Mumbai: Soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the national lockdown would continue until May 3, at least 3,000 migrant workers poured out to the streets of Bandra in Mumbai. The workers had hoped that the three-week lockdown would end today, April 14, and that they would finally be able to return to their respective states.
With every passing day, the condition of migrant workers has only worsened. Most of them have been without jobs, money or enough food to eat. Many of them are stranded in big cities they cannot afford to reside in without jobs.
Today, the prime minister spoke for nearly 25 minutes about the need to extend the lockdown. In his speech, he included mention of an app and extended season’s greetings, but did not offer a solution for the labourers.
Shortly after his speech ended, labourers began to converge near Bandra bus depot. “Initially it was just a small group. But within 30 minutes a large number of people gathered here. We had to deploy police force and try to calm people down,” a senior police official said.
ABP Mazha, a Marathi news channel had run unverified news claiming that the Railways will resume operations and trains will be made available for migrants to return home. The state government is probing if this news report was a reason behind the sudden gathering at Bandra railway station.
The labourers outnumbered the police and in no time, police resorted to lathi charge to disperse the crowd.
“We want to return to our families. They are left back home without food. We have no way to help them. At least let us go back and die in peace with the family,” said Sonjay, a labourer from Kokrajhar from Assam.
Sonjay is one of the seven persons from Assam who work at a local welding company in Ville Parle. “We got a call from other workers asking us to come here. The police rained their lathis on us,” Sonjay said, further adding that several people were injured in the police violence.
— Shiv Aroor (@ShivAroor) April 14, 2020
Most labourers belonged to north and east India. The workers that The Wire spoke to said that they felt that this was their final resort to demand safe travel back home. “No one is understanding our plight,” said Shaikh Mudassir, a 52-year-old labourer from Bihar Sharif district in Bihar.
Mudassir, and his 19-year-old son Ashfaque work at a zari outlet in Bandra east. They said they have not been paid a single penny since the lockdown was announced on March 21. “Mahamari se nahi bhukmaari se mar rahe hai hum, PM ko kaise nahi dikhta ye? (‘We aren’t dying of an epidemic but of hunger. How is the prime minister not able to see this?’),” Mudassir said over the phone.
He said he had been to the railway station after he was told that the Maharashtra government was organising a train to Bihar today. “But when we say the crowd and the police, we left. I don’t know where to go next and what to do,” he said.
Most labourers gathered at the railway station had walked several kilometres to reach Bandra west railway station. They demanded that the Maharashtra government negotiate with the Centre and make arrangements for their return home.
Senior police officials said that they had to use force as a “final resort” and that the matter was immediately escalated to the home department. “This situation will recur if adequate actions aren’t taken,” a police official said.
Shiv Sena leader and cabinet minister Aaditya Thackeray took to Twitter to blame the central government for “not being able to take a call on arranging a way back home for migrant labour”.
Right from the day the trains have been shut down, the State had requested trains to run for 24 hours more so that migrant labour could go back home.
CM Uddhav Thackeray ji raised this issue in the PM- CM Video Conf as well requesting a roadmap for migrant labour to reach home
— Aaditya Thackeray (@AUThackeray) April 14, 2020
Thackeray also claimed that the state government has been requesting that trains be made available for a safe passage of migrant workers back to their respective states.
“A mutual road map set by Union Govt will largely help migrant labour to reach home from one state to another safely and efficiently. Time and again this issue have been raised with the centre,” he wrote.
Later, Thackeray also tweeted saying that the centre has taken immediate cognizance of the issue and is assisting the state actively. “We understand the catch 22 situation centre and states face. I’m thankful to PM & HM (home minister Amit Shah) for understanding the situation, while trying to ensure the safety of home states of migrants,” he wrote.
PTI quoted state home minister Anil Deskhmukh as having said, “Migrant workers who gathered near Bandra station in Mumbai may have thought PM Modi had ordered opening of state borders.”
Maharashtra government has been particularly burdened with the huge influx of labourers, especially in Mumbai and Pune. The official claim is that over six lakh labourers have been accommodated at several shelter homes build in many districts.
However, many labourers have still been left without any support from the state or central government. Several NGOs and self- help group have been extending supports in places where the government has failed to reach out.