Bhaiya Raidas, a 30-year-old daily wage earner in Delhi’s Pitampura neighbourhood, was worried about his mother and his wife. His mother, who lives in Madhya Pradesh’s Satna district, is in the last stages of blood cancer. His 28-year-old wife Manisha is eight months pregnant. Just before authorities on Sunday announced that the nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19 would be extended for a third time, until May 31, Raidas decided that he should try to see his mother.

“Kab dum todh de iska koi bharosa nahi hai,” he said. There’s no telling when her strength will break.

At 3 pm on Saturday, after leaving his wife in the care of her mother in Pitampura, Raidas headed for Satna, 760 km away. He was accompanied by his sister Sudha Saket, his brother-in-law Ravi Kumar, 30, and their two children. Since most public transport has been suspended with the lockdown, they set out on foot.

Walking 26 km through the night, the family arrived at Ghazipur, on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border. But when they attempted to cross over at 11 am on Sunday, they were stopped by the Uttar Pradesh police. They were told that they would not be allowed to proceed unless they were in a bus.

Since then, Raidas and his family have been waiting along with hundreds of other migrant workers under the UP Gate flyover next to the mountainous Ghazipur landfill.

“On one end, I am worried about my mother...on the other end, my wife,” said Raidas. “And I am here in the middle.”

Hundreds stranded

Uttar Pradesh police officials at the border told that they had received orders not to let anyone enter the state on foot or on bicycle. They said that no buses had left Delhi for Uttar Pradesh since Sunday morning.

On the other side, Delhi police officials claimed that six to seven buses had left since Sunday morning.

As hot, dusty winds blew over the area, volunteers distributed water, masks, slippers, bread and biscuits to the stranded people under the flyover. There were no toilet facilities in the immediate vicinity. Most frustrating for many families, there were no officials to give them information about their options for getting home.

Ravi Kumar and his brother-in-law Bhaiya Raidas. Credit: Vijayta Lalwani

It has been more that six weeks since the Indian government announced a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus. As work disappeared, millions of Indians in cities who depend on daily wages were stranded. Though the government promised that it would provide food for those who needed it, the supply of rations and cooked meals has been erratic. Besides, many did not have the money to pay their rent.

Since the end of March, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers and their families have departed for their home villages, often on foot. Some of their destinations have been more than 1,000 km away. More than 120 people have died in accidents en route.

On April 29, more than four weeks into the lockdown, the Central government announced that it would start special Shramik Express trains to get workers to their home states. But the process is complicated. Both the home state and the host state must agree to allow these trains to run. To be eligible for a seat, workers must get medical certificates and other clearances from their home and host states and then buy their tickets – even though most have very little money left.

On May 15, a week after 16 workers sleeping on railway tracks in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad district were killed by a train, Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla wrote to chief secretaries of states and Union Territories asking them to ensure that there was no migrant workers were walking on the roads and railway tracks. Instead, the Central government asked the states to help workers get home in buses and the Shramik Express trains.

A family waits at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border. Sajjad Hussain/AFP

No bookings

But booking trains has not been easy, said Raidas, which is why so many have started walking or cycling home.

Ten days ago, Raidas paid Rs 3,000 as an advance to a man who runs a cyber cafe in Pitampura to try to book three tickets on a Shramik train. But it was impossible to get a ticket, he said.

“Keh raha hai ki jaise site khulti waise full ho ja rahi rai,” Raidas said. The seats get filled up as soon as bookings open. “There are so many people applying that no one is able to get a booking,” he said.

He was not aware that tickets on the Shramik trains cannot be directly purchased online – workers are expected to register with their home state, which decides who gets to travel on the trains.

Sangeeta Devi, 28, who was also waiting at the Uttar Pradesh border in Ghazipur, said that she and her husband Hiten Kumar, 30, had failed to get on a train to their home in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, even though they had gone to New Delhi Railway Station at least four times over the last week.

Devi said she was not aware that Shramik trains stopped departing from New Delhi Railway Station since May 15.

With no option, Devi and Kumar decided to make an arduous journey back home on foot accompanied by their six-year-old daughter Aanchal and eight-month-old toddler Arpita. They had left their home in Sarai Kale Khan at 8 am on Sunday, only to be stopped at the border a few hours later.

While her husband had been living in Delhi for three years, Devi had come to the Capital with the children just six days before the nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 24. “I would not have come if I knew this would happen,” she said, as she breastfed Arpita.

