With migrant labourers leaving for their abode amid lockdown, CVs have come to support their journey amid numerous challenges.
Story by Deepti Thore
The story of two youths on a truck from Surat to their home-village in Bihar made news when they were forced to desert the truck after one of them took ill and passed away in the lap of his friend. Trucks and buses have been supporting the mass exodus of migrant labourers from across the industrial and urban regions of India as they make their way home to villages in rural belts in the absence of employment and an ability to make a living. In the absence of recent data on the movement of migrant labourers in the country, the data from 2011, which put the number at 45.36 crore (roughly 37 per cent of the country’s population) should provide an idea. With doors of houses in lower middle-class localities in urban centres like Mumbai and Surat flaunting padlocks, bylanes after bylanes and lanes after lanes, the mass exodus of migrant workforce has been termed as the most intense human movements after independence.

Supporting such movement, CVs have ironically come to play a vital role as state governments and the Central Government strive to run special ‘Shramik’ trains across the country in a bid to address the travel needs of the migrant workforce amid the deadliest of pandemics. The early news warranting the use of CVs for travel over short and long distances as drivers ferried harassment from authorities began trickling in the later part of April. With state borders closed and cops known to beat those walking on foot or travelling by other means like bicycles towards their villages in the remote countryside, stories of innovative travel ideas began coming to the fore. Migrant workforce travelling in an empty concrete mixer made the news when they were detected by authorities in a North Indian city in early May. Such instances clearly highlighted the plight of migrant workforce striving to reach their homes amid the lack of proper functioning of trains or buses.
Risking the wrath of authorities for carrying people aboard a truck since it is illegal, many CV drivers and operators, with the help of NGOs and good samaritans, did the best they could. Compelling some of the state governments to issue a circular of not penalising any vehicles found to be carrying migrant labourers in the state, it were the CVs that came to support the mass migration of migrant workforce and their families as they struggled to climb atop the trucks laden with essential goods, and the women and children into the driver’s cabin. While groups and groups of rickshaw and tempo drivers as well as operators made their way across 1500 and 2000 kms from various urban and industrial centres with their families, relatives and fellow villagers in tow, they highlighted how CVs found use for their journeys.
Reasoning that they were left with no money to support their stay in the urban and industrial centres after the third and consequently the fourth lockdown was implemented, those who travelled in rickshaws and tempos risked their lives and limbs, highlighting in the process the state of the nation’s economy amid rising cases of Covid-19 being reported from almost every quarter of the country. While many complained of not getting adequate support from government agencies, leaving them with little choice but to head back home, knowing fully well the consequences of the same, CVs turned out to be reluctant choice as most migrant labourers and their families took to walking on roads — often in the dead of the night with children and whatever little belongings they could carry, as many drivers seeing the plight could not resist from helping them. Having run out of money to buy train or bus tickets even if they were to ply, and they did in the form of ‘Shramik’ trains when a realisation was had that it was impossible to stop or overlook the mass migration of migrant workforce, it were trucks that came to play a vital role.

