Monday, May 25, 2020

Mubarakpur by-pass, Bhopal. Lockdown Day 53.

A lot has been written about the lockdown in the wake of the Covid19 pandemic, and I skip reading many such articles now. A surfeit of medical, non-medical and epidemiological articles in the papers, on email, and on WhatsApp makes me sick of the virus and the disease. The fear of the virus has been overtaken by the guilt, the worry, the helplessness of seeing lakhs of our fellow citizens - men, women, children, elderly , handicapped - trying to reach home any way they can. I am in awe of their endurance and determination, even as I am ashamed that we have brought them to this - forcing them to walk, cycle, hitch a dangerous ride - at the height of a scorching Indian summer, just because we as a nation did not care enough to plan better or to execute a plan to get them home in dignity. 

I learn from a friend about an organization in Bhopal that is helping citizens walking home on the highway outside the city. The Jamaat-e-Islami Hind in Bhopal has been active since the day following the lockdown (over 60 days now), feeding people who have lost jobs and their means of earning a livelihood. These include daily wage labourers, rag-pickers, the disabled, among others. At present they cook and distribute over 10,000 meals a day. 

The city is under a strict lockdown. My colleague and I have lockdown passes for work among the slums in Bhopal. We go one afternoon to observe the work being done by the Jamaat volunteers at the Mubarakpur bypass and to see whether and how we can help. We reach the highway at 4.30 pm . The worst of the heat of the day has passed, but it is still extremely hot and oppressive, like being in an oven. The hot air stings my eyes and dries my lips in no time. The highway has no trees left after six-laning, and a few thorny shrubs on the roadside offer patchy shade, if any. The Jamaat volunteers have put up a small shamiana on the roadside,and food and water is spread out on tables under it. As it is the month of Ramzan, all the volunteers are observing roza, and do not consume even water during the day. Frankly, this level of discipline amazes me: to not drink water through the day in this scorching heat and to continue to work, requires a level of will-power and faith that I am afraid I do not have.

I have taken a few first aid kits with me to the highway: bags with ORS packets, dressing materials, Band-Aid strips, paracetamol tablets for fever, a bar of soap, and a bottle of Savlon. My colleague has brought along packets of biscuits. We wait in the scorching sun, feeling self-conscious. We look like who we are - privileged enough to live through a prolonged lockdown (it is day 53) without a problem; to be able to hire a taxi to take us from our homes to this highway.

A steady procession of trucks (large and small), small pickup vans, autorickshaws, motorcyles, all go by. Today the traffic is mostly from Gujarat, though there are quite a few vehicles from Maharashtra too. Each is packed beyond capacity by workers returning home, sometimes with families. 

As the vehicles stop at the Jamaat stall, the volunteers on the ground rush to them with packets of food, biscuits, and sachets of water. Throwing up sachets to reach men sitting on the roof of the truck above the driver's cabin; or in the truck (the driver would rarely allow the passengers to alight) has been honed to a fine art by the volunteers. Since there have been many people on foot whose slippers had broken or had worn out, a sack of new footwear in all sizes is also available for those who needed a replacement pair.

I go up to the driver of any vehicle that stops, and hand over the first aid kit, explaining what each item in it was for. In all cases, they listen attentively and store the kit carefully, and I sincerely hope they will not need to use it.  One has heard of so many road accidents and deaths of the returning workers. In most such accidents, my little kit will be of very limited use.

I soon run out of the kits I have taken with me, and spend the rest of the time talking to some of the people who I meet. Most of the vehicles from Gujarat are from Surat, and I feel a kinship with them, recognising many of the places they work in: Ved Road, Anjani, Diamond Nagar.

