CHENNAI: It is close to 3 am on Sunday, and an exhausted policeman is trying to direct a group of 41 men away from Central station. “Turn right at the signal and go to the police station,” he shouts in broken Hindi. The group, equally exhausted, inches ahead but not too far. They don’t trust him and they don’t want to lose sight of the gateway through which they hope to finally get home.
They have been shuttling back and forth from Nehru stadium on the adjacent Sydenhams road and the entrance to the railway station from 6pm, stymied by a language barrier. Among the group are four who walked here from Thandalam and want to go to Odisha. The other 37 have staked the last of their money on a bus from Puducherry to Chennai after waiting for two months without pay at their workplaces. They have no resources but for their mobile phones, some food and water.
Sudha Ramamoorthy, a disability rights activist, accompanying this reporter speaks Hindi. This alone is enough to earn some trust. “We have been walking up and down this road for hours. They keep telling us to leave but we don’t know where we are supposed to go,” says one of the men. They have now gathered around Sudha as she explains to them what the police officer is unable to: go to the station, they will take down your details and shift you to a shelter. You will be put on the next train.
The cop is only slightly relieved at this intervention. His shirt is damp from sweat, eyes red and asked, conversationally, if he doesn’t know Hindi, he replies, “It is not required for people in Tamil Nadu to know Hindi.”
The group follows this reporter’s car to the police station.
“I don’t know how they get here and from where all they come but they are so young, practically children. I feel so bad,” a traffic police officer on Sydenhams road observes, directing them to stay on the sidewalk.
At the station, the group begins queuing up at the entrance and taking out their documents. This infuriates the police officer on duty who accuses Sudha and this reporter of bringing these people to the station.
“Send them back to wherever they came from! Who told them to come here? We can’t take them anywhere. This is not our job,” he fumes, shooing the men. The men are directed to sit outside the station, huddled with their bags, sleep dripping from their eyes. A stand-off ensues, till the inspector in charge arrives and calmly takes stock of the situation.
She finds that of the 41 people, the four from Thandalam had been spotted hours ago and told to go to a police-managed wedding hall down the road. The instruction had failed to breach the language barrier. A cop was sent to take them to the hall. The Pondy arrivals, however, posed a problem.
“How did they get an e-pass to come here from Puducherry? Why weren’t they stopped at the checkpost outside the city? Aren’t they meant to be quarantined?” the group of cops ask, each taking turns to frown at one of the e-passes.
“They are coming from a different state! What if they are infected? What if they infect our people at the wedding hall?” one policeman wonders aloud, urging us to step away from the men and keep more distance. The irony of the panic against men from a town with under 50 Covid-19 cases while standing in a Corporation zone with over 2,000 cases is momentarily lost on them.
“The Corporation will have to take charge of them,” the inspector decides, asking this reporter to accompany her to the Kannapar Thidal corporation community hall down the road.
The gate to the community hall is locked. Tens of men sleep on the bare ground around the building. A lungi-clad corporation staff emerges from the adjacent office and announces that no official is available, no one has the key to the gate, no one is in charge, everyone has gone home and there is nothing to be done.
“So what happens to these men?” this reporter asks.
“What happens if there is a fire and all these men are trapped inside because no one has the key,” the inspector asks.
This propels the staff into action. He bangs at the gate and calls for someone.
The inspector, losing hope, asks a cop to see if there is space at the wedding hall to keep the Pondy arrivals separate from the rest.
Another lungi-clad man, torso covered by a towel, emerges from within the community hall and unlocks the gate.
“Are you in charge?” the inspector asks, as he steps outside.
“Are you a corporation staff?”
“Who pays your salary then?”
“Madam, I am also an inmate!” he exclaims in English.
Ashwin, a powerloom contractor from Pune, had visited the State for business. He missed leaving the State by a matter of hours when the lockdown was first imposed.
“I have been here for 70 days. If there is a train to Maharashtra I will cling to the windows and go,” he says.
“This is hell.”
He provides the number of a Corporation official. The inspector wakes him up at home. He provides the number of another Corporation official and asks her to call him.
“I can call my seniors but how can I call his seniors?” she asks, exasperated but unsurprised.
Ashwin points out there isn’t much space in the community hall anyway.
“There are over 200 people here and only four toilets. About 120 sleep inside and the rest outdoors,” he says.
Indeed, the compound is lined with men sleeping, alongside trees, mosquitos and bright fluorescent lights. The back of the building stinks.
“They clean the toilets but it’s not enough,” complains Ashwin.
The inspector makes a decision.
“There is some clear space near Nehru stadium. Let them stay there for now. In the morning, we will take them to the Corporation officials,” she says, leading the way back to the station.
Informed of this plan, one of the Pondy arrivals breaks his silence.
“We were there only at 9pm and they chased us away!”
The inspector assures them they will not be chased and says they should be able to get on the Sunday 4pm train to Bihar.
As she leads them towards the stadium, it is 4am.
Twelve hours later, they are not on the train to Bihar.
Instead, the Corporation, strapped for space to shelter the waves of migrants gathering at Kannappar Thidal, sends some of them to the wedding hall and puts the rest on a bus to Tiruvottiyur where there might be a shelter.
As the 4pm train to Bihar leaves, one of the men from Pondy asks Sudha, while seated on the bus to Tiruvottiyur, “Will the toilets in that place be ok?”
Postscript: Six of the Pondy arrivals were sent to the police-managed marriage hall on Sunday and the rest to a shelter in Manali. Late Monday night, those who had been sent to Manali were accommodated on a train to Bihar. The six at the wedding hall weren’t as lucky. Officials said there were only 650 seats available for shelter residents and they were taken.