At the end of the road: Closed border, sleepless night

Sadaf Modak, Mohamed Thaver
Uddhav Thackeray, migrant labourers, Maharashtra-Gujarat border, coronavirus lockdown, indian express news

Migrants walk towards the Gujarat border on Mumbai-Surat highway on Saturday. (Photo: Amit Chakravarty)

Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray on Sunday made an appeal to migrant labourers on the move to stay put and assured them that the government was committed to ensuring their well being. However, for the 500 weary migrants, who had walked from Mumbai to reach Talasari at the Maharashtra-Gujarat border, Thackeray’s words rang hollow.

With the state having recorded 194 positive cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) as of Sunday, it was an uncomfortable night for the 500-odd migrants on green matted cloths, exposed to the elements at a makeshift holding centre outside a school with a swarm of mosquitoes for company.

“We reached here in the evening and were told that we cannot cross the border. We were given some food and made to sleep outdoors on a green cloth spread out on the ground. The children kept crying and none of us could sleep as there were many mosquitoes,” said Rajesh, a resident of Madhya Pradesh, who undertook the five-day journey back home to Jhabua district, along with six others, including his two-year-old son. The group of daily wage labourers, who usually found work at a naka in Virar, were out of work since the ‘Janata curfew’ and had run out of ration to sustain themselves. Rajesh said the food arranged by the authorities was not suitable for children and no arrangements were made for them.

Since Saturday, the authorities have been stopping people walking on the highway towards Gujarat and explaining to them that since the lockdown is in force, they cannot be allowed to go ahead. Many remained hopeful till Saturday night that some intervention from their states will allow them to go home.

On Sunday, the Ministry of Home Affairs directed all states to make adequate arrangements of temporary shelters and provision of food for migrant labourers stranded due to the lockdown. On Saturday, when the local authorities were asked about arrangements, as the objective of the lockdown is “social-distancing”, they said the classrooms of the school will be used for groups to stay in separately. The authorities also said they will arrange for stay in another school if there were space constraints. When asked on Sunday, Talasari tehsildar Swati Ghongde said they were asked to sleep on the open ground as space was limited. “We cannot move them to another school as it will be difficult to manage them. We are making arrangements for food. The women were given an option to sleep in two halls of the school with their children, but since they are amidst strangers, they chose to sleep out in the open,” Ghongde said.

The migrants, however, denied this. “There are 12 to 15 children. Arrangements should have been made for them, at least,” one of them said. Ghongde added that around 60 to 70 of the migrants chose to leave for Mumbai, while very few arrived on Sunday since they were being stopped at different checkpoints and told about the closed border.

“We were asked to sleep in the school ground at night. There were so many mosquitoes that we could hardly get any sleep,” said Yahya Sherasiya, one of the men at the school, along with a group of 20 others headed to Palanpur in Gujarat. The group, which consisted of migrants working at city hotels, decided to leave on Sunday morning to return to Mumbai. “We realised that there was no point in staying there anymore since we could not get entry into Gujarat. We started walking back to Mumbai. Along the way, people gave us a lift in their vehicles for some distance,” said Sherasiya, who works as a waiter at a Bandra eatery. He had not reached the city till 8 pm.

The eatery he worked at has been shut since the lockdown. Since he stayed in its premises, he had no place to live, prompting his decision to walk to Palanpur on Saturday. When asked about where he will stay on reaching Mumbai, he said, “I have no clue, I will reach there and request the restaurant owner to help me with accommodation.”

For many others, like Rajesh, who lived at a makeshift tent on the streets in Virar, or others who lived on construction sites, fear of police action and uncertainty of getting food, has made them helplessly stay on.

“We are hopeful that the government will show sympathy and allow us to go home. We cannot continue to live like this. Yeh bimaari nahin, toh kuch aur bimaari se mar jayenge (If not coronavirus, then we will die of some other disease),” said Sunil, another migrant from Rajasthan.