Around 8 pm on Sunday, a volunteer engaged in coronavirus relief work in Chennai received a phone call from a migrant worker from Bihar. “Kya hua? Aaj train nahin hain Bihar ke liye?” he asked. Is there no train for Bihar today?

The volunteer was surprised to hear the man had not got on to the train scheduled to leave Chennai at 6 pm. He asked him where he was. “We are at Vyasarpadi,” the man replied.

Vyasarpadi is 6 km away from Chennai Central Railway Station, which has over the last week, become a destination for scores of migrant workers hoping to get a train back home.

The migrant worker from Bihar said his name was put on a list by Chennai Corporation officials, then he was asked to board a bus from the shelter where he was at. He thought he was being taken to the railway station. Instead, the bus took him to a school – another shelter – for the night. “We are eight people, but there are many others here,” he said.

The train coming in from another part of Tamil Nadu was already full as it went through Chennai. “None of the Bihar migrants who we were in touch with got on the train,” said Sangeeta Isvaran, another volunteer with the Chennai Migrant Task Force.

Flocking to the city

Since May 9, more than 60 trains have left Chennai carrying 94,521 migrants to over 14 states including Uttar Pradesh, Manipur and Punjab, according to data from the Greater Chennai Corporation.

Migrant workers from in and around Chennai, neighbouring districts, and even from the nearby Union Territory of Puducherry, have walked, shared autos, hired mini-vans or been picked up by volunteers to make their way to the city. They have presented themselves at the G2-Periamet Police Station to register their names in exchange for tokens to get on Shramik Special trains. “One person shows up, then the next, then the next, it became like a forest fire,” said a volunteer who has been helping workers negotiate the system.

Word of mouth about possible trains home is propelling more and more migrant workers to walk towards two of Chennai’s prominent railway stations – Central and Egmore. This has left the city’s police force overwhelmed, and its shelters crowded. Officials from the municipal corporation are scrambling to keep up with the numbers.

Workers from West Bengal, Assam and Bihar wait near Chennai Central Station for a train back home. Credit: PTI

A voice note in Hindi doing the rounds on volunteer groups features a migrant from Gaya, Bihar, saying that he and his companions have been sitting outside Chennai Central Station for five days but the police keep beating them away without letting them enter. “I have filled three forms so far and submitted to the station authorities but no word as yet,” he is heard saying.

A video circulating on Whatsapp on Sunday night showed a group of migrants from West Bengal being arbitrarily dropped off on the side of the road somewhere in Chennai. Asked about these clips, a senior Greater Chennai Corporation official described them as “cheap sensationalism”.

Interviews with volunteers and migrant workers show that this rush to get on trains is buoyed by hope from their friends or relatives who had successfully managed to board trains back home. After plans to walk all the way back home were cut short when Tamil Nadu’s border with Andhra Pradesh was sealed at the end of April, the next best option is to find a train. “They are told ‘go here, go there’ someone will help you get on a train,” said the volunteer.

A common refrain

More than two months without an income and a long wait for work to resume has left thousands of migrants penniless and desperate to go home. They have vacated their rented rooms, packed up their belongings, and pooled their money to hire transportation to the nearest railways hubs. Whether in Chennai, Mumbai, Bengaluru or Gurugram, an eerily similar story is playing out across the country.

“I had applied to get a pass to travel to Bihar by train,” said Manmohan Bajpayi, a migrant worker employed in the auto-industry hub of Manesar in Haryana. “We got a message from the Haryana government to show up at 10 am at Gurgaon’s Tau Devilal Stadium on Monday. There are 50-60 migrants who got the same message to show up at the stadium.”

A family from Rewari in Bihar wait in Gurugram's Tau Devi Lal stadium.

A non-profit organisation, Safe in India, hired six buses to take 150 migrants to the stadium. After they reached the stadium, however, Haryana officials told the group there was no space for them on the train leaving for Bihar. They were handed a bottle of water each and made to sit on the side of the road outside the stadium for hours. Nearly 800 people people were stranded in and around the stadium.

