A Lockdown and a Hard Place

In Photos: Migrant workers face police violence and hunger, escaping Delhi during lockdown

Bablu Rajat, a differently-abled person from Tikamgarh district of Madhya Pradesh, walking along with his relatives, in Sarai Kalai Khan, Delhi. Rajat, who used to live in Karkardooma, said, “We have problem here for food. We will go to our village if it takes two months to reach our home, so be it. Government will help when we die with hunger. We don’t have money to buy food or to pay rent.” SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN
31 March, 2020

On 29 March, the Anand Vihar bus station in Delhi was overflowing with people—migrant workers in the thousands, all hoping to find a bus back to their homes in neighbouring states. Hunger, evictions and unemployment created by the lockdown were forcing them to flee the capital. Amid the tumult, the migrant workers told us stories of brutal police violence and attempt to feed their families in a virtually deserted city. “So what am I supposed to do?” Mehul Pandey, a 37-year-old labourer, asked. “No one is helping us. The cops have thrashed us around, and we are going to die of hunger. Koi ration bhi nahi hai, toh ham kya karein?”—There are no rations for us, what else can we do? “The government isn’t listening, I haven’t gotten any help from anyone,” she said. She told us she had been beaten with a lathi earlier when she was trying to run away from the police. “I’m also scared of the virus. But how am I going to feed myself?”

Many migrants were stranded on the road to Anand Vihar, some having walked from satellite-cities as far away as Gurgaon, Faridabad and Manesar. Many migrants we spoke to mentioned that they had not been paid for over two months, and many daily-wage labourers mentioned that they had not received wages for over a month, diminishing their already meagre savings. This meant that many were travelling hoping to find food somewhere along their journey. Many mentioned they had not eaten for more than two days. Along with hunger, they also had to contend with the brutality of the Delhi police, who migrants said were unreasonably violent to anyone out on the streets.

Migrant workers jump over the road divider at Anand Vihar, to catch a bus to the Lal Kaun terminal in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh. They had travelled only six kilometres to Vaishali when the central government announced a ban on all movement of buses. The Delhi police forcefully removed them and asked to them to return to their homes. SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN

“I’ve been walking around here since six in the morning, and have not been able to rest for more than 20 minutes,” Mohammad Aslam, a scrap-dealer from Manesar, said. Aslam was resting by a bench near an Indraprastha Compressed Natural Gas station in Vikas Marg, around five kilometers away from the Anand Vihar bus station. A security guard working at the gas station was harassing him, was asking him to go elsewhere. “I don’t know what to do. I am so scared and worried,” he said, mentioning that he had faced constant harassment by the police. “We keep getting chased from one corner to another. They stopped us near Nizamuddin railway station, and told us not to enter there, and then here, they’re not letting us go anywhere near Anand Vihar.”

A child sleeping on the shoulder of his father, a migrant labourer, awaiting a bus to Lal Kuan, Ghaziabad. Alongside is his wife, in a blue sari. Most migrants told us they had not had anything to eat for over than two days. Returning to their native villages seemed to them their only chance at survival. SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN

On the way to the bus terminal from Vikas Marg, we saw that the police had barricaded every road and were trying to forcefully stop the movement of people. Often, three or four baton-wielding policemen charged at a group of migrants and tried to drive them away. The lack of coordination between different policemen at different road crossings meant that groups of people were constantly being shuttled from one place to another. The police’s only goal seemed to be to ensure that the migrants did not reach Anand Vihar. It even carried out lathi charges in some places. “This feels like a warzone,” another journalist we met told us. “The roads are empty and people have nowhere to go.”

Migrant workers try to board the last few buses leaving from Ghaziabad to other parts of Uttar Pradesh, to return to their villages, after Narender Modi announced the unanticipated 21-days nationwide lockdown. People boarded buses without any regard for space, comfort, or safety from the spread of coronavirus. Thousands of other migrants were forced to walk across the country in an attempt to reach home. SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN

“We are making arrangements for food twice a day as well as a place for them to stay. Many have insisted that they want to go home. Many are not sure what the future holds,” said Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister, had said in a statement on 27 March. While there were a few eateries and government bodies distributing food and water around Anand Vihar, the vast majority of labourers made the journey on an empty stomach, and had no confidence in the government being able to provide them with food and rent. Many said they had called local authorities as well as government helplines about a lack of supplies but got no answers. “We can stay at home and bear with this for 21 days, but where will get the food from? Who is going to convince our stomachs to not feel hungry?” Kamal Kumar, a daily-wage labourer from Gurgaon, told us.

