothers called us: Sarvesh and Saroj Kumar. They lived together in Ludhiana with their families. They had registered to go home to Rohtas (Bihar) on May 4, 2020. More than three weeks later, an SMS came summoning them to the pick-up point, and with it the joy of going home. But the SMS came only for Sarvesh. The brothers would be separated.
With a heavy heart, Sarvesh took his family to the pick-up point, where they were taken by bus to Guru Nanak Stadium for medical check-ups. There they waited, whilst Saroj and his family remained outside. He called me. "Madam-ji ab aap hi kuch kijiye, saare baal bacche ro rahein hai bahar. Kya karein hum, unhe andar aane nahi de rahein. Ro-ro ke bura haal ho gaya hai. Hum kal raat se line mein khade the (Please do something, Madam, the children are crying outside. They aren't allowed inside. We've been in line since last night)." Sarvesh left, leaving his brother and family behind.
Saroj Kumar was so desperate to reunite with his brother that he was willing to take any train that took him in the right direction. I reached out to a Nodal Officer of Transport at the stadium. Since Saroj's
family was small, the Officer managed to get him tickets for the next train to Patna, some 150 kms from his brother and his home.
Meanwhile, Helal and his group kept waiting. Six days after he first called me, all but three of them received an SMS with details of the pick-up point. They packed their belongings, left their lodgings and set out on foot.
Even though they had received the SMS, it would be three long days before they could board the train, and even then it was only after I intervened. After waiting for hours at the stadium without any information, they were transferred to a nearby garden. The whole day went by as they waited anxiously for their turn. Evening came and went, and still they were told nothing. They had nowhere to go. They had already given up their rented rooms. Eventually, they were taken to a shelter home. They were given food and mattresses to sleep on. And there they spent the night.
The next day, they were again taken to the garden. Again, the hours passed without any information. Again, the evening came and went. The same happened the following day too. Helal called me. "Hum bohut pareshaani mein hain. Humein stadium se vapas lekar aa gaye hain. Bohut dikkat mein hain, please madad kar dijiye, hum aap hi ke bharose hai. Humein kitne din yahaan rakhenge? Suvidhayen toh hain, magar humein ghar jaana hai (We are very troubled. We were brought back from the stadium again. Please help us. You are our only hope. What do we do with the facilities here, we only want to go home).
I reached out to a police officer who immediately arranged for their names and numbers to be registered and informed them that they could leave on a train to Katihar, Bihar the next day. He told us of yet another process for getting home none of us had heard of before, taking people from the shelter homes to the trains.
There may be a hundred facilities and grants provided by the government, but it becomes a hundred-step process for the layman, and it shouldn't need external agencies to intervene and fill the gaps.
When I speak to government officials they tell me to ask workers like Helal, Sarvesh and Saroj to be patient. But the workers have been patient. They have waited days in the shelters, months in their lodgings, with no way of knowing whether they'd be called to the train. With the special (non-Shramik Specials) trains overbooked, the uncertainty continues...
At the time of going to press, the last shramik train from Ludhiana, Punjab left on 30th May, 2020.
With inputs from Meenal, Khanjan, Kit and Leah.
(Sindhu Sivakami, is an Architect, based in Mumbai and a volunteer at SWAN.)
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