Triple engine sarkar and the migrant exodus on the highways of Haryana
Asiaville travelled along the highways of Haryana to talk to migrant workers. Many, like 8-year-old Sapna from Bihar’s Bhagalpur, are stuck in a loop. They cover the distance of several kilometres on foot and yet don’t end up any closer to their destinations.
One of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) favourite idioms to use during state assembly elections is Double Engine Ki Sarkar. PM Modi believes that for smooth functioning and seamless execution of policies, it is better to have the same political party in power at the Centre and in the states. Obviously, when he instructs voters to choose “double engine government”, he wants them to elect the BJP.
During the COVID-19 nationwide lockdown, the BJP’s slogan of “double engine government” stands exposed. The utter confusion and mismanagement in handling the movement of migrant workers from states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar on the national highways, and specifically in the BJP governed states, shows how meaningless that term is.
On Haryana’s highways, thousands of migrant workers who are just trying to return to their native villages are being treated like footballs. They are being shunted from side to side, shifted to shelters, and made to wait endlessly during this brutal pandemic summer. And it often transpires that days’ long journeys translate into nothing.
Seven-year-old Prince remembers waking up as early as five in the morning on May 18. His father Ajay Kumar Verma works at a rubber factory in Haryana’s Sonipat’s Kundli. The family packed whatever they could and left their rented house in Kundli to embark on a journey to UP’s Hardoi district, their hometown.
Prince recalls the first stop was Kundli circle. The family’s documentation process was carried out here and their medical screening for COVID-19 was done. After a few hours, they were made to board a bus to UP.
“The bus was heading towards UP but it was stopped a few kilometres before the Haryana-UP border as the UP government had denied the permissions,” Verma said. “The administration then brought us back.”
“It was roughly around two in the night when I reached here,” Prince said.
He was half asleep when their bus – carrying other migrant workers from UP – was brought to India International Horticulture Market (IIHM) in Sonipat’s Ganuar. Prince’s mother Meera, 34, has been making sure he doesn’t end up hurting himself or running around on the highway.
Even though the industrial work in Haryana has resumed, workers like Verma find it impossible to remain. “We asked for the factory owner to either give us some (money) for advance or pay our wages. But he rejected our requests on the face. He said the wages will be paid only when the sales resume,” Verma said. He has been working in the Kundli industrial area for the past seven years. This forced his family’s reverse migration.
Roughly 250 people, including women and children, were made to sleep rough under the vegetable market shop canopies. The administration, however, had made sufficient arrangements for food and water.
A local volunteer helping the authorities with the arrangement of food said, “Last night they came in different buses. Many of them were angry as they were brought back from the UP border to this centre in Ganaur. We had cooked food for them but many refused to eat out of anger.”
A majority of those made to stay at the IIHM Ganaur were picked up from Sonipat’s Kundli and wanted to return to their native villages in UP.
It is important to note that Kundli is on the Delhi-Haryana border. UP’s Baghpat district is barely 30 kilometres away. When the UP government denied entry to these buses carrying migrant workers, they were driven back to the IIHM Ganaur - which is a further 33 kilometres inside Haryana.
Left at an open centre on the GT Road, the anger and frustration of these migrant workers obviously kept increasing. On May 19, they repeatedly asked the police authorities as to when and how they would be taken back to UP. The crowd included pregnant women and the elderly.
Kanchan was part of a 10-member group stranded at the IIHM. They had two choices: either pay Rs 10,000 room rent and clear electricity bills pending for two months or vacate the house. They chose the latter. Kanchan’s group had begun their journey on May 18 at six in the morning. After the registration process at Kundli, they were driven to another centre in Sonipat district. Their medical screening for COVID symptoms were conducted here.
“At the Sonipat centre, they gave us food and later we were kicked out by the police. We walked back to Kundli. Around 5 in the evening, we received our medical certificate and then boarded the bus for UP. But our bus was stopped at the Yamuna (UP border),” Kanchan told Asiaville. The entire group was brought back to the IIHM Ganaur at midnight.
Medical screening, documentation, boarding a bus to UP, and an entire day wasted. The end result was that they were still stranded in Haryana.
On the third day of their journey, the entire group was made to board different buses and were taken to another shelter for migrant workers, this time in UP’s Saharanpur.
The BJP is in power at the Centre, as well as in UP and Haryana. Despite this fact, its triple engine government, getting the clearance for government buses to ferry UP’s migrant workers, took three days.
However, consider Prince and Kanchan’s family as the lucky ones. On the Haryana-Sonipat Highway, this correspondent met a group of 20-25 migrant workers from Bihar’s Araria and Purnea districts. Most of them wore slippers on their feet, ill equipped for walking long distances. They had reached Sonipat to find construction labour work on March 18, and within a week the nationwide lockdown was imposed.
The police deployed at the barricades, towards Delhi, had allegedly assaulted them with lathis.
When they started to walk back towards Panipat, they noticed the IIHM shelter for migrants and tried taking refuge there.
