Gurang Sah was walking to the home of his employer near Mumbai’s Bandra Terminus on Tuesday morning when he got caught in the melee. Approximately 2,000 migrant workers had gathered at the railway station, hoping to catch a Shramik special train to Bihar. But not all of them had valid registrations or been allotted seats by the authorities and had to be “cleared from the area” by the police, Ravinder Bhakar, the Western Railway chief public relations officer told the Hindustan Times.

As the crowds darted away to avoid the police lathis, someone dashed into Sah. His phone fell out of his hands. The screen was smashed – and with it, the 28-year-old garment worker’s hopes of getting home to Darbhanga in Bihar over the next few weeks.

“I have never felt so helpless,” said Sah.

Queuing up for food

Ever since work ground to a halt at the end of March with the imposition of a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus epidemic, 28-year-old Sah, a garment worker, and his four roommates in the Gareeb Nagar slum settlement near the station had been living on food handed out by an NGO. But with no indication of when his workshop would start up again, Sah filled out a form at the police station on May 5, hoping to be given a seat on a train home.

Without a phone, though, that would be nearly impossible. To get a seat on a Shramik special, migrant workers must register with the authorities, who then phone them when a train is arranged. “How are they going to be able to contact me now?” asked Sah as he choked back tears.

On Wednesday morning, he tried to make his way to Bandra Terminus, hoping to convince the authorities let him board a train he heard was leaving that afternoon. But the police personnel at a barricade set up about 200 metres away from the station would not let him through.

Said Sah as he walked away slowly, “I am going to die in this city.”

Gurang Sah hopes to get home to Dharbanga in Bihar.

Also trying to plead his case at the police checkpost on Wednesday was Mohammed Khan, 30. He too was holding up a broken phone. Khan said that he had been allotted a seat on the Tuesday morning train to Bihar and had been sent a confirmation on his phone. But as he neared the station, he found himself in the middle of the lathicharge and dropped his phone.

“The railway authorities refused to let me into the station,” said the jari worker, who had lived in Mumbai’s Dharavi area for about 10 years. Khan missed his train and with it, the hope of being reunited with his family in Patna.

Rehmati Begum was another of those whose dreams of home had disappeared with her phone. As she was walking to buy provisions on Tuesday morning from her home by the railway tracks, she was knocked over by the people fleeing police lathis and lost her phone.

Life has been difficult since the beginning of the lockdown, as work dried up for her husband, Mohammed Sheikh, a labourer on construction sites, she said. The family of six had filled out a form at Nirmal Nagar police station on May 5, asking for seats on a train to Dharbanga.

“Without a phone, we are stuck,” Rehmati Begum said. “I don’t know how we are going to manage.”

Rehmati Begun and one of her daughters, Haika.

The only story that seemed to have a happy ending at the police barricade on Wednesday afternoon was that of Sandeep Kumar, a 25-year-old classical singer, hoping to get home to Kanpur. Kumar had come to Mumbai a month before lockdown was imposed, to take music lessons from his guru, Ghulam Dastur Khan. Kumar had been allotted a seat on a train in the afternoon, but had missed the bus bringing travellers to Bandra station from Goregaon where he was staying. Luckily, an acquaintance with a motorbike had brought Kumar and his two bags to Bandra.

But when they got near the entrance of the station, the police stopped him: they would only let in passengers who were seated in the special buses. So Kumar dragged his bags to the foot of the road bridge to the terminal, pleading with the constable controlling traffic there to stop a bus and allowed him to get on.

The constable seemed sceptical at first. Kumar grew increasingly frantic, phoning the other members of his Goregaon group who were already inside the station. Finally, the policeman relented. He waved down the next passing bus.

Said Kumar, “I can’t wait to get home and have a nice cool bath.”

Sandeep Kumar waits for a bus to Bandra Terminus.