Government Has Created an Archive of Distress, a Museum of Misery For Migrant Workers

Though the official narrative says most migrants have returned home, a new report says otherwise: 67% workers are still stuck, 85% had to pay for ‘free’ travel, and an overwhelming number have not received any rations.

New Delhi: In its latest report focusing on the Central government’s response to the mass humanitarian crisis of stranded migrant workers, the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) highlights the “archive of distress and museum of misery” created by the government’s “chaotic travel orders and gross mismanagement of the process” of sending the workers back home.

The SWAN report, ‘To Leave or not to Leave: Lockdown, Migrant Workers and their Journeys Home’, carries the findings of an automated phone survey of 1963 migrant workers (who had earlier called SWAN and received assistance), done in the last week of May and first week of June. The findings are very revealing:

  • 67% migrants are still stuck in the same place since the lockdown was announced; only 33% have left.
  • Of those who are stuck, 55% (out of 1,166 persons) want to go home immediately. The figure was lower (33%) when the same set of workers were asked this question in end-April. And yet the government claims that most migrants have returned home and Shramik trains are no longer needed.
  • 75% of 1,124 workers said they are still stuck in places they have migrated to for work, and they do not have any employment.
  • 44% of those who left, took buses; 39% managed to get on a Shramik special; 11% travelled by trucks and sundry transport; and 6% covered the distance on foot.

Further, says the report, the Supreme Court order of May 28, asking the respective state governments to bear the cost of travel came rather late –  “more than 85% of the migrant workers who have returned home or are in transit have had to incur costs for this journey.”

  • Of those more than two-thirds have had to pay more than Rs 1,000 for travel.
  •  Out of 1,559 workers, about 80 % have taken loans during the lockdown period and about 15% have had to take more than Rs 8,000 as loans.

The SWAN report also includes some startling findings of a survey based on the distress calls received that 80% (of 5,911 people) had not received any rations from the government.

Representative image. Credit: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

This despite the fact that it has been a month since the finance minister announced free rations (5 kg of grain and 1 kg of dal) per person for 8 crore migrants.

While ground reports from grassroots organisations in different states indicate that the additional grain to PDS ration cardholders has indeed been distributed, serving as an important lifeline, migrant workers stranded away from home without ration cards have still not received any relief.

The Supreme Court’s order on the suo motu case on migrant workers provides some relief in terms of travel, but it is entirely silent on this issue. It is surprising that the court did not ask the government to submit a basic status report on how much of the promised PDS grain to 8 crore migrants has actually been distributed. July 5 is the date for the next report to be filed by the Central government.

An interesting feature of the report is the detailed workers’ testimonies through which a classification of travel-related problems as experienced by the migrants has been created.

Some excerpts follow.

Eviction by landlords, and employers coupled with travel uncertainty

Kamal and seven others were stranded in Gubbi, Tumkur, Karnataka and were trying to go to West Bengal, but there were no trains at that time for West Bengal. They had also registered on the Seva Sindhu portal (web portal for travel registration) of the Karnataka government. They had reached out to SWAN on May 7. 

At that time, their employer was asking them to return to work, but there were unpaid wages amounting to Rs 96,000 and no promise of being paid for the work they would do. When Kamal’s group refused to work, the employer threatened to evict them from where they were staying.

SWAN, along with local labour rights activists, convinced them to stay where they were till they received a message for a train to West Bengal. After a few failed attempts and persistent calls by our volunteers to the police administration of Tumkur, Kamal and the group got their chance to leave by a Shramik train on May 30 from Bengaluru.

Migrants travel atop a truck. Photo: By arrangement

Issues with regard to travel registration and shelters for migrants

The Haryana government has been very secretive about releasing train schedules. They only started sending messages about train schedules to workers who have registered on their portal in the last week of May. In some other states, workers receiving SMSs [were] assigned a particular place and time to report.

But the Haryana government [did] not disclose exact train timing, routes, halts and stations even to those migrants who receive official messages about travel. Instead, the messages were generic, stating simply that those who wish to go to Bihar need to reach Tau Devi Lal Stadium at a particular time. Migrants had no way to find out any more details. If their home was in North Bihar, they could not know in advance that the train would only go to South Bihar.

Moreover, the messages would come at very short notice, often the night before workers had to reach assembly points. Many workers worried that if they left to try to catch a train and were sent back, their landlords would not allow them in.

On June 1, a Haryana government official stated that trains were not filling up because migrants in Haryana did not want to leave. That night, a train scheduled to leave for Bihar was filled to capacity. Nine hundred workers were unable to get on board. They were forced to spend the night in the open in a stadium in Gurgaon. Women, elderly and small children sat the whole day inside the stadium from 7 am.

In addition, nearly 500 workers from Rewari district had reached the stadium in 15 buses but were not allowed to disembark. They were kept cooped up in buses and forced to sit in the scorching heat for hours and eventually sent to a shelter home.

Those in the stadium had packed up all their belongings, left their rooms behind, and had nowhere else to go. They had nothing to do but wait. In a mad scramble, 11 buses were organised by civil society (out of a total of 19 buses) and the exhausted crowd left for Bihar 36 hours later.

Trucks at a toll booth. Photo: By arrangement


In Ludhiana, the following process was followed: registration was followed at some point by receipt of an SMS intimating pick up points. At the pick-up points workers received a medical slip, post which the workers were ferried in a bus to Guru Nanak Stadium for medical check-up.

Maulana Helal, one in a group of 36 who had received an SMS confirmation, collected the medical slip at the pick-up point, and was then taken to the stadium. Soon they were transferred to a garden nearby where they had to wait the entire day. In the night they were shifted to nearby shelter homes along with the many others in the garden. They were taken to the garden the following day too.

