"It was day 47 of the nationwide coronavirus lockdown. I just wanted to get home," remembers Sidharth*.
Sidharth and his friends are based in Mumbai, the city worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic in India.
He along with his friends live in a room where 'social distancing can be done only in dreams' shares Sidharth. They hoped being at home will be better than living in Mumbai where the situation seems to be only getting worse.
When the government relaxed lockdown rules, the boys didn't wait for long and soon started applying for their travel pass to reach their home -- Kolkata.
A 56-hour journey by road
"It took time to get our exit pass from the Maharashtra government due to the high demand. For a travel pass, one needs to contact the nodal officer of their area. You would need to provide your Aadhar details, address of departure and arrival to the officer and a valid reason for the same. I come under the bracket of 'stranded student' while my friends are 'stranded migrants'..." says Sidharth.
In pre-COVID times, the easiest way to reach Kolkata would be by air. However, with no train and flight services, they decided to take the road. They arranged a car, got entry and exit passes from Maharashtra and West Bengal governments and started their journey from the western coast to the eastern coast.
On their journey of over 2000-plus kms, they saw the migrant exodus that has been making news for all the wrong reasons across states.
"Unlike us not many are fortunate to book a private vehicle to go back home," Sidharth recalls.
Left with no job and wages due to the lockdown, lakhs of stranded migrant workers are walking back home in large numbers.
Destination Bengal: State of utter shock
After crossing via Odisha, Sidharth and his friends reached Paschim Mednipur district and were halted at a checkpost at Sonakania Village, Dantan, West Bengal. They were informed that people coming from Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Delhi had to get swab tests done.
According to data from West Bengal, over 1.22 lakh migrants are quarantined while over 68,000 are staying put at the relief camps.
"Not a single person practiced social distancing there and the authorities were least bothered," says Sidharth.
These men, along with the others who were travelling, were asked to wait in a line to register for a swab test. "There were over 100 people ahead of us and all were lined one after the other..." Sidharth recalls.
According to officials at the site, only 100 testing kits were available per day so the rest had to stay at the camp site overnight.
"The crowd reminded me of a pujo pandal"
"These rooms were poorly maintained. There were bidi buds, matchsticks and dust on the floor. The washrooms were extremely unsanitary. It was a horror," he says.
Any person would expect a coronavirus quarantine camp to be properly sanitised. Sidharth says not even basic hygiene measures were in place in this particular state-run testing camp where thousands of migrants come to get tested daily.
Shortly after we were put in the room, the authorities came looking for people from Maharashtra and informed us that our tests would happen.
"The testing centre was so badly maintained, it reminded me of the busiest pandal during Durga Pujo. But unlike pujo, this wasn't fun. It was scary," he says.
Many states have expressed concerns over the influx of migrants into their state. Poor administration and government vigilance have raised doubts on COVID-19 testing strategies being adopted.
Were the tests a formality?
Sidharth tells that the officials at the site took only five seconds to get the swab samples. The authorities informed people who were present there that the results will be texted in three days' time with a link to their report. Later, Sidharth along with the others who came from Maharashtra were sent to another counter to collect a "no objection certificate."
"Every single person including me should be tested again due to the lack of distancing followed in that site. The chances of me contracting COVID-19 in this camp was higher than what it would have been if I had stayed in Mumbai," he says.
(*Name changed on request)