New Delhi: The Covid-19 lockdown announced on 24 March resulted in many migrant workers making the arduous journey back home with no work, income or food. The exodus of migrant workers, which started in March, continued all the way through June, with many losing their lives while trying to get back home.
Although train services have restarted and the economy has reopened substantially, the movement of migrant labourers still continues. To help them out, a group of four young Delhi residents started an initiative, Migrant Travel Support, and has been sending people back to their homes in Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
The organisation, started by Chandrajit Kumar Gupta, Sonam Chaturvedi, Armaan and Shaurya Roy, all aged between 22 and 28 years, is not a registered one, but has 13 volunteers — seven in the online team and six on the ground. What began as an individual effort to help out migrant workers on a personal level resulted in the homecoming of more than 4,200 migrant workers in a little over a month.
Gupta, a Master’s student at Delhi University’s Atma Ram Sanatan Dharma College who is also preparing for the civil services exam alongside, tells ThePrint he was compiling the number of deaths of migrant workers on their way home using news reports, RTI applications and NHRC data, when he decided he wanted to do something more helpful and impactful.
Sleeper AC buses, food, juice, water & masks for the journey
Gupta began by tweeting details of buses and trains plying. Soon, he got a call from Chaturvedi, who teaches visual arts at Jindal University and was a volunteer with Harsh Mander’s NGO Karwan E Mohabbat. She asked if a bus could be arranged as a train going from Delhi’s Anand Vihar to Bhagalpur had been cancelled at the last minute.
Gupta’s civil services prep came in handy here, as some of his seniors at the coaching centre were officers in the IRS department and could help in getting permissions from the government. Gupta also used his contacts from his days as a volunteer with several NGOs, when he had to book buses to take school children around.
Between these and raising funds through online donations, he managed to arrange a bus to Bhagalpur from Chhatarpur. After this success, Chaturvedi and Gupta decided to do this work in a more organised manner.
The other two core members are Shourya Roy, who heads Janman Organisation, which was providing food to people in the capital during the lockdown, and Armaan, who runs a restaurant near Jamia.
The team organised the first bus on 18 May and since then has collected more than Rs 34 lakh with the help of organisations such as Give India, Mitra Technology Foundation and several individuals. They have even successfully approached local politicians, such as the Congress’ Delhi vice-president, Shivani Chopra, to sponsor buses.
— Shivani Chopra (@ShivaniChopra_) June 16, 2020
Gupta explains, “We get at least 100 calls a day saying we want to go back to our homes. And we have till now provided 34 [private] buses to take people to their homes in various districts of Bihar, UP and Jharkhand.” He says the group sent two buses to Gaya and Darbhanga in Bihar from the Red Fort Monday.
The group plans to raise Rs 12 lakh in 11 days to send more than 500 migrant workers to their homes via an online campaign.
In Bihar, the buses have gone to Kishanganj, Purnia, Bhagalpur, Begusarai, Muzaffarpur, Darbhanga, Sitamarhi, Samastipur, Saharsa, Supaul, Vaishali, Patna, Gaya and Aurangabad. They have gone to Giridi and Koderma in Jharkhand, and Gorakhpur, Lucknow, Kanpur, Sultanpur and Azamgarh in UP.
The sleeper AC buses carry up to 50 people on way. “Hiring each bus costs minimum Rs 1 lakh and even more if the distances are longer,” Gupta says, adding that they incur additional cost on meals and other items provide to those going home. The group gives cooked food such as kadhi chawal, chhole and roti, besides slippers, glucose and ORS for children, sanitary napkins for women and masks for all.
We would like to thank @MigrantTravel for providing us the opportunity to serve cooked food to the Bihar bound immigrants. Please support them in their endeavours.#ItsTimeForUsToNotLookAway pic.twitter.com/vI33oBbOPK
— 100 Rupee Project (@Rupee100) June 18, 2020
Travellers are also given juice, biscuits and two litres of water each for the journey, and the group ties up with dhabas for a meal on the way if the journey is particularly long. “Sometimes, for extremely poor people, we also give dry rations for when they reach their villages and Rs 200 in cash,” Gupta says.
He adds, “When we manage donations from organisations then the work goes smoothly. However, it is very difficult to get individual funding. And with only that, our work gets very difficult.”
Their hard work isn’t going unnoticed. Azeem, who works at Each One Feed One, tells ThePrint, “Their team has really been working diligently on the ground… I myself have referred 50 migrant workers to them for help.”
Migrant Travel Support also received a certificate of appreciation from Koshish Foundation.
Online directory and trains
Chaturvedi, who heads the online team, has six people working in her department. “We are the first point of contact and give our own personal numbers as opposed to a helpline number,” she tells ThePrint.
After a full list of migrants who want to return is compiled, it is categorised on the basis of urgency. The online team constantly stays in touch with the migrants before their journey.
The group also works with the Delhi government to organise trains for the labourers. “We get information on what all trains are being run…and extend it to our database,” says Gupta.
The group has until now sent back almost 1,700 workers by train, and organised the travel of more than 2,500 workers by bus. Gupta tells ThePrint that his his prep for the UPSC exams has taken a backseat for the next two months, but he will definitely be taking the prelims in October. “I am glad the date got extended as it gives me more time to focus on this.”
After helping people get back home, which he believes will take another two months, Gupta says, the group wants to focus on connecting migrants to MGNREGA, reach out to grassroot organisations for help and put Rs 1,000 into the bank accounts of those being helped by it.