Consider this: Gurminder Singh, a small fleet operator relentlessly arranged the transport for migrant workers and their families on National Highway 19 for days together with fellow samaritans by flagging down trucks, finding out what direction they were headed in, and then convincing the drivers. Identifying a group of migrant labourers and their families walking towards their villages in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh at night, Singh put them on a Tata 2515 laden with essential goods headed in that direction. Not leaving them at that, he requested the driver to ensure that they were made to feel safe. The men lay on the goods, holding onto the ropes securing the cargo for dear life whereas the women and small children took shelter in the driver’s compartment. To many, sights such as these resembled the migration of people after Independence.
Many like Singh came out of their homes and risked getting infected with the sole intention of facilitating the safe travel of migrant labourers to their villages having left with little money and a means to stay on at the place of their work. Navin set out on foot from Pune after losing all hopes of earning money (and left with hardly any) for his village in Parbhani district. In his 360 km journey, he was helped by lorry drivers. Some charged him a nominal amount and some simply took him over a certain distance without charging a penny. Recounting the story of his journey from Delhi where he worked in a restaurant, Sonu began walking towards his village in Darbhanga District of Bihar after the third lockdown was announced. He started his journey along with a few fellow villagers who like him were doing jobs in Delhi and no longer found any hope in staying back in the absence of any money or any help. After walking for about 150 km, often in the dead of the night to hoodwink authorities and escape from their lathis, Sonu’s group were asked by a lorry driver if he could help. Risking his smooth passage, the driver ferried the group to the outskirts of Lucknow without charging a single penny. We saw God in him and his truck as his chariot, expressed Sonu.
With an estimated 139 million migrants in the country, according to statistics shared by WE forum in 2017, and of which around 40 million have been severely impacted in this lockdown, it is CVs — trucks, buses, tempos and rickshaws — that have come to the rescue. While a study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and Azim Premji University in 2019 has put the number of daily wage labourers in India’s big cities to 29 per cent of the population, some indication of the nature of the mass migration of migrant labourers could be had. Amplified by the fact that the labourers had their families in tow as they began their arduous journey to their villages, the migration swelled enough to be compared with the mass movement of people just after Independence in 1947, mentioned an observer. He drew attention to a statistics that indicated that close to 43 per cent of Delhi’s population consisted of migrants, over half of them hailing from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
If the scene of migrant labourers crowing at the Anand Vihar bus stand in Delhi without observing social distancing norms in their struggle to leave the mega city behind made big news in March, buses, it soon became apparent, have come to play a key role in the transportation of migrant workforce. They have supported the movement of migrant workforce from their pads in various corners of cities and industrial centres to stations from where the ‘Shramik’ trains leave; in transporting travellers from airports to their homes; in mass evacuation of people from ‘red zones’ in cities; in the safe passage of students stranded in other cities; in the safe passage of migrant workers to their home regions and villages, and in transporting essential services personnel to their respective destinations.
In the statement issued by the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC), it has ferried more than one lakh migrants by adhering to the guidelines. MSRTC also arranged a few buses to ferry students preparing for competitive exams at Jalgaon to be ferried to their respective districts. The Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh governments are known to have arranged 1000 buses each to transport migrants to their villages. As the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued an order allowing inter-state movement of stranded migrant labourers, students, and tourists, four days before the second phase of lockdown was scheduled to end, the role of buses in ferrying the migrant workforce gained more traction. Actor Sonu Sood arranged 21 buses to ferry migrant labourers from Mumbai to Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh a few days ago. He, in association with his friend, facilitated the travel of 750 migrants to the two states. Not stopping at that, the actor and his friend arranged another 10 buses to ferry migrants to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Seeking clearances from West Bengal, Jharkhand and Assam, the duo arranged yet another 100 buses with about 35 passengers in each bus for migrants from Mumbai.

While a war of words broke out between the Congress party and the UP Government, an estimated 1000 buses are said to have been put into action to ferry migrant workers from various regions like Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan to their home-regions and villages with adherence to guidelines like social distancing. Coming to display an amount of sensitivity after seeing the seemingly unstoppable mass migration, many state governments have directed its authorities to provide as much help as possible. They have been directed by the respective state governments to provide migrants with food and water. District magistrates have been told to look into the process of addressing the pressing needs of the migrants. In a rare feat, Punjab finance minister flagged off 80 (PRTC and PUNBUS) buses to Nanded in Maharashtra to safely retrieve about 3500 sikh pilgrims stranded at the Hazur Sahib gurudwara. Having two drivers per bus, each bus carried 30 passengers as per the social distancing norms laid down by the government. Sanitisation of the buses was resorted to as per the norms laid down as well.
Many states arranged for buses to bring back students stranded at various locations in the country. Kota in Rajasthan, which has come to be a centre for students attempting civil services exams, saw many buses from various states arriving to fetch their students. Delhi is known to have sent some 40 buses. Some 70 buses are known to have been arranged by Maharashtra. Uttar Pradesh is known to have arranged some 250 buses to Kota. To ferry migrant workers and their families, a number of private buses are known to have plied between Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and a few other states to places like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand.
As the fourth phase of the lockdown gets over, many private and public bus operators are looking at restoring their services. While players like SRS Travels of Bangalore has put in place a queue system at its stops to adhere to social distancing guidelines and issued a note for each passenger to ensure health safety when travelling on its buses, most private and public bus operators are known to be chalking plans to ensure strict following of health safety guidelines in the post-lockdown scenario. Attention is on how the situation improves, the Covid-19 drops, and trade and other activities gain force. The good part is, most bus operators are confident of people coming back to them after the lockdown is over to address their travel needs.

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