Around 32 migrant labourers, including women and children, were packed on a truck like sardines in a tin can and covered by a tarpaulin, as the vehicle stopped at a compressed natural gas (CNG) pump for a refill at Lucknow’s Gomtinagar around midnight on Tuesday.
The labourers were trying to evade the 21-day nationwide lockdown enforced since March 25 to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak. They were travelling on a truck with a Delhi registration number to their native villages in violation of the strictly enforced social distancing norms to combat the contagious viral outbreak.
The labourers, who were travelling at the dead of night would have got away unnoticed, had it not been mandatory for all passengers to get off their vehicle at a CNG pump for a refill.
The migrants were employed at a Delhi factory and whiled away their time chatting among themselves during the refill. Some even lit up their beedis during the brief timeout. A few children in the group gawked wide-eyed, as their parents stretched themselves out in the open.
Some of the labourers were wearing masks, but most were ignorant of the threats that their travel posed to them and the community at large.
Vijay, who identified himself as the leader of the group, said, “It’s been two days since we left Delhi. We managed to enter UP, despite the border being sealed because we knew alternative routes to sneak in. We’ve managed to reach Lucknow with great difficulty. We didn’t choose to leave Delhi. The factory, where we worked, has shut. We’re left high and dry without any food, water and other essential commodities. We’ve somehow managed to come this far and now not too far from our destination,” he said.
“I belong to Bhatpura village in Barabanki district. Please call me later. I will answer whatever you want me to ask, but right now we need to reach our villages safe,” he said as the truck hurriedly sped away after the refill, barely before he could share his mobile phone number with the reporter.
He responded to the call only once since the last conversation at the dead of night.
Asked over the phone, how they were doing and how did his neighbours treat them, he said, “All of us are doing well and are quarantined at our homes.”
He, however, glossed over whether they have been discriminated by their neighbours.
“Well, there are all kinds of people in a village. Some would say whatever they want to. The gram pradhan knows that we’re back at our homes,” he said.
“I will call you later,” he said before disconnecting the phone. Neither did he call back, nor answered his phone later.
Crazy rush for govt buses
There has been a mad scramble for buses ever since the UP government announced that it would provide transport facilities to ferry stranded migrant labourers back home. The rush is palpable from Lucknow to Bahraich and from Barabanki to Bualandshahr. The migrants, who have defied the lockdown with impunity because of the sudden loss of livelihood and depleted savings, travelled hundreds of kilomteres by foot in a bid to reach their native villages. Most of them claim they are not aware of community kitchens and the financial help announced by the UP government for the daily wagers. Consider the case of an eight-month pregnant woman, who accompanied by her labourer husband, travelled around 500 kilometres from Delhi to Mahoba on foot to reach her native village. The desperate movement is fraught with fears of community transmission of Covid-19, which the Central government is still maintaining hasn’t reached that stage yet.
Local youths at Prahladpur and Dhikoli villages in western UP’s Baghpat district have taken the responsibility to check the entry of outsiders.
“If they’re from our villages, we’ll ensure that they are quarantined for 14 days as advised by the government,” said Mahendra, a village youth.
UP chief secretary Rajendra Kumar Tiwari said hundreds and thousands of people from other states have entered the state. “We have set up over 300 shelter homes to screen migrant workers who are on their way back to their respective native villages,” he said.
“We’re appealing to them to stay wherever they are as chief minister Yogi Adityanath has spoken to his counterparts from other states to ensure that they’re safe. But for those who’ve travelled here, we’re making sure that they are screened and quarantined,” he added.