On Wednesday morning, three days after he had left from Goregaon, Lakshmi Morya reached Asaipur in Uttar Pradesh (UP) after having spent the last of his savings — ₹3,000 — to get a place on a truck crowded with migrant labourers and daily wagers. “It was a horrible journey,” said Morya, recalling how one of the 50-odd passengers fell off the truck and injured himself. These travellers are among the thousands of migrant workers who are leaving the city out of desperation, after the nationwide lockdown was imposed in March to contain the spread of Covid-19.
There are an estimated 6 lakh migrant workers in Maharashtra who have been given food and shelter in relief camps set up by the state government since March. For those who survive on daily wages and worked in cities like Mumbai, Thane, Pune, Nagpur, Nashik and Kolhapur, the lockdown has meant their sources of earning have dried up. During the lockdown, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region has witnessed an unprecedented reverse migration of labour. “With lockdown, there was no business or earning. There was no ration-paani to live by. At least in my village, I wouldn’t have to worry about the next meal,” said Mahfooz Husain, who worked as an autorickshaw driver in Mumbai and made a 60-hour journey to UP on Monday afternoon. He is now quarantined on the borders of his home in Tapni village and is not sure if he will return to Mumbai once the lockdown eases.
“The hardship with which people have left is disturbing. It could also mean that people will not want to return for a long time,” said Tahir Momin, a power loom owner and former legislator. Momin said in Bhiwandi, one of India’s largest textile hubs, approximately 70% of its labour force had left the state during the lockdown.
Despite some transport being arranged to take migrants back to home states, many feel they cannot afford to wait as long as it takes to avail the special train and bus services. “The entire stretch of the western express highway along Mira-Bhayander road is lined with migrant workers, most on foot, going home to UP, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar. They are carrying whatever little they have and walking with their families,” said Shailesh Mishra, a social worker who has been distributing food and water to labourers in the area.
On Thursday morning, hundreds of migrant labourers gathered on the highway in Kolhapur district and as the crowd swelled, police had to be deployed. Superintendent of police Abhinav Deshmukh said those who had gathered were not aggressive and were mostly labourers who had applied for seats on the Shramik Special trains that are returning migrants to their home states. “They were impatient because they were not allowed to travel but others, who were with them, had got to do so. So they took to the streets to demand [transportation],” said Deshmukh.
Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray has approved ₹54.75 crore from his relief fund for travel arrangements to take migrant labourers to their home states and bring back those from Maharashtra who are currently stranded elsewhere.
Shramik Special trains are plying from different cities in Maharashtra and Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) has arranged buses that take migrant labourers to state borders, free of charge. “We have so far taken 79,000 migrants up to our borders with Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, and Karnataka,” said MSRTC vice-chairman and managing director Shekhar Channe.
However, these options involve long waits. Autorickshaw driver Vijay Yadav, who wants to return to Jaunpur in UP, is waiting to hear back about his application for a seat on a Shramik Special train. “It’s been 15 days since I filled my form. I have no money, no food,” said Yadav.
For those who can afford to pay between ₹3,000 and ₹6,000, travel by truck seems the quickest option. Sunil Yadav, from the non-governmental organisation Pani Haq Samiti in Mumbai, said he sees two trucks filled with workers leave from Goregaon every day.
Sandeep Kumar, who has worked as a carpenter in Mumbai since 2015 and lived in Ghatkopar, said he and six others, walked from Ghatkopar to Thane from where they got on autorickshaws to Bhiwandi. At Bhiwandi, they were able to get passage on a truck, paying ₹3,000 per head. The journey to Hariya in UP took three days and in this time, Kumar ate twice.
“We saw a lot and struggled a lot even to reach back to our homes,” said Kumar, who is nevertheless relieved to be home. “I do not think I will return anytime soon to Mumbai. I will work in Hariya,” he said.
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