Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana have launched coordinated efforts to control swelling crowds of migrant workers retreating from the National Capital Region (NCR) amid a 21-day lockdown over the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak, arranging about 2,500 buses to take people off the streets, and providing shelters and food to them.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a three-week lockdown on Tuesday to break the chain of infections of the disease, which has killed at least 32,000 people worldwide.
The decision, however, left millions of people who live off daily earnings out of work, as factories, hotels and other businesses shut to facilitate “social distancing” measures. The migrant workers began leaving big cities for their hometowns hundreds of kilometres away, a phenomenon that experts said ran counter to the objective of the lockdown.
The Centre on Sunday ordered the “effective sealing” of borders to curb mass movement and announced measures to aid those in need of shelter and food. However, the three states kept in constant touch to transport the hordes of migrant workers – about 100 million of them across India form the backbone of the economy – to their hometowns or back to their rented accommodations in NCR.
OVERNIGHT EFFORTS AT ANAND VIHAR
Authorities were able to disperse thousands gathered in Delhi late on Saturday by ferrying them to ISBT Kaushambi in Ghaziabad and then deploying UP State Road Transport Corporation buses to take them back to their hometowns. Visuals of hordes of people walking along arterial roads and gathering at the Anand Vihar bus terminal were widely shared on social on Saturday, highlighting the plight of the stranded workers of the informal sector.
Overnight, the size of the gathering at Anand Vihar reduced to about 2,000 from 50,000 the night before. The work to clear the area began at 11pm, when the Delhi government pressed into service 570 buses and the UP government sent around 1,000 buses.
To reduce the movement of migrant workers within the Capital and just outside its borders, the city administration suspended the movement of its DTC and cluster buses, except a few that were seen carrying workers of essential services.
“It was an overnight operation and by 5am, Anand Vihar was mostly cleared. Our DTC and cluster buses were deployed to ferry people to areas that were within the 50-70km radius. The entire operation was carried out in coordination with the Delhi police and the UP and Haryana governments,” said transport minister Kailash Gahlot.
“For longer routes such as Bareily and Kanpur, the Anand Vihar ISBT was opened to allow private buses sent by the UP government and ensure orderly movement of passengers with appropriate social distancing,” the minister said.
“Similar steps were also taken by the authorities of the adjoining states, as they anticipated that the total objective of the nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19 would fail if such mass exodus that involved the gathering of people in close proximity was not stopped immediately,” he added.
Jagtap Singh, who worked at a toy factory in Shahdara before it was shut, said: “We have been told that UP buses are waiting at Lal Kuan to take us to the interiors of the state. I have to go Itawa.” He spent Saturday night shuttling between the Anand Vihar and Kaushambi bus terminals but failed to board a bus due to the massive crowd.
ACTION SHIFTS TO LAL KUAN
By Sunday morning, the action shifted from Delhi to Lal Kuan on the Delhi-Meerut Expressway, where hundreds of buses were deployed to transport migrant workers to different cities. According to estimates by officials, at least 150,000 arrived at ISBT Kaushambi. This prompted the Uttar Pradesh government to contact officials in Delhi and Haryana to control the situation and enforce the lockdown.
The Haryana government, responding to the call by the UP administration, sent a large fleet of about 1,000 Haryana Roadways’ buses to evacuate the stranded migrants. “The buses from Haryana have come to Lal Kuan via Eastern Peripheral Expressway and ferrying passengers free of cost to different cities in UP. The payment to the Haryana government will be made through government-to-government transfer of funds. But nothing is charged from passengers,” said Praveen Kumar, inspector general (Meerut range).
“We hope that the ferrying of passengers from Lal Kuan will also be stopped soon, probably in a day or two, otherwise more and more people will keep coming,” he added. The buses of Haryana arrived from different depots at Delhi, Sonepat, Panipat, Rohtak, Jind, Palwal and Faridabad continued ferrying stranded passengers to Gorakhpur, Lucknow, Rampur, Bareilly and Agra among others till late on Sunday.
Krishan Kumar, a driver from the Delhi depot of Haryana Roadways, said: “Our drivers have come with buses that have diesel tank capacity of 250 litres and 400 litres. The first set of buses can reach up to 300km distance and come back while the other category of buses (400 litres) can go up to 1,000km and return. Our drivers are not well-versed with UP areas and roads but we are taking help of Google Maps for the purpose. We have been told to ferry passengers free of cost.”
By afternoon, an estimated 50,000 people had gathered at Lal Kuan. They were boarding and leaving in buses till late at night. “We are also trying to dispatch maximum of migrant workers who have gathered at Lal Kuan. Our officials are in touch with Delhi government and Delhi Police and making efforts that no more people arrive at ISBT Anand Vihar. At present, we are not allowing people into Ghaziabad from the Delhi border but the figures of those still waiting at Delhi-UP border should not swell. Otherwise the purpose of sealing the borders get defeated,” said Prashant Kumar, additional director general (Meerut zone).
Ombir Sharma, vice president, Haryana Roadways, said: “We are helping migrant labourers who are stuck due to the lockdown. Delhi-Gurugram border has been closed therefore we are taking them to Uttar Pradesh border via Manesar and Rajasthan.”
“After the lockdown, workers from different states started heading towards their homes in different districts of Haryana as well as states such as Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, and some to Madhya Pradesh. Following the directives given by the state government, we are running buses from the Gurugram and Faridabad borders to drop them to nearby locations,” said Sharma.
Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar, in a video conference with officials of different districts, directed to close the state and district borders.
Sanjay Rawat, inspector, Vasant Kunj police station, was deployed at the Gurugram-Delhi border and said they had orders not to allow migrant labourers to cross the stretch in a group. “This move is to ensure they are protected and social distancing is maintained to prevent transmission of coronavirus,” said Rawat.
On National Highway-48, the Gurugram Police could be seen sending back groups of migrant workers towards Manesar. They followed the migrants to ensure they did not resume retreating to their hometowns.
Lankesh Singh, who worked as a farmhand in Pataudi and wanted to board a bus to Bareilly, said: “We have returned from the Delhi border. But we will again go back till they don’t allow us. We cannot stay here as there is no work for us.”
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