It’s the morning of March 24. We are at the Darbhanga railway station to catch the Bihar Sampark Kranti Express. There is the usual hustle and bustle on the platform.
Seeing off her 20-year-old son, a distraught mother steals glances through the steel bars of the train. “He is leaving for New Delhi to work,” she says. “He is going for the first time. Look at him—he is the most handsome boy in the compartment.”
While he barely manages to cling to the edge of the seat he shares with four others in the general compartment, she tells him: “Pair theek sa rakh hi, koyi chaidh jetao. Chot layig jetau nakhun me.” (Be mindful of your feet. Someone will step on it and you might injure your nails). The mother and son exchange disappointed looks as passengers continue to get in. The compartment is now packed beyond capacity. The mother gets restless when she sees passengers accidently stepping over the son’s feet while dragging their luggage.
Seeing her restlessness, a man, probably in his late 20s, who is sitting near the window, says to her: “My four-year-old daughter was sleeping when I left. She will look for me when she wakes up. We have to live away from our family to give them a better life.”
The train leaves at 8:25 am.
The scene of a flock of sheep transforming into human beings rushing to catch up with the sirens of factories in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is recreated every day in the general and second-class compartments of the trains from Bihar—crammed with migrant workers searching for a space even to squat.
Burdened with responsibilities and forced by circumstances, thousands of migrants undertake risky and unpredictable transits from their home states to metro cities in search of work. They board buses and trains to destinations that ensure a source of income for their families to survive. Taking a bus route to bigger cities from states like Bihar is costlier and more time-consuming. For the marginalised and deprived communities of Bihar, trains are the most economical and feasible mode of transit, irrespective of how dangerous or dehumanising their journey is.
Huddled on plastic sheets at night in the waiting rooms of the railway stations, groups of young boys and men wait patiently for their trains scheduled the next day. They dream of nothing but employment. Education, dignity and safety are luxuries—unthinkable concepts to them. Barely “legal” by the government’s definition, most of them lie about their age to secure a job and not be punished by the legal machinery.
The previous night, while waiting at the Darbhanga railway station, we met a group of 10 boys— some dropouts, some had never been to school. They were resting in the waiting room ready to board their train to Ahmedabad the next day. Sitting in that stuffy waiting room, the discussion unexpectedly veered towards matters of hearts after Basant (name changed), 17, said: “I will miss my parents and girlfriend.” Basant, a Dalit, said his girlfriend was recently married off by her parents. Another boy said: “Most girls in our state are married off between 14 and 18. Boys are married off between 20 and 25.”
The conversation stayed with us when we boarded the train the next day. We came across some familiar faces from the platform and the waiting room.
Sundar (23) and his friend Bharat (17) are also in the general compartment. The two are sitting at the train’s doorstep, with their feet dangling outwards. Both are going to Delhi.
As soon as the train crosses a bridge, looming over the Ganga River from above hundreds of feet, Sundar flinches and moves inwards. But there is no space, so he holds the door bar tightly until the train crosses the bridge. At another bridge, he panics even more. A freight train is coming at a high speed on the adjacent track. The deafening sound prompts him to shut his ear with one hand while he continues to hold the door bar with the other.
When we ask them if their parents have the slightest of idea about how arduous and risky the journey is going to be, Sundar responds in a casual manner and says: “But this is how migrant workers travel every day.” Bharat’s response is mature beyond his age. “We don’t tell them. They will worry. It’s not as if they can do anything about it, so it’s better they don’t know,” he says.
Resting on the floor between the toilet and the gate of one of the second-class compartments is Ajit Kumar Paswan, a 25-year-old from Chauri village in Bhojpur district of Bihar. He works in a plastic factory in Delhi. He is travelling back to the capital after a short break. He dropped out before middle school after his father, a taanga-puller met with an accident. “He damaged his limbs. My older brother was already working, so I had to drop out to share the burden,” he says.
His older brother worked as a security guard at a bungalow in Lajpat Nagar locality of Delhi. “Last year, he was diagnosed with HIV. He continued working despite that, but his health deteriorated. I came to drop him home,” says Paswan.
Paswan has tried looking for work close to his home but to no avail. “Either there are no jobs or we get half the wages.” He has decided against getting married until he feels a bit settled. “My sister-in-law and I are currently the breadwinners of our family. She is working as a daily wager in Bihar while looking after the family,” says Paswan.
Sundar, who hails from Jainagar town in Madhubani district of Bihar, is travelling in the general compartment with five young boys. They left their village early on March 23 in an auto to catch an afternoon train from Jainagar to Darbhanga. After spending a night on the floors of the Darbhanga railway station, sleeping close to each other on a cold and rainy evening, they boarded the train on the morning of March 24.
“I dropped out in class four after seeing my father, a labourer, struggle. I have been working for almost ten years now. I ensured none of my four younger siblings had to work and compromise on education.” His youngest brother is in class four and the oldest is pursuing his under-graduation.
He says the six will get down in Kanpur at midnight from where they will board another train. They are scheduled to reach Ahmedabad at 1:30 am on March 25. For a journey that spans more than 60 hours, they are carrying chura, jhilli and khajurs packed by their mothers. For lunch, one of the boys, Ganesh, 14, buys litti from a woman selling them in the jam-packed coach. Four of them share two pieces of the litti, sitting uncomfortably on one of the upper berths.
As dusk envelops the train, exhaustion starts wearing the passengers in the general and second classes. Some have been standing in one position throughout the day. Those who were squatted earlier have now rested their bodies against each other. Some doors are shut from inside as there no longer is room for more passengers.
An IRCTC employee sits on the gangway connector with other passengers. He catches a breath from maneuvering all day long across the 21-coach long train. People stacked against each other, leaving no space for air, causes an inescapable traffic for him. But this hardship is not enough to break the spirits of these migrant workers.
Despite their difficulties, they find camaraderie, humour among each other. They share their food, pain and even the bare space they have managed for themselves. No fabric, other than poverty weaves human relations. They have learnt that our policies and governments will continue to fail them and they are each other’s best shot, not the system.
When the sun sets, chilly winds pierce through the bodies of those standing and sitting between parallel gates. Sitting in one such enclosed coach soon becomes unbearable for passengers who are close to the door. The stench of urine and faeces coming from the toilets is too strong. Someone suggests opening the door for a while. Braving cold seems to be better option than breathing through the nauseating smell.
In the B6 coach, sitting on seat 79, we meet Rinku Devi—one of the few female migrant workers travelling in the train. Roughly 28, Rinku is a mother of four. “I am returning to Ghaziabad. My husband passed away recently and I had to come back to my village in Darbhanga for his final rites. He worked as a cobbler. I work as domestic help for an affluent family in Ghaziabad,” she says. She shares one side of the lower berth with eight others, including her four children. Rinku is carrying rice with her. “My ration card is not updated. I must take care of these things now,” she says with a firm conviction.
At midnight, the train reaches Kanpur where some passengers get down. Sundar and his friends board the 1:30 am train to Ahmedabad from here. We had taken down Sundar’s number. We called him a day later. He said they reached Ahmedabad and took an auto from Sabarmati railway station to the room where they were supposed to stay. On the way, a few men, possibly known to the auto driver, stopped them and threatened them to part with all the cash that they had. A minor scuffle broke out and they had to oblige. They could not note down the number of any of the autos.
This was just the beginning of a new life for them.
Failed by the governments, systems and policies, abandoned by rights and protections, exposed to dangers and punishment—the reality of migrants from their point of origin to the transit and destination is inhuman, dangerous, and sordid.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Hope on Iron Rails")