On April 29, the Central government made an announcement that filled Bheem Shukla (name changed) with hope. After 40 days of a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus that left millions of migrant workers stranded, jobless and hungry, the government would finally allow them to return home.

A mason living in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, Shukla assumed it was just a matter of days before he would be able to catch a “Shramik Special” train to Jharkhand and be reunited with his family in Giridih district. Through local social workers, he got hold of a registration form for migrant workers wishing to travel home, filled it up with the names of a dozen other migrants from Jharkhand, and went to submit it at the Dharavi police station on May 2.

By May 4, however, most of Shukla’s hope had drained out.

“The police said we first need to get a medical certificate to show we don’t have coronavirus, and then arrange for our own private bus to go home,” said Shukla. “If we had the kind of money to hire a private bus, wouldn’t we have gone long ago?”

No money

Like hundreds of other daily wage workers in Dharavi, Shukla has not earned a rupee since March 24, when the lockdown came into effect. He has been eating just one meal a day handed out by social workers, and lost all his savings at the end of March to a private bus agent who disappeared after promising to take Shukla and other workers to Jharkhand.

With the help of an educated member in their group, Shukla and his friends have now registered themselves on the Jharkhand government’s website for those stranded outside the state, and are hoping their village leaders can get local politicians to arrange for a bus from Mumbai to Jharkhand. The Centre has said it will not run trains from Mumbai since the city is a hotspot.

“Now there is nothing to do but wait,” Shukla said, his voice heavy with frustration. “There is no point trying to get a medical clearance unless there is a guarantee we will be put in a bus or train afterwards, free of charge.”

Shukla’s situation encapsulates the cruel dilemma that migrant labourers across India face today, at the hands of a government that left them destitute in the midst of a poorly planned and harshly implemented lockdown.

Migrant workers in Mumbai’s Wadala neighbourhood wait to fill out forms that would allow them to return home. Credit: PTI.

In the first week of the lockdown, with no transport available, thousands of migrants took to the highways on foot, walking across states to get home. Many died in the process, but the Centre and states offered almost no relief. Instead, migrants were rounded up and held in quarantine centres that were initially dubbed as “jails”.

It took five weeks and two lockdown extensions for the government to finally announce measures to send migrant workers home.

But the announcement has been followed by a slew of confusing orders, leading to more distress on the ground.

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Who pays for tickets?

On May 3, as lakhs of migrant workers began registering with state governments to be able to travel home, the Centre tried to contain the number through an ambiguously-worded statement by Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla. Inter-state travel would be allowed only for “distressed” persons, Bhalla said, and not for those “residing normally at places other than native places for purposes of work”.

Meanwhile, Indian Railways announced a set of guidelines for operating the “Shramik Special” non-stop trains to transport stranded persons between states. States sending the passengers would have to ensure each person has a medical certificate declaring them free of Covid-19 symptoms. Based on lists provided by states, the Railways would print tickets for passengers of each train and hand them over to the “sending” state.

The guidelines also clearly indicate that migrant workers themselves would have to pay for their ticket fare. “The local state government authority shall hand over the tickets to the passengers cleared by them and collect the ticket fare and hand over the total amount to Railways,” the guidelines say.

By Sunday, three Shramik Special trains had left from Maharashtra for Uttar Pradesh. One private bus took 25 workers from Mumbai to Rajasthan. In each case, the passengers had to pay up to Rs 350 per person to get medical certificates in addition to the price of their tickets. Train passengers were charged a sleeper class fare – Rs 580 from Nashik to Lucknow – plus an additional Rs 50, while bus passengers were charged up to Rs 4,000 for a seat.

The police photograph migrants before they board a train to Gorakhpur on Sunday. Credit: PTI.

On Monday, as the country erupted in outrage at the idea of making impoverished workers pay for their own tickets, and the Congress party offered to foot the ticket bill for migrants, the central government backtracked. The Railways claimed that it was not selling tickets to migrants, but merely charging the standard fare amount from state governments.

A public relations officer from Central Railway told Scroll.in that he did not know how states were paying for the tickets. “State governments are buying the tickets lumpsum – we are simply running the trains,” the officer said.

On the ground, migrant workers that Scroll.in spoke to in Maharashtra said they had all had been told by the local police that they would have to pay their own ticket fare, be it for a train or a bus.

Conversations with migrants revealed that there is also a wide communication gap between the government and the people, leading to confusion over the process of registration and the need for a medical clearances.

No clear communication

Take 33-year-old Shivam Rathod (name changed), for instance. The migrant from Bihar has been working as a daily wage construction helper in Mumbai for the past three years, earning Rs 500 a day. On Saturday, when Dharavi police personnel told Bheem Shukla to get a medical certificate in order to get registered, Rathod had gone to a local police station in Worli area.

Based on instructions from a non-profit organisation, he had formed a group of 30 migrants from Bihar, filled up the Mumbai Police application form, and gone to submit it on behalf of his group. “But the police said they were not accepting any forms,” said Rathod, who was told about the required medical clearance only on Sunday, when he went to the police a second time.

According to government guidelines, migrant workers requesting travel permissions can get medical clearances from any doctor, public or private. Rathod, however, was turned away by a private doctor near the slum where he lives.

“He told us we needed to go to a hospital. The police also recommended going to Nair Hospital,” said Rathod, referring to a public hospital four kilometres away from his slum. “How are we supposed to get there, though? By walking all the way?”

Migrant workers on a bus that will take them from Mumbai to Rajasthan. Credit: PTI.

In the northern suburb of Govandi, where lakhs of daily wage workers live in dense slums, a representative for migrant workers was not told about the medical certificate until Monday. “The police did not mention the medical clearance on Sunday, when I first went to them with registration forms for more than 100 migrants,” said Jamila Begum, an activist with the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, a non-profit organisation that has been distributing thousands of cooked meals and rations to migrant workers in Govandi since the start of the lockdown. “Today [Monday] they not only asked for medical clearance but also said that migrants will have to pay for the train or bus tickets if they want to travel.”

While Jamila Begum’s organisation is planning to arrange for a doctor to conduct medical check-ups free of cost for migrants, she is concerned that many migrant workers might be classified as symptomatic of Covid-19 even if they are not infected. “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,” said Jamila Begum. “They may not have Covid, but if they don’t pass the medical test, will they not be allowed to go home?”

Migrants wait at Dharavi police station to fill out forms to go home. Credit: PTI.

‘I have no money left’

Elsewhere in Govandi, a migrant worker who was independently trying to get himself registered for travel along with 130 others claimed he had no idea that a medical certificate was required too. “We got the forms on Saturday night but so far the police has not told us anything about getting a medical check-up done,” said the worker from West Bengal who did not wish to be identified. “If we really have to get it done, the police will have to arrange free check-ups, because we have no money left.”

There was also some confusion among migrants on whether to follow the registration process of their home states or the states where they are stranded. Maharashtra, for instance, requires all stranded migrants to register with the state police in order to be sent home, but one worker in Sindhudurg district was completely unaware of this.

“On Whatsapp I got a message saying we have register on the Jharkhand government website if we want to go home to Jharkhand, so I have done that,” said the worker, Ram Sunder Singh. “I have not heard anything about registering with the Maharashtra police too. I have no money to pay for anything, so I have left everything in the hands of Jharkhand government.”

While Singh is despondent, some migrant workers like Shukla and Rathod have been silently seething at the central government since the lockdown began. “I feel so angry at the way they are treating us, but I can’t even express my anger in public,” said Rathod. “If we want to go home, we have to stay quiet.”

Migrants in Wadala wait to fill out forms to be allowed to go home. Credit: PTI.