Monday, 30th October 2017

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Harrowing accounts of migrants

Bengal workers run into Surat wall

By Arkamoy Datta Majumdar in Calcutta
  • Published 19.05.20, 2:39 AM
  • Updated 19.05.20, 11:54 AM
  • 2 mins read
A family of migrants takes rest under a flyover near Ghazipur in New Delhi on Monday as police have stopped them for the past two days. The family is on their way to their home near Chandigarh. (PTI)

Every time Sheikh Mohammad Israil and his fellow migrant workers from West Midnapore approached the local administration in Surat to find a way of returning home, they were told Bengal wasn’t interested in receiving back its stranded labourers.

“First, they wouldn’t give us the form migrants needed to fill in to be able to secure a train ticket, although they handed the forms out to workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh,” Israil, an embroidery artisan working in Surat for several years, said.

Then, when he and his colleagues from Bengal borrowed a form from a labourer from another state, got photocopies made and filled them in, the police refused to accept them.

As the group of 106 artisans from a village in Salboni, left unemployed and cash-strapped by the lockdown, were on the verge of despair, a ray of hope arrived on Monday evening in the form of a phone call from the Bengal government.

A senior official, whom the artisans’ contacts in Calcutta had approached, told the group that the Bengal government would facilitate their return by train.

Bengal officials clarified to this newspaper the state had never opposed any migrant’s return and was receiving many trains bringing workers home from various states.

Israil said the group’s search for a way home had started in earnest when he came across a helpline number issued by the Bengal secretariat several days ago.

When he called this number he was given another number, which belonged to the local administration in Gujarat. When he called the second number he was asked to visit the Surat district collectorate for assistance.

“I met a few officers at the collectorate. They said we could not go back because there was no green light from Bengal,” Israil told The Telegraph over the phone.

In desperation, the group sought help from a private bus owner. But he agreed to ferry only 30 men to Bengal and demanded a fare of Rs 2 lakh.

He also refused to take the trouble of doing the paperwork. Eventually, Israil and his friends abandoned the idea.

Israil said he was feeling helpless. He had been unemployed the past two months and had used up almost all the cash he had.

His employers — one of whom he said owed him over Rs 1 lakh — had stopped receiving his calls.

“The first phase of the lockdown was manageable: I had enough money for myself. When the lockdown started getting extended indefinitely I had to seek help from my family,” Israil said.

His wife Ashia Bibi pawned her jewellery to send him Rs 30,000.

Sheikh Akhtar, another artisan from Israil’s village, said he too was surviving on money sent by his family.

“We came here so we could send some money home. Now they are sending us money so we can buy food. This role reversal is painful,” Akhtar said.

Surat, the commercial and economic hub of south Gujarat, has through the nationwide lockdown witnessed several protests by migrant workers demanding to be sent home.

Many among these 106 from Bengal had participated in one such demonstration, held near Varachha police station in April.

However, while the Gujarat administration has been distributing a form among migrants who want to go back, the group from Bengal was denied any.

So, they borrowed a form and made photocopies. The photocopies cost Rs 10 per page, 10 times the normal rate. “The shopkeeper was taking the risk of running his shop amid the lockdown; it’s only natural he would charge extra,” Akhtar said.

But the money seemed to have gone waste when, on Monday afternoon, Israil went to Varachha police station to submit the filled-in forms. He was asked to leave right away.

Phone calls and emails to Dhaval Patel, district magistrate of Surat, remained unanswered.