COVID-19: Odisha migrants take to chain-pulling to deboard closer home

State not pressing charges; officials recognise hardships

By Priya Ranjan Sahu
Published: Tuesday 26 May 2020
Chain-pulling — a notified railway offence — was used by around 2,000 migrants to get down at railway stations across Odisha Photo: Needpix

Several migrant workers returning to Odisha from other states amid the nationwide lockdown against the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) opt to pull chains to reach their destinations faster, throwing a fresh challenge to the local administration.

Chain-pulling — a notified railway offence — was used by around 2,000 migrants to get down at railway stations across Odisha that were not designated as stops, between May 23 and May 25, 2020.

The incidents reflect gaps in coordination among states and the railways to earmark stops near to where the migrant workers need to get down.

Officials in the Odisha government and the Indian Railways said this was a significant issue and called for better coordination and strategy to ensure migrants deboard trains at stations nearer to their districts.

Subsequent transport via buses to their destinations covering shorter distances was also needed, the officials said. None of them, however, wanted to be officially quoted, considering the sensitivity of the issue.

A total 262 migrant workers coming back from Maharashtra via the Kolhapur-Bokaro special express, pulled chains to get down at Nuagaon railway station in Odisha’s Sundargarh district on May 25.

The migrants were from 19 districts of the state, with at least 41 from Bhadrak, 33 from Kendrapara and 27 from Puri, according to the police.

On the same day, 342 migrants returning from Maharashtra got down at Simdega station in Jharkhand, that borders Sundargarh. All of them were supposed to go to Bhadrak, Balasore, Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur and Nayagarh districts.

On May 24, 305 migrant workers coming from Surat got down at Kantabanji station. At least 283 of the workers were from Nuapada, while the others were from Balangir and Kalahandi.

The train was scheduled to stop at Nergundi station in Cuttack district.

Similarly, over 400 migrant workers who reached Odisha from Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur got down at Chilika station in Ganjam on May 23. The train’s stop was at Khurda. Almost all the migrants were from Ganjam district.

The Odisha government said migrant workers should get down at designated railway stations where arrangements were made to transport them home by bus and not violate guidelines by pulling chains.

Many migrants, however, said they had no other option as the trains they were in often passed through their areas to reach designated stoppages that were hundreds of kilometres away.

“Our patience ran out after sitting in trains without having food and water for days,” said Gokul Tandi, a migrant from Nuapada.

Tandi — travelling in a train from Gujarat’s Surat to Odisha’s Nergundi — got down at Kantabanji. He said if he had gone to Nergundi, it would mean a painful 400 km journey back home by bus. He cited quarantining with other migrants in Cuttack for several days as another reason for not doing so.

A railway official said states that send lists of migrant labourers to be transported to another state should specify the areas migrants belonged to.

It was often seen that a group of migrants who have to go to Ganjam end up deboarding at a station in Jharkhand, due to lack of coordination, according to the official.

Several state government officials agree with migrants who said they were transported to stations hundreds of kilometres away unnecessarily. “Migrants are a harassed lot. There should be options for more stops to ensure they undertake shorter bus journeys for home,” an official said.

The officials, however, said the administration had very few options in this regard. A senior state government official said the only information they get from originating states is the number of passengers in a train.

“We are clueless about specific details. This has led to confusion while arranging food or accommodation for them,” he said.

The state government, or the railways, has not initiated punitive action against the migrant workers accused of chain-pulling. It, instead, said arrangements were being made for temporary accommodations for the migrants near the stations they get down at.

Officials said the unexpected deboarding by migrant workers at railway stations not designated to stop has increased their workload and put pressure on quarantining as it was difficult to immediately arrange food and vehicles for their transport back home. Officials said they had to remain alert to ensure some of them did not slip out on their own, escaping quarantine as it happened at Kantabanji railway station.

In all cases of unscheduled deboarding, concerned district administration officials rushed to the railway station after being informed by the railways officials and started making arrangements for their temporary stay and subsequent transport. They were kept either on one of the platforms or a shelter nearby till vehicles were arranged.

Officials said it was dangerous for the frequency of such incidents to rise as it might lead to confrontation with local people, who were scared of a large number of migrants getting down unexpectedly and a full-fledged law and order problem.

“We understand migrant workers have gone through a lot. We only request them to have patience for a few more days as we try our best to send them home. The administration too has its own limits,” said a top state government official.

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