Komal Prasad and other textile workers from Surat head to Allahahabad
This mini-truckload of textile industry workers - weavers, embroidery workers, textile market workers, are headed from Surat to Allahabad (nobody calls it Prayagraj). Komal Prasad who is seated is older than the others, spends his day folding sarees in the textile market and says he will not return to Surat. Eighteen years there is enough, he feels. The rest of the men say they will return as soon as work resumes. Komal modifies his statement - well, maybe next year, he says, but certainly not this year. 
None of them has been paid since March - not even for the 24 days before the lockdown on March 25th. Their names appeared on the list of train passengers four times but each time they were told it was a mistake - they are convinced the tickets were sold to someone else at a higher price. They themselves have paid Rs. 1500 each to an agent to get a ticket. Now 48 of them have each paid Rs. 3500 for standing (and occasionally sitting) in this mini-truck for the journey home. 
I tell them about Aajeevika Bureau, the organization that works with migrant labour and provides legal support in issues like non-payment of wages, or compensation for injuries; and about their office at Katargam Darwaza in Surat. Komal and two of his friends note down the number of the office and of the co-ordinator there. When they return they may visit the office to ask about how to get their pending wages, and any other problems they may have. 

Nallasopara to Sultanpur by road. The Jamaat stall in the background
These two friends set off on a motorcycle from Bombay to Sultanpur. The person in the helmet works at wiring buildings in Nallasopara, and informs me they will return to Bombay once things "settle down". They have been on the road since the previous evening. 

More textile mill workers from Surat's Diamond Nagar head to UP.
Meanwhile, several other trucks passed by from Gujarat, like this one. These textile workers live in Diamond Nagar in Surat, and are headed to Allahabad. 60 of them have paid Rs. 3100 each to travel in this truck.The day after they left, fellow workers in Diamond Nagar protested about wanting to go home, resulting in a police lathi-charge in which a worker from Odisha died.

Anand, walking from Kalyan to Damoh.
Anand looks remarkably cheerful for someone walking with his family from Kalyan to Damoh district in Madhya Pradesh. When I saw him he was barefoot as his slippers had broken on the way. Perhaps his cheerful look is because he has got a brand new pair from the the Jamaat stall. 

The Jamaat is very well organized here - tables with water sachets that have been chilled with ice; fresh food brought in every few hours, with spiced puris and pickle packets provided for dinner as well. The young volunteers are tireless, and the stall runs day and night. Sometimes there is a treat - someone in the city donates bananas or cucumbers and so these are distributed as well. 

The heat grows more oppressive as the sky grows overcast. I perspire freely and take a drink of warm water from my water bottle. It does not quench my thirst. A sudden heavy shower begins just as this truck from Surat arrives. The passengers try to shelter under a tarpaulin sheet while also collecting water and food. Everyone collects as much water as they can. 

These images are repeated many times - autos from Gujarat, as well as a truck full of workers from Gujarat that comes through the checkpost at the Mubarakpur bypass. Almost all are going to UP and Bihar. 

Chandra Bhan (in yellow gamcha) and his friend head from Ahmedabad to UP.
Chandra Bhan and his friend are both diamond polishers who work in Ahmedabad, now heading home to UP on their motorcycle. We will return, said both, when things are more settled, and we know what is going to happen. Things are very uncertain at present.

Muskaan and Rubina with their father Kamal Hassan.

As it gets dark, I meet Kamal Hassan and his two daughters - Muskaan and her older sister Rubina, all headed from Kalyan to Gorakhpur on their motorcycle. He says he is very fortunate that he has his own means of transport. His wife died some years ago, he tells me. 

I am relieved to find only two families still going home on foot in the time I am there. Apparently the previous week, the majority of people were walking home. Now they are in their autorickshaws (from Surat and Bombay), motorcycles, small pickup vans, trucks. What is better - to risk your life standing in a crowded truck, baking in the sun for three days, with a likelihood of fatal accidents, or to embark on what should be considered a death walk in the summer heat, dodging police checkposts, uncertain of where you will find water and food? Why am I even asking myself these questions? A person will take the best option he or she has. Lucky enough to have family who can send across money to buy standing room on a truck? - it is quicker. Too poor to do so? - you walk. 

The past few weeks find me distracted. How can I help more directly, in addition to monetary support to organizations that are providing food and drink to the people migrating home? How has the lockdown affected them - physically, emotionally, mentally, and how can I make amends? My big regret from today is that I did not take down any of their mobile numbers, so I cannot find out whether or not they reached their homes safely. 

The biggest migration since partition, is what some have called it - this movement of our workforce, of the drivers of our cities, heading back to their villages.