“I was extremely worried about my situation and didn’t know what I could do if I stayed there,” Vinod Chauhan, a visually challenged man who was sitting with his son, told us. “I have no money for gas or food, I bought the twenty-rupee packet of bread before I left.” Chauhan used to sells mops and dusters in Lakshmi Nagar and said he was lucky he had his son to take him through this. “People will die of hunger before this virus kills us,” he added. Chauhan said he had never received any monetary support from the government, for his disability. “I have never received any money from the government till today. Why will they pay my rent? I filled in my papers in 2018, they keep making me run around in circles, this government.”

An old lady, surrounded by other migrants, sits on a road as she waits to board the bus at Anand Vihar. In his address announcing a sudden lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had appealed to the masses to maintain the social distancing. However, the lack of coordination in managing access to food and shelter meant migrants crowded into bus terminals instead, hopeful of returning to their homes. SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN

Another reason for this mass exodus was that, with a sudden lockdown on work, many daily-earners, who were now without income, could not afford to pay their rent. Despite an order from the Ministry of Home affairs on 28 March, which asked landlords not to charge rent during the period of the lockdown, several people we spoke to had been evicted, rendering them effectively homeless. At the time we met them, a bus to their ancestral villages was their only hope for shelter. Mohammed Isha and Aashma, a young couple who had only recently moved to Delhi. “We were kicked out of our room,” Aashma said, through her tears. “The landlord said we should either pay or get out.” The couple were heading to Rae Bareily, in Uttar Pradesh, where they were hoping to get shelter at their family home. Aashma told us that the pain of walking so much had been too excruciating for her to bear, and that she had started developing calluses in her feet. “I have never walked so much in my life. I haven’t gotten any food, I have no money and we both lost our jobs a month ago. How will I eat?” Isha had lost his job as a housekeeping staff at a restaurant a month ago, and the lockdown had depleted their savings.

A migrant labourer holds her baby at Anand Vihar as she awaits a buses that will take her to Uttar Pradesh. For migrants, many of whom were evicted from their homes or had no access to food, the lockdown became a humanitarian disaster. SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN

It was evident that the uncertainty of the future was already taking a toll on the thousands waiting restlessly at the Anand Vihar terminus. Other than hearing rumours about state transport buses that could potentially take them home, nobody, including the press, had any idea when the next set of buses were going to arrive. “Look, our work is law and order, don’t ask us all these questions,” Jasmeet Singh, a deputy commissioner of police, told us. In the meantime, many of the attendants began taunting reporters, “What’s the point of having media people if you know nothing?” Right outside the terminus, many people were selling masks and handkerchiefs. Policemen and journalists appeared well protected, with an ABP reporter using a wooden stick to elongate her mike in the hopes of keeping her distance from the people she was interviewing.

After three hours of organising passengers into a neat and orderly queue, the police announced that the buses would be coming to pick people up on the opposite side of the road. This caused massive panic and pandemonium, with people running to jump across the fence. “If you people had not come with your cameras, we would have definitely gotten thrashed,” someone told us in passing, as they jumped across the fence. Many women, children, and differently-abled migrants struggled to climb the fence and get to the bus on the other side.

A reporter interviews a couple, amidst a queue for buses at the Anand Vihar bus station. Policemen and journalists appeared well protected, with an ABP reporter using a wooden stick to elongate her mike in the hopes of keeping her distance from the people she was interviewing. SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN

Dileep Kumar was one of those trying to jump on to a packed bus, but his prosthetic leg gave in, and he tripped and fell. We spoke to him and his friends, who jumped down after they saw that he could not make it. Speaking about the mixed messages they had got from state government representatives and police, he said, “I have a plastic leg, and the government promised to send me home, but after a night of moving around between here and there, now they’re telling us to go to Lal Kuan.” Lal Kuan is an important highway junction in Ghaziabad, just across the border, in Uttar Pradesh. His friend Nand Kishore said that they were construction workers and had not received any money, despite the announcement by the Delhi government promising to provide aid. Many who boarded these buses had heard that they were going to go to Lal Kuan, where they would be picked and dropped by Uttar Pradesh state transport buses. We overheard Jasmeet Singh, the DCP of Delhi’s East District, tell another reporter, “Attribute it to sources, but say that they are being dropped off a little bit further away.”

