Mumbai's migrant workers enlist tempos to reach UP, lose last of their money to conniving drivers at Thane checkpost
Maharashtra government has also been running buses for migrant workers up to the state border. According to a policeman at the Kharegaon checkpost, the source states are supposed to make further arrangements for their travel. Hundreds, if not thousands, kept pouring into the Kharegaon checkpost in the hope to catch the bus.
When Vidyanand Gupta's auto rickshaw crossed the toll plaza, a policeman extended his arm and asked him to pull over. The auto was packed. Two kids — aged 7 and 9 — sat in the back with their mother. Two gunny bags and a sack were crammed with them. In the front seat, a pitcher was kept next to Vidyanand.
"What is it?" asked the policeman. "Water," said a flustered Vidyanand, unconvincingly. "Take a sip," said the policeman. Vidyanand didn’t know what to do. The pitcher contained petrol.
Vidyanand's family decided to drive their own auto rickshaw back home to Chandauli in Uttar Pradesh — 1500 kilometers from where they were stopped at a checkpost in Kharegaon, Thane.
After 45 days of lockdown, 40-year-old Vidyanand only had Rs 2,000 left with him. "There is no clarity on how long the lockdown would go on,” he said. “We survived until now. But we thought we should use the last 2000 rupees to get back home, where we have a farmland. At least there is an assurance of two meals a day in the village."
Rekha, his wife, said their landlord has been kind to them by not asking for rent since the lockdown. “But there are electricity bills to pay, meals to arrange,” she said. “I am a housewife. Our only source of income is the money my husband makes by driving an auto in Mumbai. With the lockdown, he can’t do that anymore. Lately, we, including our children, have not even managed to get two meals a day.”
At the Kharegaon checkpost, the police pulled up an auto almost every three minutes. All of them heading to various states in North India. “We know several auto drivers who have driven to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh from Mumbai,” said Vidyanand. “After asking a few questions, the police lets you go. We have not committed any crime. We are going home. We will reach slowly over the next five-six days.”
On 29 April, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order allowing the movement of migrant labourers stuck away from home amidst the outbreak of coronavirus.
To get back home, the migrant workers in Maharashtra are supposed to collect a form from the local police station, fill up their details and the destination state. Once they submit it, they wait for the call from the police station. But the workers have been running out of patience as they have no faith in the authorities.
Maharashtra government has also been running buses for migrant workers up to the state border. According to a policeman at the Kharegaon checkpost, the source states are supposed to make further arrangements for their travel. Hundreds, if not thousands, kept pouring into the Kharegaon checkpost in the hope to catch the bus. Tanned and exhausted, the workers sat in a queue with their worn out bags, sparingly drinking from their last bottle of water. Men, women and children; all hoping to get in the bus.
However, the buses were far and few considering the number of people waiting to return. There also was no method to this madness — buses were taking passengers on first-come-first-serve basis. The buses weren't divided state-wise. Those who were lucky, got in. Others adopted different modes of transport to get back home. An auto rickshaw was just one of them.
On Saturday, a group of workers at the Kharegaon checkpost were on bicycles heading back to a village in Odisha, over 1,100 kilometers away from Mumbai. "We had a little bit of money left, and we asked our people back home to send some,” said one of them. "We bought bicycles for Rs 4,000. At least, we would be on the move, instead of being stuck."
Several migrant workers heading back at this stage of the lockdown are slightly better off than the ones who left in the earlier stages. Some of them have been lucky to have had a kind landlord not pressing for rent. They have run out of steam after surviving 40 days of the lockdown without work. But the uncertainty of being able to get back home has made them restless. Some have exploited the condition that the workers are in to mint money.
A few kilometres before Kharegaon toll plaze, scores of trucks, tempos and vans are seen parked along the highway, with people crammed inside the vehicle leaving for different states, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand.
The truck drivers, who are also migrant workers stuck in Mumbai, are charging the labourers anywhere between Rs 3,000 to 4,000 to ferry them back to their villages. Many of the labourers have borrowed money from friends and family back home to pay for their travels. One truck carries, at least, 50 people if not more.Essentially, the truck driver has made Rs 1.5-2 lakh ferrying hapless workers, some of which he would use for fuel and bribes on the way.
To circumvent the police en-route, the truck driver stops about 100 meters before the checkpost. The workers disembark and cross over on foot. Meanwhile, the empty truck crosses the checkpost and the workers get back in again. Unfortunately, several poor workers have been duped in these trying circumstances.
Mistrilal, and 12 of his friends, all of them construction workers, left from Andheri at 4 am on Sunday and started walking towards Thane. At Powai, they met a tempo driver who offered to drop them to the Allahabad border. It worked beautifully for them, for they wanted to get to Rewa in Madhya Pradesh, which shares a border with Allahabad. "He first asked for Rs 3,000 per head," said Mistrilal. "I only had Rs 2,000. We settled at Rs 1,500. I was left with Rs 500 only for food and water."
About 10 kilometers later at the next toll booth, the driver asked them to get off. But instead of picking them up at the other side of the toll, he took a U-turn and fled. Mistrilal could not hold back his tears.
"We walked the rest of the way," he said. He had walked 16 hours with blisters on his feet. By the time he reached Kharegaon toll, the state buses had stopped running. "We will sleep here tonight," he said, sweating, pointing towards a corner in the street. “We will try our luck with the bus tomorrow morning.”
Mistrilal was exhausted. But some of the workers decided to proceed on foot till wherever they could. With their belongings on their head and children on their shoulders, they walked with little assurance of reaching the destination they desired.
Their desperation to head back home also underscores the importance of social security. The pandemic has reinstated that cities may provide economic opportunity but don’t always provide social security for migrant workers.
Savita, 32, who had been walking with her three-year old daughter on her shoulder for 14 hours, said the contractor that usually employs her, had switched off his phone since lockdown. “I have been left to fend for myself,” she said. “How will I feel secure at a place where my employer abandoned me?”
She has to get back to Washim, about 580 kilometers from Mumbai, in Maharashtra’s agrarian region of Vidarbha. “We come to Mumbai because we have no work back home, and our livelihoods in rural areas have been destroyed,” said Savita. “But it is still home. Villages are close-knit communities. We look after each other. I might come back to Mumbai when all of this is over. But I don’t belong here.”
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