It was only after five weeks of lockdown and searing images of thousands of walking migrants, many with small children, appearing daily on the front pages of newspapers and on television screens around the world, that the union government announced a series of special Shramik or “Worker” trains. This raised hope for some belated display of humanity by state authorities, and an acceptance in principle of both the right of migrants to return to their villages, and the state’s responsibility to support them to safely travel home. But these hopes were short-lived.

For one, the state ran too few trains for the numbers who needed them, and then enmeshed the workers in complex and opaque online bureaucratic processes – requiring them initially to pay for their travel – and ran the trains without food and water for long stretches. To get a seat on the Shramik trains, migrants were required to register and get clearances from their home states, agreement from the host states where they were working, and medical certificates attesting that they were Covid free. It was very difficult for migrants, more so in a city which was not their home, to get a doctor to sign a certificate of good health. Remember, this was during the period of total lockdown, during which even a middle-class person would have been hard-pressed to venture outside her home and find and persuade a doctor to certify that she was Covid-free. This was mandatory even for bus travel. This also cost money.

A mason from Jharkhand in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum said he had been reduced to eating just one meal given by a charity. He gave all his savings to someone who said he would organise a bus to Jharkhand, and disappeared. When trains were started, social workers helped him fill the registration form, but he hit a roadblock because he could not organise a health certificate. A local activist told Scroll that they did organise medical check-ups for the workers, but she was worried that many migrant workers might be classified as symptomatic for Covid-19 even if they were not infected. This would not only block their chances of returning but also endanger their health, as they would be locked up in unsanitary quarantine centres.

“These labourers live and work next to a landfill, in the most squalid conditions, so they are often sick with cough, cold, fever and breathing problems,” the activist said. “They may not have Covid, but if they don’t pass the medical test, will they be allowed to go home? For most migrants, getting a seat on one of these special trains was like winning a jackpot in a whimsical lottery. Not only were the online registration procedures convoluted and required smartphones, literacy and technical skills that they did not always possess, their chances were also completely dependent on destination states that either approve[d] or put on hold district-based lists with no clear explanation.” By contrast, those who could afford air-conditioned Rajdhani trains just had to buy a ticket and travel. No official, again, seemed perturbed by the obvious class bias in these different rules. The rules were also, once more, confusing.

Many workers were told that those wanting to travel had to apply at the local police station. They did that, and were then told that they had to apply online to their respective state governments. Some found educated workers who helped them do this. But even after many days, they were not allotted a seat on any train. A worker in Mumbai, Rathod, seethed, “I feel so angry at the way they are treating us, but I can’t even express my anger in public. If we want to go home, we have to stay quiet.”

Despite all these barriers, masses of migrants, unable to afford the rent for their rooms and with no savings left for food, gathered in large crowds outside railway stations. Many had to wait for several days before they found a seat. Many more did not, and set out finally on foot. Vibha Devi, eight months pregnant, lived with her husband, a construction worker, and two children in Faridabad near Delhi. Her husband’s employer neither paid him nor answered his calls. The 500 rupees that Vibha had received in April in her Jan Dhan account as part of the union government’s lockdown relief package hadn’t lasted long (there is no zero missing, that really is the figure: a paltry Rs 500). The family survived in the city for 50 days after the lockdown was announced mainly because Vibha Devi’s mother wired them her pension savings of Rs 1,500 from her village in Samastipur, Bihar. They still had to rely often on food charity. When it became impossible to sustain themselves, they decided to return to Bihar. They walked for two days to New Delhi Railway Station after the Shramik trains were announced.

They walked because no one in the government and bureaucracy had thought about how people would reach railway stations when there was no intra-city public transport of any kind allowed. And then for four days, they waited outside the railway station, fighting hunger and dodging the police, and sleeping on the pavement, but no train arrived. No one told them no Shramik trains operated from New Delhi Railway station. Finally, they reached Anand Vihar station, were checked for fever, and at last boarded a train to Bihar. But even this did not mark a happy ending for them. Their fellow-villagers did not welcome them back, suspecting them of carrying the virus, although they kept showing certificates from doctors that they were not infected.

Despite the fact that they had been locked down, without work and wages, for several weeks, the union government initially required workers to pay for their tickets – the cost of a sleeper berth, with a top-up for “super-fast” travel! It was only after nationwide outrage (and a rare political gesture by the Congress party of shaming the government by offering to pay for the tickets) that the government backtracked. It also turned out that the price of tickets on many of the special migrant trains was in fact higher than what it would have been for normal train tickets.

The union government also claimed that it was in any case giving an 85% subsidy on the Shramik train fare from day one, but when a PIL on the problems being faced by migrant workers came up in the Supreme Court, the government admitted that this was not the case. The cost of the tickets was being borne by the state governments. In response to a Right to Information application by The Wire Hindi, the Railway Department revealed that it collected 4.80 crore rupees from migrant workers in May and 2.11 crore rupees in June (in violation of the orders of the Supreme Court which by then had instructed the government not to charge workers for their travel).

For any government, this is an utterly trivial amount. It could also have most easily been borne from the donations of several thousand crore rupees to the completely opaque and gratuitous PM CARES fund set up by the Modi administration. But the government chose to extract this amount from dispossessed workers whom it had made jobless and brought to the brink of starvation. The union government then seemed to have second thoughts about facilitating the travel of migrants altogether, with the union home secretary issuing a directive that interstate travel would be allowed only for “distressed” persons, and not for those “residing normally at places other than native places for purposes of work”. This in effect ruled out the return of migrants.

Again, after widespread outrage, this directive was not acted upon, although I don’t think it was officially withdrawn. The chief minister of Karnataka cancelled all worker trains following a meeting with leading builders, who complained that they would not be able to kickstart construction work if the migrants were allowed to leave. I do not have accounts of what the chief minister said to them. I doubt he reminded them that the workers would not have felt compelled to leave if they had been paid wages for the period of the lockdown. Once again, after public criticism, he withdrew his ban and the trains started to run again out of Karnataka after a few days. Those who were fortunate enough to get a seat on a train had further ordeals to endure.

On many trains there was no food or water for hours, the toilets were unusable because there was no water in the taps or flushes, and inexplicably the trains would lose their way and arrive at their destination many hours and sometimes days late. A particularly notorious example was of a train from Mumbai to Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh: the travellers were astounded to find themselves instead in faraway Rourkela in Odisha! The Railway Protection Force reported that at least 80 people died of dehydration or hunger on these train journeys. It took four days to discover the body of a 37-year-old driver from Mumbai who died in the toilet of one of these trains, which meant that these had not been cleaned even after several days of travel.

Nandita Haksar describes a harrowing journey of migrant workers from the North-East from Goa to Manipur, which should have taken 64 hours but took 119, and for the most part, there was no food and water for the passengers, and no water in the toilets. It took the shattering image of a lifeless young woman, who had collapsed and died at the Muzaffarpur railway station, probably from extreme dehydration and food deprivation while travelling from Ahmedabad, and her baby son trying to awaken her, to finally stir the conscience of the nation. But there were still no apologies and little changed for the better.

An excerpt from Burning Pyres, Mass Graves and a State That Failed Its People: India’s Covid Tragedy, Harsh Mander, Speaking Tiger Books.