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'With lockdown extended, there is fear among migrant workers'

By HARISH KOTIAN
April 19, 2020 10:59 IST
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'They are all worried about one thing -- what about tomorrow?'

IMAGE: Families of daily wage workers outside the Bandra railway station in north west Mumbai as migrant workers and labourers gathered to find a way to return to their villages, April 14, 2020. Photograph: PTI
 

More than 1,000 migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal assembled outside the Bandra railway station in north west Mumbai on Tuesday, April 14, hoping that they would somehow get trains to return to their respective states.

Zeeshan Siddique, the Congress MLA from the Bandra East assembly consituency, was one of the first politicians to reach the site.

Zeeshan and his father Baba Siddique, a former Congress minister, pleaded with the gathered migrants to return to their homes in Mumbai, assuring them that all their needs would be taken care of.

Zeeshan, 27, is the youngest MLA in Maharashtra. Along with his father, he says he has helped around 60,000 families in Mumbai while also serving cooked food twice a day to nearly 6,000 homeless people.

"If the lockdown continues to extend, then we should speak to the Centre. There should be some way in which we make sure that they (migrant labour) can safely return home," Zeeshan tells Rediff.com's Harish Kotian.

What was the trigger for so many people to suddenly gather outside the Bandra railway station on Tuesday.
Do you think it was planned to disrupt peace in Mumbai?

I don't think anything was planned or there was any conspiracy.

The railways shouldn't have taken any bookings. If you give them a ray of hope that there could be a chance they could go home, many people started getting out.

And that locality (Bandra West) there are many houses in that small space, so 10 can lead to 100 and 100 can lead to 1,000 and 1,000 to 5,000 very easily.

When I went there and spoke to those people, their only request was that they wanted to go home.

We have been giving them ration, we have been giving them cooked food to eat, but they were all worried about one thing -- what about tomorrow?

As of now, they have the ration, but if the lockdown gets extended -- like it happened from April 14th it got extended to May 3rd -- so what if this keeps going on and what if tomorrow we run out of supplies?

We assured them that we will continue to help them.

They stay in small houses -- 8 to 10 people in a small one-room house -- so they are not able to maintain social distancing anyway.

So why not allow them to just go home?

What happened that day was a few people initially got out saying our railway tickets haven't been refunded and they were saying 'What's going on?'.

Seeing them, their neighbours also came out and joined them. Basically, everyone just wanted some freedom, they were all feeling suffocated inside their houses.

We requested them and they listened to us because we have been helping them out. They went back to their houses and the situation was calm after that.

But not everyone was willing to go back. The police had to resort to a lathi-charge to disperse the crowd.

If there are around 4,000 people, you will always find that there are 50 to 100 people who are out to create some mischief.

The police dealt with them in a stern manner. If you see, around 90 to 95 percent of people went away peacefully after we spoke to them and reasoned with them that for the betterment of Mumbai, the state and the country and for their own security it would be better if they go back to their respectively houses till we don't make arrangements for them to go back to their states.

You met Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh along with Mumbai Police Commissioner Param Bir Singh to discuss the incident in Bandra. What was discussed and planned to ensure that such an incident doesn't occur again?

We spoke to the home minister and the police commissioner. We discussed what happened in detail. The police will do their own investigation.

From what we spoke, we realised it was not a conspiracy, it could have been instigated. And if people have been instigated, then the law will take its course.

From what I know, people were just suffocated, so they came out. We reasoned with them and they went back to their houses.

I don't think such a situation will arise again because we told them that the help we are giving them, we will continue to provide. We will make sure that nobody stays hungry.

How is the mood among the migrants at the moment? Are they still desperate to go back to their villages at the earliest?

They are all calm now, they are all content.

Hopefully, when the lockdown relaxes and we let them go back to their states it will be good. Till then, we will keep providing help, whatever is needed.

Do you think there is a danger that this scenario could repeat after May 3 after the current lockdown ends? Is the state government working on a plan for the same?

As much as you keep extending a lockdown, you have to understand that there is some fear amongst these people.

Fear can make you do things which you wouldn't do otherwise.

If the lockdown continues to extend, then we should speak to the Centre. There should be some way in which we make sure that they (migrant labour) can safely return home. Obviously, taking into account all the medical procedures and the safety of everyone.

IMAGE: Congress MLA Zeeshan Siddique has provided essential supplies to around 60,000 families in the Bandra-Khar-Santacruz region in north west Mumbai while also serving cooked food twice a day to nearly 6,000 homeless people. Photograph: Zeeshan Siddique/Instagram

How did you arrange supplies so quickly despite the lockdown?

As soon as the lockdown was imposed, I started getting a lot of calls from my assembly. In Bandra East, there are a lot of factories. So many people were not able to source food a day or two after the lockdown.

First, I started off giving 700 to 800 grocery kits every day, but then the demand kept increasing.

Seeing me in Bandra East, dad thought of doing it as he was also getting lots of requests in Bandra West.

Now Bandra West, Santacruz West and Khar West is handled by dad. He is giving about 2,500 packets every day in Bandra West. Around 2,000 is given by me in Bandra East.

We have sent three trucks to Nanded and Akola. Now we are going to send it to Hingoli because lots of people are calling us.

That day I sent a truck to Palghar for 200 Adivasi families.

Three members of Parliament from Bengal called me that people from their constituency Malda were struck in Behrampada (a shanty town in Bandra), so we made sure we reached them. They were about 400 to 500 people there.

People from UP are calling me. I am also getting calls from Bihar and Rajasthan because many people from their states are stuck here.

It's our duty. They shouldn't go hungry. They can't go back for a while so we have to make sure that they are taken care of.

Salman Khan has arranged for food packets to be distributed to the needy through you.

Salmanbhai has been of great help. Salmanbhai said 'I will take care of some families.'

We have touched 26,000 families in Bandra West. We have reached around 19,000 families in Bandra East. We have reached about 60,000 families all across Mumbai.

Salmanbhai saw it and said, 'I will help you, I will take care of so many families.'

Jacqueline (Fernandes) said, 'I will help you'. Both of them have been of great help.

The Maharashtra government is a coalition of three parties. Everyone has functioned as a single unit to help people across the state.
You mentioned that even leaders from the opposition BJP are calling you to help people in need.
This crisis has brought together everyone irrespective of their political preferences, isn't it?

On Twitter, when somebody sends me a request, I don't see whether his profile is from thre BJP or Congress or Shiv Sena.

After I responded to a BJP member, someone highlighted that the BJP has requested help from the Congress.

To tell you the fact, I did not even know he is from the BJP. Even if I knew that, it wouldn't change my stance because currently we are all in a crisis and we have to think beyond party lines.

We should not communalise the virus, definitely not do anything to worsen the situation.

We are all Indians, and we have to make sure we defeat the virus and make sure no one sleeps hungry.

IMAGE: Zeeshan Siddique supervises sanitiation in a housing complex in Bandra. Photograph: Zeeshan Siddique/Instagram

How would you say Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has handled such a tough challenge which has come up only a few months after he took charge?

His poise and calm have been very refreshing for a youngster like me. He is handling it very well and I appreciate all the efforts being taken by him and the entire government.

Will Mumbai and Maharashtra be in a much better situation on May 3?

We should be in a better position, but for that the people need to help.

People can help us by staying at home because we have to break the chain.

I think 20 days is good enough to break the chain.

The people who have tested positive will be taken care of and will be treated.

If people stay at home, they will help break the chain.

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HARISH KOTIAN / Rediff.com
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