Eventually, all six buses came back to Manesar. Before leaving for the stadium, Bajpayi had settled all his dues and vacated the room in which he had been staying. Now, he has nowhere to live. “I am calling a friend to see if he will take me in,” he said around 9 pm on Monday. “I am very upset.”

Confusion and anger

Back in Chennai, outside Gate 1 of the Nehru stadium, 700 migrants from Bihar staged a sit-in a week ago, desperate to go home. Workers had heard that if they showed up outside the stadium early enough, a train back home was guaranteed. “We wanted to give them something to eat but they were frustrated after waiting for a long time, they pushed into the courtyard of the stadium demanding to get on a train,” said Isvaran. The workers had just had enough.

“There was another group that took a vow to eat only after boarding a train,” Isvaran said. “This group had been shuttled from one shelter to another for days and promised that a train would show up soon.”

Volunteers said that the arbitrary train schedule has caused many problems. “We will get a call from the GCC [Greater Chennai Corporation] or the Railway officials to gather 300 people to put them on a train,” said a volunteers. “We will get them ready, half an hour later, we will be told this train isn’t running today. Then another 15 minutes will pass, and the plan is back on.”

The volunteer added: “Imagine the psychology of these people. They have been treated like sub-humans all this time. They have been stranded on roads, beaten up, they don’t have proper shelter, food or means to get back home.”

Migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh head to Chennai Central Station. Credit: PTI

At the end of April, the Tamil Nadu government set up web portals seeking information from people stranded in the state who wanted to return to their homes. Thousands of migrant workers across the state registered on the site punching in their names, Aadhaar and mobile numbers.

A month and half later, mistaking SMSes confirming their registration for a guaranteed berth on a train, many have hiked to Chennai. A volunteer with the Chennai Migrant Task Force said the overwhelming feeling among migrants is “come what may, we want to go home!”

“What has happened in the past month is they have been trying to register themselves online for a travel pass,” the volunteer said. “At least 60% showed me SMSes that read ‘your application has been submitted’ and only 1%-2% have received an SMS that says ‘Your train is today. Report in this area at this time.’”

This influx of migrants is straining systems in Chennai at a time when the city is seeing the number of Covid-19 cases skyrocketing every day. “The state government took responsibility for paying all the train fares,” said Meghanath Reddy, Deputy Commissioner, Revenue and Finance, in the Greater Chennai Corporation. “As this started happening and the word started spreading, we found another wave of people coming from various directions in the city.”

Reddy added: “We felt rather than these people getting stranded somewhere, glad they are coming into our fold. But this is putting pressure on the existing system since one train only takes about 600 people. Since we can’t send all of them at once, we direct them to the nearest relief centres. Whenever there is a next train, we send them home.”

Workers wait for a train near Chennai Central Station. Credit: PTI

‘Give us information’

S Balasubramaniam, a volunteer with the NGO Feed Chennai, said the urge to go home is understandable. “What is the point of staying back if you don’t see a silver lining?” he asked. He and his team had helped distribute cooked food to at least 1,500 people at various shelters in the city until the municipal corporation stepped in. “If migrants are stranded on any roads, the least GCC or the police can do is take them to a proper shelter and give them proper food or help us in doing it,” Balasubramaniam said. “People like us are ready to do it. Give us access, most importantly gives us information.”

Balasubramaniam has been out on the streets for 70 days so far. A volunteer during the 2004 tsunami, and the 2015 Chennai floods, he feels strongly that a disaster management group formed by the government and assisted by NGOs has to be better coordinated. “If not, we are going to keep facing this each time,” he said.

Though the stress of emergency responses can lead to frayed relationships, there have been moments of endearing friendships formed between members of Chennai’s civil society and the state’s migrants workers. “Our first point of contact with migrants was on the phone when we helped with translations,” said Isvaran. “Once we are available, one person from Bihar will tell the next and soon you are the Bihari madam. I am the Jharkhand madam and someone else is the UP madam. The least we could do was really listen to them. That is why even today we get phone calls much after people have returned homes to let us know they are ok.”

In a village in Bihar, 22-year-old Rajan who used to stitch bags in North Chennai’s Manali for more than three years, said he was happy to be home. “I really haven’t thought about what work I will do next,” he said. “I just got back home last night, I want to enjoy the feeling.”