Four-year-old Vishal walked 30 km to New Delhi railway station with his parents and seven-year-old sister, Anjali. “We would lift and carry him occasionally,” said Vibha Devi, with the faint smile of a proud mother, “but he mostly walked on his own.”
The family had walked from Faridabad, a neighbouring city in Haryana. The journey had taken them two days.
They had come to Delhi in the hope of catching a train back to Bihar.
But four days after they reached the New Delhi railway station, they had not been able to set foot inside.
“The policed chased us away from the gate itself,” said Jitender Sahni, Vishal’s father. “They said general trains are not running, go buy AC [air-conditioned] tickets, but we don’t have Rs 5,000.”
Vibha Devi pleaded: “I said ‘take some money, let us travel sitting on the floor of the train.’ But they chased us away.”
The family is now living on a pavement, about 200 metres from the railway station. “We stay up all night, we don’t sleep,” she said. “What if someone takes away our children?”
While community workers have been distributing food and water bottles, the family has to pay to use the public toilets. The staff running the toilets also let them charge their mobile phone – for an extra fee of Rs 10.
They barely have any money left.
Sahni, a construction worker in his mid-twenties, stopped earning his daily wages after India went into lockdown on March 24 to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The contractor who employed him neither paid him nor took his phone calls seeking help. Occasionally, a food truck would come around to the jhuggi basti where they lived in Faridabad. “They would distribute khichdi,” recalled Vibha Devi.
For 50 days, the family survived on the Rs 1,500 that Vibha Devi’s mother sent through a bank transfer from Bihar’s Samastipur district and the Rs 500 that showed up as cash support from the government in her Jan Dhan Yojana account.
“My mother sent me her pension money,” said Vibha Devi. “She does not have much.”
The motherly concern was partly prompted by the young woman’s circumstances – she is over seven months pregnant. “The baby could be born anytime,” she said. “That is why we badly want to get home.”
Millions of working-class Indians share this desperation. They have been stranded far away from home, mostly without wages and food, for nearly two months. Many have walked over 1,000 km to get back to their villages. Over 120 have died in accidents on the way.
Six weeks into the lockdown, on April 29, the Central government announced it would run Shramik Express trains for working-class migrants. But it did not waive the fares – despite knowing that lack of work had rendered many destitute. It also left the coordination to the states, which has turned out to be messy.
To get a berth on the Shramik Express, migrants have to register with their home states, get medical certificates and clearances from their host states, and both states must agree before a train runs. With lakhs of workers wanting to travel back, securing a berth on these trains is like hitting the jackpot.
In contrast, travelling on the air-conditioned Rajdhani trains is far simpler – all you need to do is buy a ticket.
On Friday, 10 Rajdhani trains left Delhi – and only seven Shramik Express.
On Friday evening, Jitender Sahni’s family sat in a huddle on the pavement, watching a steady stream of cars arrive. Middle-class travellers stepped out with their trolley suitcases and bags, dragging them to the station.
“Mazdoor ko maar rahe hai, ameer ko bhijwa rahe hai.” They are killing the workers while sending the rich home, Jitender Sahni said cryptically of the government.
Vibha Devi stated that she had voted for “Modi ji” at least two or three times. “We got a cylinder, we were happy,” she said, referring to the subsidised cooking gas scheme, a pet project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She had not expected his government would abandon the poor. “Yahan koi dekhne waala hi nahi hai.” There is no one to look after us.
The couple did not know what to do next. “If we don’t get a train tomorrow, we will start walking,” said Sahni. But Samastipur is 1,100 km away. No wonder, they were still clinging to the last remnant of hope: “The police told us a general train might leave for Bihar on May 18.”
But no one had bothered to tell them that Shramik Express trains were no longer departing from New Delhi railway station – since May 13, their departures had been moved to the Old Delhi railway station.
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“This was done to avoid overcrowding,” Deepak Kumar, the spokesperson of Northern Railways, told Scroll.in.
But scores of migrant workers were still arriving at New Delhi railway station with their families in the hope of catching trains, I pointed out. “They should not do this,” said Kumar. “Nobody is supposed to come [on their own] to the station for the Shramik trains. States are drawing up lists [of migrant workers], states are supposed to bring people to the station.”
The Indian Railways had repeatedly publicised this process in newspapers, television, radio and social media, he emphasised.
But workers like Jitender Sahni, on the move, with nothing more than a simple feature phone on them, had no way to access the news. Now that they had walked all the way to railway stations, couldn’t the rail authorities give them clear information?
“We are not entertaining any enquiries. This [Shramik trains] is the state government’s baby,” said Kumar firmly. “We are only running the trains.”
But scores of people were still waiting outside railway stations, I repeated.
“What are you saying is correct. It is unfortunate,” said Kumar. “States must do something about this.”
Meanwhile, Jitender Sahni’s family prepared to spend another night on the pavement.