Mumbai: This is the personal account of this reporter who had stepped out to check the condition of the migrant labourers who were struggling to return home from Maharashtra:

I started heading to various highways leading out of Mumbai to come across faces in real trouble due to the extension in the lockdown. Heading from Borivali towards the Ahmedabad highway, I spotted a group of 30 people resting in the shade of a huge loader, waiting for some vehicle to board to reach their home in Uttar Pradesh. Some families of workers and migrants came with women and kids; while some other men, coming from Kurla, Borivali, Mira Bhayendar, Vasai and Virar—all walking—comprised another group. Asked how they would go, they said by truck. But was a truck already booked? One 50-year-old Yadav, who works in a steel factory, replied: “We are waiting since last evening; one truck is coming from our hometown with some essential goods and when it reaches Mumbai after emptying some goods, we will board it and will pay the driver once we reach our hometown, as currently we don’t have any money left!”

But why were they travelling in such a risky manner, with kids and women?

“Madam, what’s the option you tell us,” Yadav’s younger brother replied.

What about the trains and buses that have been made available by the government?

He said all such things were announcements on TV: “We do not have any access to all this. Standing in long queues of 7-8 hours, we applied for one form of police pass (he meant the exit pass that’s now been made available by nodal officers—the area’s DCP), but are yet to get permission though many days have passed. We have somehow survived in the past two months with no income; now this is enough; we will walk till we get our truck…”

One Shalini Yadav was seen pulling one of her small children, urging it to walk fast. She, with her husband and two children, was in a rush to reach the Toll Naka and said, “Madam, we don’t want to talk, but want to go back to our homes! Humein hamare ghar jaana hai bass.”

At the famous Hotel Fountain Junction, which connects Thane, Mumbai and the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway, hundreds, or perhaps thousands of migrant workers were searching for trucks or were heading towards Bhiwandi either on foot or on loaded autos. When one of the policemen present was told that this amounted to flouting of all norms of the lockdown, came the reply that “Those we see violating norms, we are stopping. This has been going on for the past week; people wanting to return home reach here and then board trucks to head home. How many will we stop?”

It was obvious that either the policemen had not received instructions to put a stop to this or, maybe feeling pity, they were allowing the people to assemble there.

Heading towards Godhbunder road and further towards Bhiwandi, migrants were seen walking in groups. On the roadside were parked 40-50 trucks in a queue, while on the other side, huge masses of migrants were trying to save themselves from the scorching heat by taking refuge under trees.

This was the Mankaoli area of Bhiwandi where people, via word of mouth, had started assembling. They were forming groups of 40-50 people to book one truck by paying Rs 3,000-4,000 per person.

A truck had “essential goods” labelled on it but actually had 40-50 people. The truck driver said they were headed for UP: “We will leave them on the border after which they, via interior roads, will reach home.”

From inside the tightly packed truck one person said, “Humein idhar naukri nahi, khana pina nahi, paisa nahi, kya karenge rehke…what will we do staying here with no income, no money, no food, no shelter?”

In another truck heading for Bihar, there was an old man in dhoti and Gandhi cap, sitting beside the driver, who would get off early: “Beta, I had come here to my son’s place for two days and got stuck for two months. In my Dondaicha in Dhule district (Maharashtra), my farms have suffered; the lockdown has killed my farming and my year’s income. I need to go urgently, even if that means risking my life.”

In another truck, migrant labourers tried to ward off the blazing sun by tying bags and tarpaulin sheets above their heads. Some were standing, some sitting, many were without masks and some were giving money to the truck driver. A man approached this reporter to say, “Madam, what you are seeing may seem like hell, but believe me, this is heaven for us—this truck driver who’s taking so much of money from us is like God to us.”

Then there was this man called Nawaz Sharif, who said he was an engineer by qualification, but a labourer from Dharavi by profession. He said: “Tell me, what do we do? We come from an area like Dharavi which is Asia’s biggest slum and currently a red hotspot zone. We tried for police passes; I filled up my form and helped a few others, but many don’t understand Marathi or English and thus they are helpless. At some places, to buy forms, some take Rs 5 to Rs 20. Then, there are huge queues for medical certificates where doctors charge you some Rs 150 to Rs 200. Since the past many days, we are just sitting with our mobile phones to see if we have received permission and even after putting in so much effort, there is no result. Tell me, what do you expect us to do? Our bosses have left us on the road with no money in hand; they have fled to their hometowns. What do you want us to do—go back to our temporary homes in Dharavi? We don’t have money to give rent for those homes; we have asked for money from our homes in villages for this travel. When we should earn and send them money, they are sending us their savings.”

When asked about Shramik trains, Sharif said, “Madam, what is the guarantee of berth there? We are sure that even if a truck takes takes three-four days, we will reach our villages to our people…so please Madam, cover our story in such a way that we don’t find hurdles ahead, but somehow reach home!”

Many of the migrant labourers said they were unaware of the process of obtaining permission to travel or found it too difficult and next to impossible. So they would rather travel hundreds of kilometres, crammed inside trucks and containers, risking their lives.

As one of the labourers said: “Madam, majdoor hai hum, isliye majboor hai hum! Kya karein, Madam, majdoor hai, isliye majboor hai!”