On the third day, after much intervention, a police officer arranged for their registration and told them they would leave on the fourth day morning. Apart from the lengthy process, they did not have to pay for anything.

Poor facilities on trains especially access to food and water

Shreeram Paswan travelled via Shramik train from Delhi via Bhagalpur to Banka, along with three others. Food was provided at irregular intervals on the first day, but on other days no food was provided at all.

Aman Kumar was travelling from Chennai in Tamil Nadu to Bihar by train on May 24. He arrived in Bihar on May 26 but he had received no food or water on the train for two days. He also said that there were two people per berth.

Arun Yadav travelled via Shramik train from Delhi to Katihar in Bihar. With long halts, diversions and unplanned detours, the entire journey took 40 hours. Food was provided at one station in Uttar Pradesh. However, this barely fed half the passengers. Arun, who missed the chance to grab a food packet, did not eat anything for nearly two days, surviving only on water. When he reached Madhubani station he bought himself cucumber and some snacks.

Dynamic pricing of IRCTC tickets, non-availability of Shramik trains 

Chatrapal and a group of 50 workers in Mangaluru, Karnataka, wishing to travel to Madhya Pradesh, had reached out to SWAN. However, there were very few trains from Mangaluru, and none to Madhya Pradesh. Since workers earlier who had reached out to SWAN had walked back to Madhya Pradesh, SWAN explored the option of bringing this group to Bengaluru and booking them on the Special trains to Bhopal as no Shramik trains were plying to the state.

The volunteers contacted the district administration in Mangaluru to help with bus transport from Bengaluru, but the administration wanted to see the booked IRCTC tickets first. SWAN volunteers booked the tickets, but while booking it was evident that dynamic pricing was being applied.

As the number of tickets booked increased, the price per ticket jumped from Rs 2,600 to Rs 2,900 even though there were still more than 100 seats available on the date of the journey. The ticket details were shared with the Mangaluru administration and the workers were able to leave for Madhya Pradesh on June 2.

Migrant workers on a train from Chennai to Bihar. Photo: By arrangement

Bribes paid for travel 

Lal Chavan from Laxminagar, Tiruppur said that police were collecting Rs. 1,500 to give out tokens for Shramik trains. The police were giving out a certain number of tokens for free, and after that number, would start charging higher amounts.

Unhelpful police

Mukesh Kumar Yadav was stranded in Noida in Uttar Pradesh with his wife and seven-month-old baby. He wanted to get back to his native place in Aurangabad, Bihar. Out of frustration and unsure of the work situation, Mukesh along with his wife and child started walking with another group of 15 towards their home. They received information that there was a train from Daunkar, a station in Uttar Pradesh, to West Bengal that went via Gaya, Bihar, on May 16.

They had originally planned to get down at Gaya and go to Aurangabad from there. The train was a Shramik train and they had to buy a ticket. Throughout the journey they were not given any food and water. When they tried to disembark at Gaya the police started hitting them with lathis.

They were forced to board the train and proceed to Asansol, West Bengal, where they arrived on the night of May 17. SWAN informed a volunteer from a local NGO who with the help of a railway official contacted the Station Master in Asansol and made the group de-board the train. They also made arrangements for food and water.

Arrangements were made to send Mukesh and his family to Gaya by train the next morning, i.e., on May 18. Finally, at around noon on May 18, he reached Aurangabad safely.

Walking home: In despair and tired of waiting for options to travel 

Raju from Sarhaul Haryana put his wife and children on a bus on May 16 evening. He then decided to start walking along the highway, and after walking for seven days he reached his home in Salhanpur, Madhya Pradesh. On the way, he would get biscuits and water and continue walking along with 15-20 other workers, some walking and some on cycles. He was able to go home, but his wife and children were quarantined in the school.

Road travel: Risks in hitchhiking and high costs private transport 

A family of five, including a child with special needs, paid Rs 5,000 per person to a bus driver from Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh to Godda, Jharkhand. The passengers were dropped at Narela, Delhi, instead of Jharkhand as promised. The bus seemed to have been without permit.

There, the family stayed for five to six days in a kaccha house of another family of workers who had gone home. For that one week, water was the main concern for them. The family was desperate and wanted to return to their home state at the earliest and declined to move to a shelter home. Finally, with the help of NGOs seats were arranged on an urgent basis for the family on a Shramik train from Delhi to Jharkhand.

A tedious and costly journey ending with issues of quarantine

Juber Ansari and his group paid Rs 4,000 per person to travel by truck from Ulhasnagar, in Maharashtra, to Hazaribagh, in Jharkhand. Their contractor had not paid them money and told them to go back to their villages if they could arrange transport (Jisko jaisa suvidha milta hai chale jao).

Juber said that if the contractor had continued paying them some money they would have stayed (Agar Rs 500-500 deta toh hum rukte… nahi diya uske baad hi aap logon ko pareshaan kiya). They had borrowed the money for travel [by truck] from their village at 10% interest per month.

A picture of things the Haripur Panchayat supplied to those in quarantine with, in Samstipur district, Bihar. Photo: By arrangement

[Travelling through] Maharashtra they were getting food at some places. In Chhattisgarh, they could not get anything and had to buy biscuits to eat. At some places, they saw the police stopping trucks and asking drivers to give a lift to migrant workers who were walking on foot.

Juber’s truck dropped them till Ranchi from where they hitchhiked, [getting a lift from] a milk van, bikes and other vehicles to reach Hazaribagh.

They were placed in a quarantine centre in Hazaribagh where a medical test was done. They were living 14 to a room, and the centre was not providing them with food, which was being brought to them by their families. Juber had heard that in other districts, quarantine centres were providing not only food but also some money to the quarantined people at Rs 250 a day, but this is not clear.