Sheikh Hassan hides the frustration on his face and talks loudly, his voice cutting through the honks and blares on the road so he could speak to this reporter.
The 31-year-old had arrived in Chennai in search of greener pastures five months ago. He got employed at an embroidery unit in Purasawalkam, where he earned daily wages and sent back some amount to his hometown - the remote South 24 Parganas near Howrah in West Bengal.
Despite the lockdown in March, Hassan narrates that he and seven other workers from his embroidery unit beat the odds to survive a month in the city. “It was like walking against a storm blowing at us and trying to remain standing,” he explains. The group had barely any income to cover the rent to pay for their rooms in Purasawalkam, cash to send back home and basic expenses to survive.
Hassan (white shirt) narrating his story outside Chennai Central
But stand they did, until the first week of May when their employer left the city in a train to Kolkata, paying them just 10 days of wages. The group then decided to give up their rented rooms and move to the Corporation’s migrant camp at Kannappar Thidal in Periamet.
“Before we ran out of money, we decided to go back home. We moved to the camp and began to look for trains at the station,” says 40-year-old Nizamuddin.
Over the last 30 days, the eight of them have registered multiple times at Tamil Nadu government website to return to their home state. “We have got many messages saying our registration has been submitted and there is a train to Kolkata. But when we rush to the station, we are turned away. ‘Train ille, po’ (No train, go) is what the police keep saying,” Hassan adds.
Hamidul SK, another member of their group showing the SMS he got in his phone
He says that every day since May 1, the group has been walking to the MGR Chennai Central railway station, waiting for a train to take them to Howrah. Every day to date, they have been turned away by the police.
The pandemic is a situation that they had willed themselves to face. But when fate deals one crushing blow after another without respite, it is sometimes difficult to want to keep fighting, says Nizam. On May 20, the group heard from their families that the Cyclone Amphan, which made landfall near Bakkhali in West Bengal, had battered their houses to bits. Bakkhali in South 24 Parganas is a three-hour drive from Nodakhali, their hometown.
“There is nothing left. The cyclone has blown away our houses and just left frames to live in. And now I am here with just Rs 70 and no way to get home,” he says.
Unable to board a train to take them to Howrah, they say that Chennai had closed in on them like a nightmare they could not exit.
“Now, the virus is the least of our concerns. It is about food, having no houses, and getting home no matter what,” says Nizam, explaining that the group ran away from the camp after May 20 and moved to the roads outside Chennai Central station.
With no money, they now visit the Amma Unavagam near the station for free breakfast and dinner and skip lunch. As on Monday, these canteens, too, have begun charging Rs 15 for three meals. Nights are worse as they sleep on plastic sheets in the by-lanes of Purusawalkam, and wake up with their skin on the burning gravel, breathing the smoke of the city.
The group has visited two police stations to provide their details and ID proof in order to board a train back home. “This was 10 days ago and we have not heard from the police,” says Nizam.
Hamidul with his Aadhar card, the details of which he has submitted at two police stations
‘Trains will run in the coming days’
Since May 9, the Tamil Nadu government has sent back over 98,000 migrant workers from Chennai to various states via the special Shramik trains. However, according to officials, the state has been facing a problem with respect to West Bengal.
“We have run only four trains to West Bengal in the last 21 days and have managed to send 6,540 migrant workers. Earlier, the West Bengal government had refused to issue no-objection certificates (NOCs) to us. Then, a new order from the Centre said that permission of receiving states are no longer required to run trains. Hence, we were able to arrange trains to West Bengal. However, on May 20, cyclone Amphan made landfall and the state had said they have logistical issues accommodating more incoming migrants,” Deputy Commissioner, Revenue and Finance, GCC, J Meghanath Reddy told TNM.
According to the the officer, 10 days after the cyclone, Tamil Nadu has managed to allot a few more trains to West Bengal, which will run in the coming days.
With a nodal officer assigned to each state, migrant workers who wish to leave to their home states are identified either by the police or the Greater Chennai Corporation from the government camps, converging points for migrant workers or through word of mouth.
“Police officials have been preparing lists of people who register at stations. Other times, when migrant workers converge and protest in large groups, we track them down, take their details and make lists. We have been working closely with an NGO to streamline the process,” he added.