“The police hurled abuses and stopped us from entering the shelter saying: those from Bihar are not allowed here. This shelter is meant for those from UP,” Chandan Kumar Yadav said. In a fit of anger, he further added, “Is the government not ours? Will they serve only those who belong to UP?”
IIHM Ganaur centre was accommodating those who were heading towards UP and were waiting for the government clearances. A police official at IIHM had retorted saying, “How can we accommodate every migrant worker walking on the highway. Should I open a dharmshala (free community shelter) and keep feeding them?”
After being denied entry at the shelter, Kundan’s group were divided as to whether to walk towards Delhi or Panipat. They were hoping the government would arrange buses and trains for the migrant workers in the national capital.
“Because the government didn’t arrange buses and trains for us, we have decided to walk down to Bihar,” 28-year-old Kundan Kumar Yadav said.
“Araria is 1,400 kilometres away and we will have to walk down to our homes. Bihar government and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar are responsible for our plight. Nitish Kumar didn’t help us in this crisis,” Kundan said, expressing his displeasure.
Migrants from Bihar have been left to fend for themselves. Kumar has been in power in Bihar for the past 15 years and the BJP had forged an alliance with the incumbent Janata Dal United in July 2017. The Bihar CM is being criticised for failing to address the ongoing Bihari migrant worker exodus.
Pappu Sharma, 28, said that they had embarked on the journey to Bihar on May 18. “After walking 30-35 kilometres, the police stopped us and sent us to a shelter in the night assuring buses or trains will be arranged. In the morning, we were again kicked out. That is when we resumed the journey,” Sharma said.
Kundan’s group was stopped by the police at the Panipat border. “The police stopped us while entering Panipat. We have been brought to a school in Panipat and have been told that trains will be arranged for us after May 22,” Kundan told this correspondent over the phone. Even after two days of journeying, their group was still stuck in Haryana.
The endless journeys on the highways of the migrants means that they face unpredictable fates. With a maroon trolley bag in his hand, 29-year-old Mohammad Safiullah was walking alone on the Sonipat Highway. He was neatly dressed; however, the scorching heat had left its mark on his face. Safiullah was part of a group of six workers from Panipat but lost his way on the highway.
“I had taken a small break. But my elder brother and others didn’t realise. They kept walking and a few metres away, a truck gave them a lift,” he said. “I shouted at the top of my voice but they couldn’t hear me. Possibly because of the noise of vehicles on the highway. Now, I am lost.”
Safiullah was left with only Rs 400 in his wallet and no mobile phone to contact his brother. He decided to continue the journey towards Delhi. After reaching the Delhi border on May 19th, he borrowed a phone to call his brother. However, by that time, Haryana Police had relocated his brother Shareek to a school – turned into a shelter for migrant workers – in Sonipat district.
Safiullah was frantically trying to locate the school where his elder brother was housed.
“On May 18, we had started our journey. First, we were called to the centre, in Panipat, from where the migrant workers were being sent to Bihar. However, hours later the authorities told us there were no buses or trains leaving in the next couple days and asked us to leave,” he said. The entire group works as workers in a bag factory in Panipat. As they had vacated their rooms, there was no going back.
“In the night, the police allowed us to stay at the centre in Panipat. But the next morning, we were thrown out,” Safiullah said.
After contacting his brother, he again resumed the journey to the shelter where his brother was housed. It took him another four hours to finally locate the centre meant for migrant workers, his elder brother Shareek said.
“We have been assured that post-May 22, trains and buses will be arranged for us,” Shareek said.
On the highways, thousands of Safiullahs and Kundans are trying to reach their homes. At times, their journeys end up becoming a loop, where despite covering several kilometres on the highways, they end up reaching nowhere.
A large group of migrant workers, belonging to Bihar’s Bhagalpur, was stuck in a similar loop. Their story could trigger only two emotions: anger and frustration, and maybe a feeling of deep helplessness.
The group included eight-year-old Sapan who was carrying a white sack on her head. They were allegedly forced out of a shelter in Sonipat. When they resumed their journey on foot, the police allegedly made them board a truck and they were dropped off 10-15 kilometres away in the opposite direction.
The group had to regroup and embark on the journey to Bihar again.
While many wait at the government centres for trains and buses, others are being looted by private bus vendors who are charging hefty amounts for tickets.
On the day when these migrant workers were left to fend for themselves, ironically, the raging debate in Indian political circles was migrant workers. But they matter the least. Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and the Yogi Adityanath government locked horns over the buses offered by the Congress for ferrying migrant workers. The news debate shifted to “Congress bus scam” and the counter-attack on the BJP. Eventually, the buses arranged by the Congress party returned empty. Politics trumped the health, well-being, and peace of mind of the migrant workers.
The political blame game continues. Both those in power and in the Opposition claim that it is only they who are the true well-wishers of the migrant workers. Meanwhile, lakhs and lakhs of helpless migrants like Sapna continue their journey on the highways, on foot, carrying their luggage on their heads.