Sangeeta Devi and Arpita. Credit: Vijayta Lalwani

Mohammad Minhaz, 32, was trying to get to his hometown in Araria district in Bihar, along with 35 others. They had paid Rs 3,000 each to a private bus operator. After they walked over 13 km from Old Delhi to Ghazipur, the group boarded the bus at around 10.30 pm on May 16 .

The bus was parked on the Uttar Pradesh side of Ghazipur. The group managed to cross the border and board. But then then the driver got some calls. “He told us that he would drop us from where he picked us up,” said Minhaz, who worked in a small factory unit attaching steel parts to curtains.

The group spent the night under the flyover, uncertain about how they would be able to get to Bihar.

Twenty-two year old Mohammad Israfir from the group said that he too had tried to book a ticket on a Shramik train. But the agent he used said that there were no seats available.

“Sometimes he would say the site shut down...sometimes he would say that it got full...then he told us it is full till [May] 30 but we cannot keep sitting like that till then,” Israfir said.

Israfir had came to Delhi in February to work in the curtain factory in Old Delhi. “Pehle pata hi nahi tha ki lockdown kisko bolta hai,” he said. I did not even know the meaning of a lockdown. “First they said it was for one day but if they told us two days before then we would have gone back home,” he said.

Israfir said he missed his family. “If I was with family and if anything happened to me, they would be there,” he said. “But God forbid if something happens to me, then I will not reach home.”

The Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes Buddhist Association of the Life Insurance Corporation set up a stall and distributed water, slippers, biscuits and masks to workers.

‘It is just dikhawa’

On May 15, Surya Prakash, 25, walked from Ballabhgarh in Haryana’s Faridabad district to Kalindi Kunj in South East Delhi so he could cross over into Noida, Uttar Pradesh, and walk home to Gorakhpur district.

After he was stopped at the border by Uttar Pradesh police officials, he tried to make his way into the state from Ghazipur. He reached Ghazipur at 11 am on May 16 and has been trying since then to work out a way to get home. “They keep telling us that there is no arrangement,” said Prakash. “If there is nothing, then let us go on foot.”

Prakash who had spent a night under the flyover said the swarms of flies made it impossible for him to sleep.

He said the government was to blame for not making adequate arrangements for workers to travel safely. “They said we should register online [for a Shramik train],” he said. “It has been 15 days but I have not got a call or message. There is no arrangement. It is just dikhawa [a spectacle].”

Prakash worked in a steel factory and earned around Rs 12,000 per month but had not been paid for March. He said that he had been evicted from his home for not paying his rent of Rs 3,000 despite the Centre’s order urging landlords to be mindful of the situation.

“When it came to giving rent then there was no condition that if someone troubles us then something can be done,” he said. “We called the police but they told us to leave if we could not pay.”

Israfir said he did not expect much from the government. “The government is anyway for the is never for the poor,” he said.

"The government is anyway for the rich," said Mohammad Israfir.

An emergency

A resident of North West Delhi’s Narela, Renu Yadav was desperate to get back home to Ayodhya district in Uttar Pradesh. Her brother had met with a road accident on May 16 while he was riding his motorcycle to his ailing mother-in-law, Yadav said.

On Sunday morning, Yadav, her husband, who works as a daily wage earner, and her nine-year-old son took a taxi from Narela to the border.

“Our relative in Ghaziabad told us to cross the border and then he would be able to take us in his car after that,” said Yadav, who has lived in Delhi for three years. “But now they have stopped us here.”

Yadav and her family had been waiting under the flyover since 10.30 am on Sunday.

“It is very serious...if this did not happen then we would not have left,” she said, wiping the tears from her face. “We could not book a train because this was so sudden...he just got married a year ago.”

Taken to shelter

Meanwhile, at around 4 pm on Sunday, police officials asked workers heading to Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh to board a bus, Ravi Kumar said. Kumar said that the officials had taken their Aadhaar number and phone number and made them wait in the bus for over an hour. But officials later told them that they were being taken to a school where they would stay for 21 days till their tickets were confirmed.

Kumar, Raidas and the family refused to go so the police officials asked them to go home instead. Tut they did not provide them with transport to drop them back.

“We paid an autorickshaw driver Rs 1,700 to drop us back to Pitampura,” Kumar said over the phone later. The fare would usually have been round Rs 500, he said.

“We really need to go back [to Satna], he said. “Their mother’s condition is very serious.”