SAS NAGAR, Punjab: On Friday morning, 42-year-old Vijay Kumar, a contractual labourer, and his wife Jyoti were distraught as they pleaded with the Station House Officer (SHO) of Sohana village in Punjab. They couldn’t find their two daughters, Seema (7) and Preeti (9), who had been separated from them when a crowd gathered to board Shramik Special trains, meant for migrant workers, to Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
“We were here since 6 am. They were ahead of us in the waiting line and went inside the stadium for a medical check-up. I was told that they have boarded the bus to the railway station. I am pleading with the SHO to send us to the railway station to locate them or else they may board the wrong train,” Vijay told HuffPost India.
While Inspector Dalbir Singh, SHO of Sohana, agreed to let them go to the railway station to find the children, he made it clear that the couple couldn’t undergo the medical check-up to board the train as they hadn’t yet received a seat confirmation message from the district authorities. Sending children ahead separately, alleged Singh, was now a common way for desperate workers to try and board the train.
“They are very desperate to leave for their native place and hence send children separately to the railway stations. Later, they force us to help them unite with their children. Today, only 200 people were called to board the morning trains but instead, 2,000 people have reached the spot,” said Singh.
While the Union government and the opposition continue to spar over who is paying the fare for the workers to head back home, scenes of chaos have marked many railway stations in Punjab, a Congress-ruled state that has announced that it will not charge the travellers. Over the past two weeks, a surge of hopeful workers have showed up at the assigned spots to board trains every day.
However, not everyone is able to make the journey.
Instead of according priority to pregnant, old or ailing migratory workers on the Shramik trains, everyone has been asked to register themselves and wait for their turn patiently.
But the registration and confirmation messages sent to the workers are in Punjabi, creating huge confusion.
As per the protocol, as soon as migrant workers register to travel on a Shramik train, they receive a message on their registered mobile number. Later, they are supposed to get another message confirming the date and time of journey, following which they are asked to reach the nearby railway station for a medical check-up.
However, desperate workers unable to read the local language are thronging the railway station even if they have only received the first message, leading to huge crowds. Even worse, some workers have missed their trains as they could not decipher from the message when they were supposed to report at the station.
Punjab government sources say that the state is giving priority to those those who dialled the helpline number 112 to seek dry ration from their respective district administrations.
“The police went to every single house which had dialled the helpline number 112 and got the forms filled. While these people got the booking confirmed instantly, those who have registered through proper channels are still waiting for the confirmation SMS to be sent by their respective district administration,” said a top official on condition of anonymity.
As workers set off back home, owners of industrial units who were looking forward to resuming operations after the lockdown are concerned.
According to Narinder Singh Saggu, the president of Jalandhar Industrial Focal Point Extension, the move will cause a huge impact on the state economy.
“This has always been the season for the migratory force to leave for their native place for holidays. Since the state government has made travel free for these workers, those who were planning to stay here too are leaving. While 100 people got registered with us to work during the lockdown period, only 60 remained and remaining 40 have left in various Shramik trains in the last two days,” said Saggu who, along with many other industry associations in the state, have written to the Punjab Chief Minister to take back the decision.
But migrant workers across the country, who have been struggling due to lack of food and work during the past two months, feel let down by both politicians and their employers, and many are unsure when they will return.
Sushil Kumar, who was waiting at Sohana to board a train, told HuffPost India that the refrigeration unit he was working in has been shut down. While the unit is opening next week, he wants to go back home to stay with his parents.
“I had finished everything I saved in the last two months. I cannot afford to bear the rent and other expenses on my monthly salary. The company has asked us to join but announced a 30% cut in the monthly salary. How will I survive?” said Kumar, who hails from Bhagalpur in Bihar.
Geeta Rani from Ballia district in Uttar Pradesh was pleading with the cops to allow her family to leave as she was finding it difficult to survive without a job.
“Initially, a lot many people including religious institutions came forward to supply us with dry ration and cooked food. Now, the number has reduced drastically. Everywhere, there is a waiting line of hundreds of people ahead of me. Despite visiting the local administration office four times, I am not able to register myself for the Shramik train journey,” said Geeta Rani.
She has urged the authorities to at least allow her nine-month pregnant daughter to board the train without registration so that she can be taken care of by her family back home.