15, Jun 2020 | CJP Team
Thirty-five-year-old Ganesh Yadav is an excellent cook, because it is what he enjoys the most. “It is my only skill,” says the modest father of three, “but it has helped me live a good life in Mumbai for almost 20 years.” Through good and bad, he forged a relationship with the city he came to, as a teenager looking for work, from Madhubani in Bihar. He does not remember that first train ride to Mumbai he took alone, but he will never forget the last train ride he took when leaving Mumbai last month.
Overnight, he had to pack up his papers, some clothes, biscuits for his three kids, and board the Shramik special train. His wife, Rattan Devi (30) and he carried a bag each, mostly clothes and the kids carried some of their things. The girls, Gauri (12), Gayatri (6) and Ganga (4 1/2) did not have time to pack their toys, or say goodbye to their friends. “We were told the night before that we had to report to the station at 10 am,” he remembers the scramble that happened as the family rushed to pack whatever they could. “We left most things behind. I handed the keys to my room to my landlord and told him I will be back. He said okay, but now I have to figure out how to pay him the rent that will add up for the coming months,” Ganesh’s thoughts are running in his head faster than the Shramik Special train did. It was a slow, uncomfortable, journey without enough water, food, even fans as the crowded train trudged its way through the most arid regions of the country in the peak of summer.
After the lockdown, many migrant labourers were forced to choose between two extremely difficult options; continue to stay in expensive cities where expenses kept mounting and income sources dried up, or go back home to their families in their villages, but face an uncertain economic future. While CJP has supplied rations and essentials to thousands of migrant labourers who both stayed on and some of those who left, our challenge is now, in a post lockdown solution, help find short and long term solutions, with them. Our series Migrant Diaries brings to you stories of the ordeals they were forced to face as they took an arduous journey back home, and some stories of those who stayed back. Please donate now to help our migrant brothers and sisters. CJP hopes to evolve collective solutions and programmes with them, in the coming weeks.
Ganesh is still grateful that he managed to board the train. He had wanted to send his family home even before the ‘junta curfew’ was announced on March 22 and had booked train tickets for everyone to travel on March 26. “We had heard there was a Coronavirus spreading in Mumbai and I wanted to send my family away to Bihar, to safety. I would have brought them back in June or July, in time for school to reopen,” says Ganesh, who planned ahead. But the sudden lockdown struck out of the blue and all trains were stopped. The family of five, was literally locked in their one room dwelling in Chitra Chawl, in the Nehrunagar area near Mithibai College. The police patrolled the streets once the lockdown was announced to make sure no one left the slum. “I did not want to get beaten up so I stayed indoors with my family. We would go to the paid toilet once or twice a day only. It was so tough to keep the little girls indoors, suffocating and hot. Earlier they could play outdoors, or go to the beach nearby,” he sounds like he and the family are missing the beach already. In his village home there is a power outage most of the day, but the kids do have open space to play in.
Ganesh’s work as a cook for students living near the college also stopped, the students left for their homes, and no one paid him for the days he did not work. He used to earn around Rs 25,000 per month as a cook working in four houses. The earnings stopped in March, however, expenses, including room rent, electricity, payment for toilet use, continued to pile up. Along with saved money, even the ration at home had almost run out. “It was then that I met the volunteers,” he recalls how the ration arranged by Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) kept him, and his neighbours fed for days. “We got bags of dal, rice, oil, sugar, tea, even soap. Once we even got some vegetables,” he says. They got enough for a week or two, and then supplies would be replenished as needed. Ganesh, however, kept seeking information on how to get back home to Bihar.
Once the CJP volunteers told him about the Shramik Special trains that were starting from Mumbai, Ganesh registered the next day. “It was getting impossible to survive in Mumbai by then. I had not got paid for two months. I could not beg for money. And I also thought it was best to leave and the rations we were getting from CJP, could be given to someone who did not have a home elsewhere to go to,” Ganesh’s thoughts of paying it forward and thinking of someone worse off were both surprising and inspiring.
However, the journey back was enough to almost break his spirit too. Though they were handed over free tickets, and sent to their allotted train seats one by one, they were not given any food or water. The train was full, but not overbooked, everyone had a berth/ seat allotted. The very young kids shared one with a parent. “We had packed even soap, and bottles of water, but did not have any food except biscuits,” he recalls how he rationed out those to the kids who made a meal of the cookies with water. Ganesh had to refill the water from stations whenever he could, those without a bottle in hand were not allowed to de-board the train at any cost. Eventually they got some food the next day at Itarsi station. “We got packets of dal, rice, vegetables that were passed to us through the window bars,” he said everyone was too hungry to complain about the taste and ate quietly. The fans and lights in the compartment stopped working at one point and complaints fell on deaf ears.
The train journey from Mumbai to Danapur, Patna, normally takes 18 hours, however this time it took almost 72. “The route was the same, but there were many stops and delays, it was exhausting,” Ganesh and his family’s journey did not end when they reached Patna. Once deboarded, screened they were given water and asked to wait at the ground near the station.
“We could not find any food. I saw some food packets being distributed but there was a massive crowd making a grab for whatever they could lay their hands on. I did not dare go into the crowds. It was better to wait,” he said recalling the kids were too hungry to protest by then too. A hailstorm lashed the area, Ganesh parked his family under a shelter and went to get some food from another distribution point he had been told of.
A few hours later, the family was screened again and put on a bus leaving for Madhubani, it was an AC bus, but the AC was not working. “But we had no choice. It was an eight hour journey with one stop,” said Ganesh, who was then sent into a school turned into a quarantine facility, and called his family in the village to come meet them with food. The relatives sent them food for the two days they stayed at the school. The family was then sent home with strict instructions on how to stay in home quarantine. That isolation period is now over and reality has begun to knock on the doors, “How long will our relatives feed us? I do not own farmland, I will have to return to Mumbai as soon as it is safe. How else will I earn and take care of my family? I need to pay for my girl’s education. If I could find a job in Patna as a cook that would be best, or if I could get a loan maybe I could open a dhabba in town? Do you think that is possible,” he asks. Ganesh’s thoughts are once again running at the speed of a super fast train.