The Centre and state governments bonded and then fell apart during the longest lockdown walk, reports Somesh Jha
Tired of walking miles after the lockdown was announced on March 24, hundreds of migrants had gathered at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border on Friday, March 27, in the hope of getting back home by bus once the word had spread that the administration was arranging transport for them.
Officials in the prime minister's office were still undecided on whether to give a green signal to a proposal to screen and transport workers to their domicile states while visuals of the migrants's long walk made international news.
The governments in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand had started making arrangements to transport residents from their states.
In fact, Ila Giri, the assistant resident commissioner of the Uttarakhand government, moved fast to issue a notice even before the lockdown kicked in. The notice said the state government would make arrangements to pick up stranded workers from two bus stations in Delhi.
It is another matter that the Uttarakhand government could not ply the buses as planned -- the Centre's lockdown order had put a ban on the movement of people within or outside the states, except if they were travelling for essential services or were under the exempt list.
Frustrated Indians were already on the road to Uttar Pradesh, hoping to cross the border on foot, leaving the remaining home-bound journey to luck.
By Friday, around midnight, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath decided to send buses to pick residents of his state. Bus drivers and conductors of state government buses were called in and it was decided to start the service, the UP CM's advisor Mrityunjay Kumar said, recalling the events of the past few days.
By then, Kumar added, the state had made arrangements to bring in 150,000 UP residents by putting them under quarantine facilities in governments schools or colleges in villages.
In the past three to four days, around 300,000 had reached UP, Kumar said.
By Saturday noon, when Adityanath's office tweeted that 1,000 buses had been arranged 'to help migrant workers reach their destination without any hassle', buses had started arriving in various parts of UP, the word spread like wildfire in Delhi.
Within half an hour of the UP government's announcement, Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia said about 100 Delhi government buses were carrying people who were trying to leave Delhi.
At the same time, Sisodia appealed to them to follow the lockdown. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal too made an appeal, requesting them to not return to their villages as his government had made arrangements for food, shelter and whatever else they needed.
The central government, which had imposed a lockdown, remained silent.
On the roads of the national capital, a sense of understanding was visible between the authorities as the Delhi police helped the evacuees board buses.
The Delhi police, which operates under the Union home ministry, even prevented workers from walking on the highway while making them reach the Anand Vihar bus station where UP government buses were lined up.
"The Delhi government had been making appeals to the migrants not to move out. We didn't want to promote any kind of movement. We observed that people had started making a move from the state on March 26 and according to our estimates 60 per cent were from Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan who were passing through Delhi," Delhi's Dialogue and Development Commission Vice-Chairman Jasmine Shah said.
Though these were manageable numbers, the chaos" started with the UP government's announcement on Saturday. "No governments had made special arrangements till then. We had made all arrangement for workers living in Delhi."
But Kumar said the Delhi government had started moving buses from various industrial areas of the national capital towards the UP border on Friday, which led to huge crowds. The UP government was left with no option but to bring UP residents back, he added.
"Delhi government buses were deployed only to disperse huge crowds within the city as it was counter-intuitive in tackling coronavirus. So, we did send buses to some locations in UP," Shah said.
By Saturday afternoon, around 50,000 people had gathered at the UP border to catch buses to their home destinations. This was a direct result of the UP government's decision, taking the central government into confidence, to ply the 1,000 buses, Shah pointed out.
The Uttar Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation sent a communiqué to all the district magistrates within the state to allow the entry of buses which have been deployed to pick people stuck across various points at border districts of Delhi.
'The government has now taken a decision to allow these passengers en route to reach their destination... The special task of carrying people from the Delhi border to various districts in UP will continue today and on March 29,' UPSRTC Managing Director Raj Shekhar said in a letter.
The UP government fell short of buses as the crowd swelled at the border and it had to dial up the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Haryana government for help.
Some buses came from Faridabad and picked up people even on Sunday to take them to UP. By then, others from other states had also started moving in the hope of returning home.
Soon, the exodus and the crowd breaching all lockdown norms sent out panic waves in the power corridor and the central government intervened on Sunday.
Union Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba and Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla held a video conference on Sunday morning with top bureaucrats and police officers of Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi.
'In the meeting, they expressed alarm and unhappiness at the large-scale movement of migrant labour on the roads by foot followed by the accumulation of a large number of people especially at the Anand Vihar bus terminal,' a communication sent by Haryana Director General of Police Manoj Yadav to officers within the state on Sunday stated.
'In order to disperse the crowds from this area, buses had to be provided in large numbers on March 27 and 28 evening,' Yadav added.
The central government decided to immediately seal the borders and stop movement of people. It also ordered the state governments to offer relief measures, instructing them to pick up workers travelling on foot on highways.
The Centre was clear that the Indians must be returned to the localities from where they had started.
By Sunday night, the central government had suspended two senior Delhi government officials -- one in the transport department and another in finance, while issuing a showcause notice to a state official in the home and buildings departments and the sub-divisional magistrate of Seelampur (in-charge of the Anand Vihar bus terminal area), indirectly putting all the blame on the Delhi government.