| Travelogue on train: Sufferings of the migratory workers in Railways
It was 9 o'clock in the morning of third week of March, 2009 at a remote village at a forest area in Sundergarh district of Orissa. Even in the forests we could feel heat as if the peak summer is on. I was conducting an awareness program on benefit of Soil less farming for the benefit of marginal and poor farmers. Thanks to the network of mobile phones that connects people even in remote areas, I got the call of my younger brother from Kolkatta, informing me of sudden death of my 28 year old nephew at Anand in Gujarat. I was required to rush to join rest of our family within a day or two. Wife was at Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh. Confirmed railway accommodation at such short notice in our country is a dream. Tatkal is no more tatkal as booking opens before five days of the date of journey. Thanks to improved airlines services, I could fly from Raipur to Ahmadabad. I was just wondering, how poor people away from their families could manage! With help of my friend in New Delhi, I got my return journey wait listed tickets from Surat to Bilaspur in Ahmadabad Howrah express confirmed.
It was 28th of March, 2009 early morning at about 3.30 A.M, when I reached the platform where the train was expected after 40 minutes. I was surprised to see many Oriyas also waiting for the train to arrive. Few of them had medium sized plastic drums. Just out of curiosity, I asked one of them about those drums. Reply was "where is water in our area?" Here, we get the drums for free from the factory we work and are very much useful for my family to store water which is scarce at my village. He stated that if he had confirmed reservation, he would have preferred to take four instead of just two. I wondered, how without confirmed reservation, they will travel such a long distance! Immediate was the reply; "Where is reservation for us? Who bothers for the poor in this world?" There were no signs of train coming in.
Dinbabdhu Sahu aged 26, Amit of 20 and Digambar Mahanty of 50 years of age joined the discussion that I was having with Sanatan Patra of 40 years. All of them are going for few days to their village in Ganjam district. They informed that travelling back home is the biggest problem they are facing. During the middle of our talks there were announcements on the public address system that train was about to come. Worries to board could be read on their faces.
I was curious to see how this people with so many luggages are able to board the train that too in an unreserved compartment. Luckily, just after their coach, AC 2 tier bogie was there in which I had to travel. I curiously watched successful forcible entry of those four persons and few others in to the compartment, simultaneously their friends pushed in the luggage, while two of them tied the drums with strings to the rod of window. It was pity to see two persons with women and children failing in their efforts to push in. As the time was running out, I preferred to check in and went for sleep on my berth after train left Surat Railway Station.
It was about 11 AM when I got up; train had stopped at a station called Bhushawal. I came out of the compartment looking for tea and newspaper. Outside temperature was quite high. Few tea vendors and hawkers selling food stuff were doing brisk business with the passengers in the front common compartment in which the Digambar and others had boarded.
Amit noticed me and shouted to draw my attention. I asked where others are. All are here and there in this coach, he replied. I requested to make some space for me, as I wished to travel with them for about an hour. He felt I was joking. I made my intentions clear that I am very serious and will be with them around 3 PM. He and few others laughed at me in disbelief. While I had an opportunity to study the realities of migratory workers of Orissa at Surat as well as to know the conditions that leads them to travel like this even at the cost of great discomfort and harassment.
About 2.30 PM or so; I could manage with the intervention of my new platform friends Santatan, Amit, Digambar and Dinbandhu to enter their compartment. Protest of some passengers was silenced by them using filthy language. Wardha was the next station where the train was to halt after one hour within which I thought to complete my observations. There was no space to move or even stretch legs. Heat was such that most of the male members were bare bodied. One child was crying restlessly whom the helpless mother tried to keep him quite. Sounds of Hindi songs on FM radio/ mobile phones were also adding to the sound of running of the train. Occasional knocking of toilet doors was also heard. I found that out of four toilets only two were in use as other two were occupied by four persons with their luggage tied to the window rods and spread out on the floor, converting as temporary seats. Irritating smell and unbearable heat, lots of sound, it was difficult to talk, concentrate and take notes. It was next to impossible to travel in such nasty difficult conditions that too on a long distance journey after payment of full railway fares. I had earlier noticed long queues at Howrah railway station that are managed by RPF to allow ordinary ticket holder to board unreserved compartment. I was wondering why railways are not doing any thing that could solve their problem. This new experience convinced me that there is an urgent need to address this problem.
I thought it would be the best, if few top railway officers try to enter to those compartments without the help of any one, take their luggage in to travel for few hours only on a summer afternoon. There will be no need to explain them the horrible situation in which our own brothers and sisters are to travel like this even in 21st Century. We have talked of India shining; we talk of right to live with dignity. Where are those rights? We talk of right of equality. Where is equality?
At Wardha, I went back to my seat taking Amit and others with me. Thanks to a Muslim couple who adjusted by going to other seats, the task was easier. It was a unique experience for Amit and others to travel from extreme heat to an AC coach even till Nagpur. Amit and Digambar were feeling shy with Gamchha on their bare body while other two had put on their shirts. I noticed others looking curiously at us with puzzled mind, to know what is going on. This is life.
The gist of our talks is that most of the migrant workers at Surat are from Behramnpur and Ganjam District. They are not sure about their numbers. Amit says 6 lakhs, Santan counters with 8 lakhs, Digambar is confident that the figure is 10-12 lakhs while Dinbandhu has no idea. Digambar says that the figure is increasing every week as 500-700 Oriyas land at Surat every week from Ganjam/Behrampur area only. There are many at Vapi which is on way to Mumbai, at Ahmadabad, at Baroda, at Alang ship breaking yard near Bhavnagar. As such there must be more than 15 to 18 lakhs Oriya in Gujarat. Amit intervenes to add that his friend who works at Mumbai says that there are more Oriyas in and around Mumbai than that of Surat who also face traveling problem as we face.
