Like many others, I reacted with helplessness at the migrant workers fleeing home in droves. When I was forwarded a message from Rosemary Ratnam about putting together packets of roti to be sent to intercept migrant folk leaving for trains, that was the fillip to stop crying and start acting. It felt good to be part of a larger community, who with their actions, demonstrated care for our fellow citizens who didn’t share our privileges. The Richards Town and Cooke Town communities have always been filled with folk who march to the tune of a drummer who calls out for empathy and love. Slowly, the effort went from rotis and buns, to adding bottled water, biscuits, boiled eggs, juices and milk for children, sanitary pads and hand sanitisers – all being generously donated by folk, by the cartonful. This made it to the news a couple of weeks back.
I’d sworn off rotis, so this meant going back to making them and that began with buying wheat and dusting off the roti making materials. After a couple of weeks of contributing by way of making rotis, there was a call for volunteers at Palace Grounds on a Saturday. The migrant workers headed to different states are housed at grounds in different parts of Bangalore – Palace Grounds was possibly the largest. BMTC buses stood by, to take these folks to the railway station. There were 2000 migrant workers leaving from Tripuravasini that Saturday, and they needed hands on deck to pack and distribute food and essentials. It was a Saturday and I had time available, so off I went, masked and gloved.
The first sight to greet me was that of a bunch of young college folk – from St. Joseph’s, I was told later – taking boxes of water and food out of the boots of their cars, and distributing them to the long lines of people waiting to board buses to the railway station. I was in awe of these youngsters bright and energetic in their Nike and Under Armour gear, tirelessly doing what was needed. I felt my hope was restored that twenty years from now, these citizens will continue the Bangalore legacy of generosity. I met our point of contact for all on-ground efforts, Anish. He was constantly coordinating with the IPS officer in charge of our area on numbers to expect across three gates in the next two hours, deliveries by various groups, and directing volunteers, all at once. The plan for the day was clear: go-go-go, till all the migrant workers for the day were safely aboard the buses.
Photo courtesy: Anish Ratnam
I was given nitrile gloves, and a face shield, and we set to work behind some tables set up at a spot between the place where the travelers were housed and the buses parked. The idea was to hand over things to people as they queued out. The first people I met were Zaki and Noor, who took the tasks up of opening biscuit cartons and distributing them. Next came the powerhouse, Samantha and her daughter, Sanayah and two young friends of theirs, Amitha and Preethi. Between us, we hauled 12 litre packages of water on to the table, prised them open, and set them out for distribution.
The migrant workers came in spurts of 30 to board each bus. People from Indira canteen were giving out packed lunch. We handed over the rotis with packets of pickle, or buns for later in their journey. Samantha took charge of making sure that no child left without a packet of milk and no woman boarded without a packet of sanitary pads. Sanayah was in charge of announcing and giving hand sanitisers to people, with help from Zaki and Noor on reminding folks to only use it, without water, on their hands.
In the middle of this, the cops asked Anish to set up supplies for a bus leaving for Nepal. So, we all changed gears, and loaded the bus with enough food to last them two days, and water for the four days they anticipated it would take to complete their journey, and sent them off with a wish in our hearts. Ten minutes later, we were back to distributing food for the next set of people.
When all the migrant folk in our gate left – about a thousand of them, we moved all the material in available cars, to the next gate, to continue efforts. The muggy heat of the day was replaced by greying skies and within minutes, there was a downpour. As Samantha and Anish worked to setup counters and create a system to make the process smooth, the rest of us placed water cartons in buses that were leaving immediately, and scurried about to make sure that nobody left without food and essentials. Within minutes, order reigned, thanks to Samantha’s persistence. We continued to work with the police and BBMP folk, to make sure those most in need were at the forefront of efforts.
We knew that people going from other venues might not have someone taking care of them and there were days when there were more unplanned movements than we were prepared for. Those of us who fretted about not being able to help were told that the Sikhs who have set up HQ near the station and are managing a round-the-clock langar will take care of all of them, as they are prepared for any scale, and have an unending supply of volunteers.
As I left for the day, I looked at the sea of faces hoping to go to home to Uttarakhand. Last year at this time, in what feels like a parallel reality, I was in Uttarakhand, enjoying the warmth and hospitality of the locals in a remote village 12 hours away from the closest train station. I recognized the facial features of people I’d befriended there, in the faces of those waiting here. It just struck closer home. I knew that this was not the end but only the start of a long and arduous journey for them: men, women, children, leaving with their homes hastily wrapped in bundles balanced on their heads. With a breaking heart, I sent them a wish for safe passage home and hoped that counted for something in an otherwise indifferent universe.