Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | That blood on the tracks was of people abandoned to their fate
The belongings of victims lie scattered on the railway track after a train ran over migrant workers sleeping on the track in Aurangabad district in the western state of Maharashtra, India. (Photo: Reuters)
The belongings of victims lie scattered on the railway track after a train ran over migrant workers sleeping on the track in Aurangabad district in the western state of Maharashtra, India. (Photo: Reuters)

Opinion | That blood on the tracks was of people abandoned to their fate

They’d rather have died back in their villages than an alien city but ended up dead along the way

They had names. Dhansingh Gond. Nirvesh Singh Gond. Buddharaj Singh Gond. Achchelal Singh. Rabendra Singh Gond. Suresh Singh Kaul. Rajbohram Paras Singh. Dharmendra Singh Gond. Virendra Singh Chainsingh. Pradeep Singh Gond. Santosh Napit. Brijesh Bheyadin. Munimsingh Shivratan Singh. Shridayal Singh. Nemshah Singh. Deepak Singh.

They worked hard. They were migrant workers. They had left poorer parts of India to earn their living in the country’s richer parts, so that they could look after their families and hope to build a better future for their children. They came because one of their cousins had probably found a job in a bigger town and knew of the opportunities and asked them to join him, and they came without contracts, banking on those words. And if they did sign contracts later, they knew these were not going be honoured. Even if they were to try getting them honoured, who knew if the courts, busy as they were, would have time for their plea? When migrant workers started walking home after the first lockdown, a court had asked the government about it, and the government assured the court that it was no longer a problem. This is the sort of issue for which committees are formed to submit reports. These things take time. If only everyone respected social distancing, we would be fine.

The migrants understood what social distancing meant. But it wasn’t easy. It is hard to maintain any distance, forget social distance, in a slum. There are eight in a room, lying on mattresses next to one another; the stove is in a corner, and the bathroom is shared with many more. There is no running water to wash hands regularly, there are no hand-sanitizers. Even in a slum, rent had to be paid. But where would the money come from? The construction site or the farm had closed.

They were abandoned. Some employers had probably shuttered factories. Some employers refused to pay any wages. Some paid them a little and told them to leave. They had come from elsewhere, they were reminded that they did not belong to the town in which they worked.

They felt lonely. Some had helped build the big city. Maybe some were the watchmen of apartment complexes. Some could have driven rickshaws. Some could have been domestic help. Or perhaps waiters. The specifics don’t matter. They were part of the silent, invisible force that keeps towns and cities humming, the force that made sure that their bright lights always shone, and cities that never sleep kept moving.

They listened to the government. The first covid-19 case in India had been identified on 30 January. Fifty-four days later, the government declared a national lockdown. Initially, they were told that it would be only for a short period. Then it got extended, then it was extended again, and maybe it will get extended one more time, maybe more. There were rumours that the trains would run again, but then they saw that the thousands who went to a station in Mumbai had to return, as there was no train. Then they saw images from Surat, Gujarat, where the police beat up migrant workers who wanted to go home. In Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu, thousands congregated in an area where barely a few hundred could fit. They wanted to go home, their own home. In Karnataka, though, the government did not want them to leave. They heard of state officials demanding money for the tickets of trains that would run. They earned a few hundred rupees a day; they hadn’t been paid for weeks; and now they had to pay 600 here, 710 there, to get a seat on a train that would take them home. If you couldn’t pay, you walked.

They relied on their instinct. They did what the poor in India do when the going gets tough. They walk, uncomplainingly. They ask for little, get less. You can see it in their tears—they show you their hungry children. Some officials spray them with bleach. The police directs them in lines using the lathi. They comply. The government is busy, it seems to have other priorities: like showering rose petals on doctors. The city lights lamps.

They wanted to live. Unless someone offered them food packets, they’d go hungry. They weren’t beggars. You can go hungry one night, maybe two, sometimes more. But for how long? And what about the children? What was their fault? The virus could kill them, but hunger would kill them sooner, they reckoned. And so they decided to leave for their home town. They worked hard to earn enough to make their own rotis. So they walked, with the rotis they had made. If we are going to die, we want to be surrounded by our loved ones, some had said, explaining why they left, why they didn’t want to die alone in an alien city. Some died neither in the city nor in their villages, but on rail tracks meant to connect the city and the village.

They had names. Dhansingh Gond. Nirvesh Singh Gond. Buddharaj Singh Gond. Achchelal Singh. Rabendra Singh Gond. Suresh Singh Kaul. Rajbohram Paras Singh. Dharmendra Singh Gond. Virendra Singh Chainsingh. Pradeep Singh Gond. Santosh Napit. Brijesh Bheyadin. Munimsingh Shivratan Singh. Shridayal Singh. Nemshah Singh. Deepak Singh.

Remember them.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at livemint.com/saliltripathi

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