A week before departure
We do not know when the train from Goa will leave for Manipur. We do not know the date, timing and even the station. Desperately, we are trying to contact friends in Manipur to ensure that the train goes right up to Jiribam in Manipur and does not drop the migrants at Guwahati, which could mean quarantine in Assam, then bus via Nagaland and another quarantine in Nagaland then entry into Manipur and quarantine in Imphal and then by bus to the village where there would be another quarantine.
For the past few days, at the request of friends in Manipur, my husband Sebastian and I have been trying to help migrant workers from the North East who have been stuck in Goa, where we live, because of the lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. I wrote about our efforts to find them shelter here.
Now, reports in the press about the train to Manipur confuse everyone. No authentic information is available. Even the list of passengers is not complete. Many have registered with the government website in Manipur but not in Goa. There is confusion about where one has to register. Some are not sure whether they will have to pay for the ticket. On the news, there are reports people are being charged for the train tickets.
There is also confusion on whether they should leave or stay. Some who want to leave want to sell some of their assets before going. Married couples disagree on wisdom of leaving; they quarrel over the future of their children.
Thursday, May 20
The list of 996 persons in Goa who want to leave for Manipur includes Nagas, Kuki, Zomi, Meiteis and Meitei Muslims. No one knew that there were so many people from Manipur in Goa. Here in Goa, as in Manipur, they lived largely separate lives.
It has been rumoured that the train will leave tomorrow from Karmali. They need to know so that they can make arrangements for transport – or will the government provide them with a bus?Everyone has packed and is waiting. The uncertainty is killing.
Nobody knows what arrangements are being made for food. My husband and I offer to buy water but who will sell us a thousand bottles of water and how do we carry the bottles to the station? Deputy Collector Mamu Hage tells the migrants that food and water has been arranged for. They are reassured. After all, she is from Arunchal Pradesh.
At nine at night, the migrants from Manipur get a message: the Shramik special train is scheduled for tomorrow, Thursday, from Madgaon at 16.00 hours. Arrival is at Sunday at 5 am at Jiribam. It will carry 914 Manipuris and 75 Arunachali. The passengers from Arunachal will deboard in Guwahati. The rest will be taken to Jiribam in Manipur.
The last paragraph states: “Request the representatives to give an advisory to carry all the essentials including some food/snacks, water and take other safety measures throughout the three days.”
So food and water is not to be given! Those living in the hostel in Mapusa requisitioned for the North East migrants have no way of buying anything – they have neither the transport to go out and buy provisions nor the money.
Thursday, May 21
The migrants living in rented rooms in the northern beaches like Calangute make their own arrangements to get to the station. Those at the Mapusa hostel leave in a bus provided by the administration. Most leave without eating anything and arrive by 1 pm at the Madgaon railway station where there will be a lengthy check-in process. This includes registering and a medical examination.
At 3 pm, they are given some fried rice and a bottle of water.
They board the train at 4 pm. They will be home after three nights. My husband and I along with some leaders from the community give a collective sigh of relief.
Two hours later we start getting calls: the train has not left. They do not have water to drink. Many are hungry and they do not know why there is a delay.
The nightmare had begun.
I phone Puneet Goel, the IAS officer who had helped me when we were looking for shelter for North Eastern migrant workers in Goa. Goel gets back to say the train left a few minutes ago. It had been delayed because some people from Tripura had got left behind.
He could not help with the food and water; but the next stop was Bhopal so they would get food and water there. Bhopal seems a long way away but this train is supposed to be super-fast and they are to reach Jiribam on May 24.
We start getting frantic calls from the train. They have reached Pune but they have not been given any food or water. The train has been stopping every 15 minutes. Everyone is scared that if they stay long in Maharashtra they may catch the deadly virus.
From now on, it is Edwin who is going to be giving us the details of the journey. Edwin says the train has moved to Chalisgaon. He has no idea where it is. They have been given two bananas and water but no meal.
Edwin hands the phone to a railway man on the platform and I talk to him in Hindi and ask why these delays. He says there is a shortage of staff and there is traffic congestion.
Edwin is not too worried because he tells me he is in touch with a fellow Tangkhul, Wormila, an officer in the Railways. He forwards her message: “I am an officer with Indian Railways so if you all need any help pl feel free to contact me. In case I don’t pick up kindly drop a message and I will get back.”