Many of the buses that had left Anand Vihar stopped at a flyover in Vaishali, on the border between Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. Here, the migrants were removed from the bus and the police came to disperse the crowd. “Go back to where you came from and maintain social distancing,” a constable announced on a loudspeaker. Later, he raised his lathi at a volunteer who was distributing food, and said “They’re crowding around here because of you.” It later became clear that the police had stopped the buses because of a sudden announcement by the central government banning all interstate movement of people.

“This is just absurd,” Naveen Singh Bedi, a labourer who used to work in Gurgaon, said. “We’ve walked all the way from Gurgaon and now they want us to find our way. Don’t they understand that I have nowhere to go and no way to feed my family?” he continued. “They’ve killed us. I wouldn’t have left had I known this was going to happen.”

Bablu Rajat a differently-abled person trying to dodge the police to make his way to the Anand Vihar bus station. On the way to the bus terminal from Vikas Marg, the police had barricaded every road and were trying to forcefully stop the movement of people. Often, three or four baton-wielding policemen charged at a group of migrants to drive them away. SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN

Meanwhile in Lal Kuan, there were nearly a thousand people looking to catch a bus. The Uttar Pradesh police was making announcements about social distancing, while people struggled to find space in the overflowing buses. The roofs of the buses were also crammed, each with over forty passengers. Those who could not fit into buses that day said they were hoping that they would find room the next day.

By 6.30 pm, East Delhi was dotted with migrants who were stranded. They were walking the roads and wondering how they would arrange food for the night. “I think we might have to spend the night on the road. What else can we do?” Altaf Qureshi, a 21-year-old butcher from Sadar Bazar, told us. “This is probably the first night I’m sleeping on the streets. I don’t know if my landlord has locked the room or not. I’ll have to ask around, but I’ve been walking since the morning. I don’t think I can go anywhere else.”

Migrant workers sit around a garbage pit in Lal Kuan, Ghaziabad, while they wait for a bus to take them to their native villages. Many migrants we spoke to mentioned that they had not been paid for over two months, diminishing their already meagre savings. This meant that many were travelling hoping to find food somewhere along their journey. SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN

Bhuri Ansar, a 26-year-old woman, was sitting on her haunches alongside her family. She told us she suffered from stomach cancer. Her husband, Ansar Ahmed said, “We went to Bulandshahr for treatment … and I couldn’t figure out what to do.” Bhuri was carrying prescription and still had her IV device attached to her hand. Barely fifty meters away, the police were shouting from a loudspeaker, asking the family to run and return home. MD Meherban, a journalist who was nearby and had spoken to the station house officer, told us, “We tried asking them if they could spare any other van, but they said it was for law and order.” The SHO, who was sitting in his car, replied, “What can I do? I just have this car, and the remaining cars are for law and order, go and call the ambulance.” We tried calling for an ambulance but received no help from the 102 helpline, or any other government helpline. Our other attempts to connect the family to a medical institute were also in vain. Eventually, Harinder, an inspector, agreed to drop them home. The family got into the car, after sanitising their hands. Ahmed later confirmed that they had reached safely.

Migrant workers gather outside the Anand Vihar bus depot. Hundreds of daily wage labourers were forcibly thrown out by their landlords and had no options but to go back to their native villages. This was despite an order from the union home ministry directing landlords to retain their tenants without rent. SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN

Around seven pm, close to the Delhi-Noida-Direct highway, we saw the police chasing a group of migrants who had not managed to find transportation. A woman, who was holding a heavy sack over her head, snapped at the police, “Maaro, jitna maarna hai maardo, poora din seh chuke hai ham”—Go on then, hit us all you want, we have taken it the whole day.