Lack of any income generating activity has driven them to Surat. Amit says they are a family of three brothers and two sisters. One brother died due to lack health care at the village. There was no money to buy costly medicines prescribed by the private doctor. Government hospitals are killing fields where instead of curing a person, they push patients to certain deaths. After the death of his youngest brother, his elder brother Surya with his friend working at a textile unit reached Surat before about eight years and he came two years back. Both he and Surya are collectively earning about Rs.14,000 a month. They stay at a slum in Pandeshara where living conditions are bad but to save money, comforts are sacrificed enabling them to save Rs. 6,000/- to 7,000/- per month but when that money when reaches his father's hand, all are happy and proud on us, thinking we are very happy.
I asked; are you not happy at Surat? Earning Rs 14,000 together with my brother is good money at my village he says, but is a small amount in a costly city like Surat. Every thing is costly. Even we share rooms in such a way that while one person is on duty for 12 hours, his bed is occupied by other who works in another shift for 12 hours. This way we share the rent to minimize the expenses. Take any thing at Surat; very costly, he adds. If some relatives come to visit us, we have no choice but to take leave or remain absent, room mates are required to adjust with friends, take guest to places to treat them. It happens once in a year or so. That eats away entire savings of that month. On the other hand, it gives us joy and pleasure and feeling of being at home..
Digambar had another story to tell. He was the youngest after six sisters. He had come to Surat at the age of 14 years as a helper of a cook working with a caterer. He is proud to say that he can make any dishes even of 5 star varieties and earn Rs.15,000/- to Rs 18,000/- on average a month during marriage season that lasts for five months in a year where as during rest of the period, it comes down to about Rs. 12,000/-. What about family? I asked. Quick was the reply, who has married? .
Father died before six years; Mother is sick who stays with one of his sister at the village home. All sisters are married. His father had borrowed money to get the marriage of the eldest three sisters and failed to repay. As such land is lost to the money lender. There was no money even for my education, as such ran away from the village to Surat with a fellow villager who was going back to Surat. He wanted to earn money quickly but after coming to Surat, he faced reality of life. His father was informed that he is fine at Surat and will come with money. All the life he has earned money to support his father to get other three sisters married. Why don't you go to Bhubaneswar or other cities at Orissa? He says, now I have made Surat my home. I will live and die here. He believes that desire of his father to have a male baby, even after he had six girls is at the root cause of the misery that their entire family has faced. Dowry is the biggest curse that leads innocent poor persons to fall in debt traps of money lenders in our area he says. To pay off loans and interest many sons are working hard at Surat and other areas so as to save their family from the grip of the money lenders.
All four of them confirm that mainly there are two trains that bring in Oriyas to Surat. Okha-Puri Express in which people from Ganjam area prefer to travel where as for Sambalpur and other areas, Howrah Ahmadabad Express. Almost all the family has some one or other in Surat from villages of Ganjam and Behrampur district. Any body that is going home on leave comes back with two or three new faces that they get trained to earn enough money to support and make savings.
Since Surat is a costly city, until and unless some one is not there to support, it is difficult for the new comers to find a job and survive. There are many who feels that there is enough money at Surat as such some times few youths run away from their villages to land up in trouble at Surat.
Digambar criticizes both Gujarat and Orissa government to have failed to draw the attention of the railway authorities to at least do some thing to ensure that they can travel safely back home. They are ready to pay charges for confirmed reservation ticket but where is the accommodation? Even if government adds more common coaches or arrange to give sitting accommodation at least and restricts number of passengers as per the sitting capacity, it will be a big help to them. RPF also demands money from them to save them from unnecessary harassment in the name of checking their luggage and what not. Even memorandums submitted to the authorities have failed, he says.
Describing trouble to go back home after a hard earned savings, we buy goods for the families, we have cash but touts, thugs and cheaters rob few of the poor persons where more than money, emotions are looted. Just imagine, what would be the condition of such persons who loses everything on way to his village home? Security of luggage is very much important he says. Railway should also introduce an insurance scheme by charging premium with the ticket. I asked, from where he learned all this? The reply was he has seen a fellow passenger weeping badly after his suitcase with money and goods was stolen by some one at Surat railway station.
Why don't you book tickets early? Almost they all responded at a time, what should we do? Where is the reservation even after paying money? Where is the choice? Most of us get leave only before a week or sometimes before two weeks. By this time, all the seats are booked. Why don't you ask this question to the rail authorities? Are we not paying fare? Do you think we are happy to travel like animals? Much was told by them in less than a minute. They looked at me curiously, as If I am here to solve their problem. There is enough weight in their talks. Train entered Nagpur station that put brakes to our talks.
I must say though these people were living in Surat, their heart and soul is naturally at home with their families. Some thing must be done by the government of Orissa to use the talent of the people by setting up a cluster of textile industry as it exists at Surat.
I feel that the time has come to draw the attention of the pro people Hon'ble Railway Minister, Ms. Mamata Banerjee to submit a proposal to her to address the problem. Migratory workers be they are of Surat or of any other area; all of them must be given "IZZAT" to facilitate them to come back home safe and happy. Why can not there be a non-stop bi-weekly sitting / sleeper reserved train from Surat to Behrampur? Where there is a will, there is a way.
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