I ask Edwin whether we should organise a meal and water but he says no, Wormila has promised to do so. He forwards another of her messages: “For now IRCTC will provide food at Bhusawal station. Edwin you will have to wait till Bhusawal.”
No meal arrived at Bhusawal. Edwin is now getting really worried. Apart not having had a meal, they do not have water and the heat is punishing.
We are getting frantic calls in Goa from friends and family members who have people on the train.
Friday, May 22
Sebastian and I decide to organise food and water for the migrants on the train. But I do not know the route and I do not have the train number. Edwin send us a photo of his ticket but it has no number or the stops.
If the next stop is Bhopal, I feel I can tap into old contacts from the time of the Bhopal Gas tragedy and get a meal served. I ask a friend and she says I must first find out the number of the train so they can track it.
Sebastian phones Wormila to ask whether she can tell us how we can get the train number. She is obviously harassed but she says she has been doing everything. She doesn’t give us the train number.
If we are to get a meal to them at Bhopal, we must hurry. I phone an old trustworthy friend and comrade in Kolkata, Dilipda. He gives me the number of a Fellow of the Ashoka Foundation. The person is in Ahmedabad but he will find a person who will help us.
I do a quick Google check to discover that Ashoka is the world’s largest network of leading social entrepreneurs. I need to ask Dilipda something but he is not answering. A little while he rings back. He apologises for not answering but they had been hit by the cyclone and there was no light or water in their home.
The friend in Ahmedabad puts me in touch with Prateek Sharma. He was a banker who had left his lucrative job to help farmers. I ask whether he can organise food and water, at least five litres each for 1,000 people on the train which left Goa on 21 and should be arriving in Bhopal the next day. He says can I give him the train number. I can’t.
He asks for names of people on the train – at least five so he can keep close touch. We finalise the items to be given to the passengers. No one has spoken about who will pay. We are two strangers talking to each other but he does not even ask.
Sharma informs me that he is actually not in Bhopal but reassures me that the food will reach them the next morning.
Dilipda phones to say I should also contact Ramesh Sharma, a Gandhian activist. He too is traveling. I wonder how all these people are traveling in the midst of lockdown. But Sharma is very calm and assures me that he will do all he can.
Since 3 pm on May 21, the people in the train have had two litres of water and on May 22 just two bananas.
Sunday, May 23
I am woken up at 7 am by Prateek Sharma. He has arrived at Bhopal station with puris, achaar and five litres of water for each person on the train but is not being allowed to enter. He has started unloading the truck so he can rush to the train. But now, he has been told that the train will not be stopping at Bhopal but at Habibgunj, which is before Bhopal. He needs to reload and rush to Habibgunj. The train must be delayed or else he will not be able to get the food and water to the passengers.
By some miracle, he has discovered the train number: 01650.
I phone Ramesh Sharma. He says I should not panic.
Despite his advice, I do panic. I phone another reliable ally, my cousin Sanat Kaul. It was he who introduced me to the North East when he was posted to the newly created state of Arunachal Pradesh.
Sanat says it’s just too early to call the Chief Minister’s Office but can I send him a message with the train number and details of the problem? Kaul forwards my message to Vineet Narain, the prominent journalist who had exposed the hawala scam in the early 1990s. Narain says he will try to get the message to Piyush Goyal, the Railway Minister.
Edwin announces that the train has arrived at Habibgunj.
An hour later, it turns out that Narain has managed to reach someone in the minister’s office. The train was delayed and the Gandhian volunteers, the police and his own friends had unloaded and delivered the food and water.
We are all congratulating ourselves but by evening Edwin calls to say the bathrooms have no water and the toilets are clogged. The water we had provided is being used for toilet purposes.
By 9 pm, the train has reached Satna in Madhya Pradesh, where they were given seven puris and a bottle of water but the toilets still have no water. It is already past ten at night. Now Edwin’s tone, usually calm, is desperate.
The train is already late by 32 hours.
It is nearly 11 pm when I remember Somi. Somi is Samuel Zimik, retired Additional Chief Security Commissioner, Railway Protection Force. Miraculously, he answers my call. It is a miracle because he is in Ukhrul in Manipur and the town is fast asleep by 8 pm and the connectivity is usually very bad.
Somi says he will contact the Railway Protection Force to get the toilets cleaned but we will have to wait till the train gets to Bihar, where he knows the officers currently in service. But the train is still only in Madhya Pradesh.
Sunday, May 24
The train was scheduled to reach Jiribam at 5 am but it is still in Uttar Pradesh.
