On Tuesday evening, visuals and photos of thousands of labours gathered at Bandra West in Western Mumbai started flashing on TV and mobile screens. The workers thought they would get onto trains headed for their native places after they had been unreliably informed that the railway reservation process is on, and they wanted to get it done at the earliest. Seemingly, all the ‘ruckus’ was over after the Mumbai Police lathi-charged the crowd. However, this simplistic story had much going on behind the scenes, which needs to be told.
When information that COVID-19 could spread in Maharashtra started coming in between March 16 and March 17, the state government started working on a plan for a lockdown. For the state government, managing Mumbai and the metropolitan region was the biggest challenge. So, to put the state machinery at ease, the government took primary data of people who they suspected would go back to their native places, before the lockdown was announced.
Highly placed sources in the Maharashtra government informed NewsClick that close to five lakh daily wagers in Mumbai, Thane, Raigad, Palghar and Pune districts were from other states. The state government wanted them to safely return to their homes efore the lockdown was announced. However, before the state could make any arrangements, the Modi-government announced a nationwide lockdown on March 24, with a four-hour deadline.
On April 12, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, during the video conference with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and all the other CMs of India, raised the issue of stranded migrant labourers. He, along with Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan, requested the Union Government to run special trains for them, a suggestion that was clearly overlooked by the Centre.
Maharashtra announced an extension of the lockdown till April 30 on the same day. PM Modi announced the extension of the nationwide lockdown extension at 10 a.m. on April 14. The labourers rushed to the Bandra West station on April 14, at around 4 p.m., making it clear that that they wanted to go back to their native places instead of staying in Mumbai after listening to PM Modi.
This was the first story that needed to be told.
The other story of how people suddenly descended onto Bandra West purpotedly happened because of Marathi News Channel ABP Majha, which ran a rumour that the government had decided to resume train travel. On April 14, at around 11 a.m., the channel ran with the story, which is still available on the ABP Majha website. The ‘news report’ said that the government would run a direct train from Mumbai to Lucknow or Aurangabad to Patna, and added the caveat that the doors of these trains would be locked till they reached their destination.
State cabinet minister and Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP) chief spokesperson Nawab Malik alleged that this piece of ‘news’ triggered the rumour that trains will run from Mumbai to other states.
As the rumour resulted in people coming in to Bandra, the state government ordered for immediate action on rumour mongers. Vinay Dubey, leader of the North Indian Panchayat was seen appealing to people to come to railway stations on Facebook, mentioning that the Union Government had not planned this and hence people cannot starve and wait at their rooms. After his video came to light, the police arrested him late on Tuesday night from Airoli in Navi Mumbai.
NewsClick has learned that all three parties of the Maharashtra Vikas Alliance have agreed that the situation needs to be handled politically. “BJP is instigating people. Its rumour machinery is behind the current situation. They need to be challenged politically. We are requesting Maharashtra CM Uddhav ji and Sharad Pawar ji to take some action," said a senior Shiv Sena minister close to CM Uddhav Thackeray.
Mumbai has become a hot-spot of COVID-19 cases and is the city with the highest number of cases of the novel coronavirus. Cases have also started coming in from high density population zones where the labourers generally stay. Given the fact, it becomes obvious why they are thinking of leaving Mumbai at this moment. The Bandra incident underlines the immediate need to address the issue of them returning to their native places.