Hit By Tragedy, Amritsar’s Migrant Workers Back to Everyday Labour

Amongst many who died in Amritsar's Joda Phatak area on Dussehra, were migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who left their families behind in search of a better life. However, in light of the local DMU train killing at least 60 people on 19 October, the workers find themselves in a helpless position. Visibly shaken and without support systems, many have lost sleep.

"Whenever I hear the train pass, I wake up drenched in sweat," Naresh Paswan, 48, from Pachamba village in Bihar's Begusarai district told The Quint.

Paswan, 48, lives in Amritsar’s Joda Phatak with two children, Kajal (12) and Rohit (10) and his wife Lalita Devi.

While the train tragedy haunts the migrant workers in Amritsar, their lives of want leave them with no option but to continue work, taking the same rail tracks for their everyday commute.

Leaving Home to Make Ends Meet

Paswan has rented out one room for Rs 1,200 a month in a eight-room quarters on the first floor of a landlord's home. He is the only working member and has two jobs. He drives a rickshaw and makes mattresses, earning roughly Rs 9,000 a month.

Paswan shows us the various things he collects, including plastic and cardboard that help him make mattresses.

He narrowly escaped the tragedy that night, he says. "We were all standing on the railway tracks when Lalita said, ‘let us go inside.’ It had been a couple of minutes since we went inside and suddenly we heard screams. We looked on the right and saw bodies fly," he says while cupping his palm over his eyes as if to unsee what he did.

When Lalita took them all in, by happenstance their 33-year-old neighbour, Sham Dulari, also joined them. They live in the same quarters adjacent to each other.

While most Punjabis and locals have a concrete home in Amritsar’s Joda Phatak, the migrant workers either live in small homes or in rented accommodation of the locals. This is one such rented housing.

Hailing from UP's Gorakhpur district, Dulari was alone when the accident happened. Her husband Shranan Yadav was back in his hometown, visiting his family over the Dussehra weekend. Dulari and Yadav have three children, two girls and a boy, who stay in Uttar Pradesh with Yadav’s mother and younger brother.

When Dulari called her eldest daughter to tell her about the tragedy, she says her daughter found her words incredulous. "She thought, 'my mother is uneducated, she does not know what she is talking about’" says Dulari and adds that that’s when she asked her to switch the TV on. "My youngest daughter called and cried. She asked why are you so far away, I didn't know what to say," she says, almost tearing up. She meets her children three times a year.

While most people migrate with family members, there are others who set out alone to earn a livelihood. One such person is 18-year-old Sooraj who left Unnao district in Uttar Pradesh to make money when he was all of 12 . "Paisa kamane aaye hain, ghar banana hain humein (I have come here to make money, want to construct a home for myself)," he said.

The youngest of three brothers, he left Unnao for lack of work. He makes nails for a living, which fetches him Rs 6,000 a month. He stays with four friends in a one-room rented accommodation, for which he pays Rs 850 as rent. "Ghar pe bohut berozgaari hain. Har mahine mein Rs 1,000-Rs 1,500 toh bhejna hota hain. (There are no working opportunities at home. I have to send Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 every month."

Also from Uttar Pradesh is 50-year-old Hanuman Prasad, who has been living in Amritsar for a decade. However, since the accident, he has not spoken to his mother or two brothers. "I have not spoken to them but I am guessing someone from the family has," he said.

For two days after the accident he preferred to not go out and meet people. Three days later, he visited his old landlord's home. "I had to get out and ask if they were alright. This has not been an easy time for anyone," he said.

'Want to Go Back Home, But Cannot'

For Paswan, back home in Bihar are his father, sister and his 28-year-old son. "I have not told them what happened, have not spoken to my family. I took someone's phone and told a door ka bhai (a distant relative) close to Delhi, and he must have told them," he says.

Paswan works as a rickshaw driver during the day. He makes at most Rs 200 a day, he said.

His family works in the fields but while expenses have increased, revenue has not. Therefore, Paswan’s earnings count a lot.

"I am shattered by what has happened. I had fever for three days and my children are still not eating properly. I am waiting for my family to call me home, I will go back if they do," Paswan said, his tone reflecting flickering hope.

Of the Rs 10,000 that Sham Dulari's husband earns from working at a gurudwara, not only do they send money for their three children but for their mother-in-law too.

Sham Dulari, who was alone when the accident happened has not met a member of her family yet. Her husband is yet to be home and her children live away.

"Saas maangti rehti hain, poochti rehti hain paise kahaan gaye. Unka pati nahi rahaan to bete se hi toh maangegi (My mother-in-law keeps asking for money, she keeps asking where the money is being spent. She does not have a husband so she asks her son for money),” she said, visibly troubled by this equation.

She says she wants to go back but sits here instead, out of helplessness.
Unlike Paswan and Sham who want to go back, Sooraj doesn’t. Nor does his elder brother ask him if he wants to. "‘Are you alright?’ my brother asked once. We talk twice or thrice a month when needed," he said.

‘Despite Risks, Will Cross The Railway Tracks Again’

All of the migrant workers The Quint spoke to said despite the tragedy they will continue to use the tracks. "I have to make money. I am not scared of using the tracks," Paswan said. While currently there is heavy security which is expected to be in place at least till 26 October, everyone is waiting for them to move.

The track on the extreme left with most people standing on it is where the train crossed at a speed of 91 km per hour, killing at least 60 people on Dussehra.

Prasad said he will use this route again, “This is not the first accident that has happened on the tracks and I promise it will not be the last. If these people really cared about the lives of people lost, why have they not made an alternate route yet?” he asked. “Do our lives not matter?” he says.

Prasad is in his old landlord’s home here. For a decade he lived with them but recently constructed a small room for himself and his family.

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