Edwin has posted a video of the state of the toilet; a passenger from Arunachal Pradesh texts to a friend in Goa that she feels she will die on the train.
There is no food or water to drink. Temperatures are running at 45 degrees. Edwin says officials have said food would be provided at Mughalsarai, now called Deen Dayal Upadhyaya station. The food does not materialise.
I put the video of a Goa-based WhatsApp group and they start to tweet. I send it to my niece Mahima Kaul, head of Twitter Public policy. She too tweets about the condition of the toilet in train number 01650. The Railways responds and asks her where the train is at the moment.
Should the Railways not know where a train is? We have even supplied the train number. But we soon discover this is a ploy the Railways is using to distract people from demanding information. The Railways asks you to provide the train number and location but there is no place where anyone can track the train because they keep changing the stops.
I phone Somi again. He says Edwin has phoned to say please do not allow the train to stop in Bihar because North East people have been attacked there. Who was attacking the trains and why? I phone Edwin to ask him to please allow Somi to organise a stop at Barauni for food, water and to clean the toilets – the Railway Protection Force would be there to look after their security.
By this time, I am also feeling desperate and I again send a message to Vineet Narain and tell him of the situation on the train. I also forward the video of the toilet. He forwards it all to the Minister. It is evening by now.
A friend who had been active in this area tells me that the work of safai karamcharis has been privatised so there are cleaners only at the junctions and we have to wait for Barauni.
At 8.30 pm, get a picture forwarded by Edwin of two sharp stones. The train has stopped just outside Barauni and they have been attacked. He has been hit by a stone in the stomach. Everyone else in the train quickly closes their windows, making the situation inside unbearable.
I make more calls and within half an hour Edwin calls to say they are at Barauni station. The toilets are being cleaned; they were given two big buns, packets of katha-meetha and the ubiquitous banana. The train moves again but they have not filled water in the bathrooms.
Somi says we must wait till they reach Kathihar, where he has spoken to the Railway Protection Force to organise water. It is just two hours away.
I go to sleep at 3 am – but the train had not yet reached Kathihar. No water in the bathrooms so once again the drinking water was being used for toilet pruposes.
Monday, May 25
Sebastian wakes me up. Edwin is calling. The train has stopped outside Kathihar station and they are being attacked again. He sends videos of shattered glass. I desperately try calling Somi; he is not responding. Who else can I call?
That is the stage I feel a sudden surge of anger. Why has not the Member of Parliament done anything at all to help these migrants? I send him all the videos and phone but unsurprisingly get no response either to the messages or the calls.
I call a former Member of Parliament from Outer Manipur, Mani Charenamei, who is able to get the present MP, Lorho S Pfoze, to call me. I know him from the time I was fighting legal cases in Manipur.
I tell the MP of the situation and tell him he should take responsibility and he is a doctor he should….he cuts me short and says I should not get personal. He puts down the phone and writes a message on how I should behave. I write apologising for even thinking of contacting him and I was not being personal: I was addressing a representative of the people.
Sebastian’s cousin in Ukhrul reaches Somi and tells him of the situation. He calls the Railway Police. Edwin calls to say water is being filled and they have been given something to eat.
I write thank you messages to the journalist Vineet Narain but cannot help wonder in an era of Swacch Bharat where cleanliness was on the government’s top agenda we needed the intervention of the railway minister’s office to get toilets cleaned.
I am exhausted. Once they are across the Chicken’s Neck, the 22-km corridor that connects the North East region with the rest of India, I feel the local people should take responsibility. Former MP Charenamei agrees to help organise food for the migrants at Siliguri in West Bengal.
He contacts local church leaders and when the migrants reach Siliguri they get hot fried rice, chillies and salad. It is the first proper rice meal since they left Goa.
My thoughts are with the Pangals, the Meitei Muslims. It is Eid and I wish I could have somehow acknowledged this.
Tuesday, May 26
I ask Edwin who had attacked them in Barauni and Kathihar. He said that they were migrants who had been walking home and felt angry at the “privileged ones” who were traveling by train.
Finally at around 3 pm, Edwin says they have reached Jiribam.
My mobile rings again. It is a man called Angkyajai Mog from Tripura. He says he was supposed to have been on the train that left on May 21 but they were told it would leave on May 22 so they had missed the train. Could I help them?
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and author, most recently, of The Flavours of Nationalism.