Free-pass: Crowds swamp toll plazas to exit Chennai before intense lockdown

Lakhs of people left Chennai over the last few days, and an e-pass, or the lack of it, did not stand in the way. An oft-used mix of jugaad and crime aided the exodus of a proportion never seen before.
The scenic hills in the background or the scorching sun did not divert their attention. In the top and left pictures | ASHWIN PRASATH & P JAWAHAR
The scenic hills in the background or the scorching sun did not divert their attention. In the top and left pictures | ASHWIN PRASATH & P JAWAHAR

CHENNAI/TIRUCHY: Rajesh* had no valid reasons to get an e-pass, at least not as per the list issued by the government. While passes are only being issued to those travelling between districts for funerals, marriages and medical emergencies, Rajesh simply wanted to get back home to his family in Madurai.

“All it took me was Rs 500,” he says beaming with pride.

“I had to leave Chennai, considering the spike in cases. I went through a transport agent, and got it within three hours of paying the money and submitting documents.” The agency that helped Rajesh get home proudly claims, “We use our connections and get around 20 passes approved everyday.”

Rajesh is not alone. Lakhs are fleeing Chennai, which has become a hotspot for Covid. Now that the State has announced yet another lockdown, the number of people leaving has increased – drastically. And those who cannot secure a valid pass are on the ‘beg, borrow or steal’ mode with, of course, minor variations.

Ravi*, for instance, did not approach any agent. He was law unto himself. “I applied, but I did not get a pass. So, I pasted the application acknowledgement receipt given by the government on my bike and rode down to Coimbatore from Chennai without any hassles,” he says. “Because of the virus scare, the cops were not checking the documents properly.”

Officials know the police are not to be blamed, especially now that cases among them have been rising at an alarming rate. “We cannot force people who have lost their jobs or are on work from home to continue staying in Chennai,” says a senior corporation official. “So, we have to dilute the norms for those wanting to go home. But, those indulging in illegal practices will be taken to task.”Those who have been unable to secure a legitimate pass, and lack the finesse to sell the receipts to cops as passes, have given business to a now-booming industry.

In the top and left pictures, hundreds are seen leaving from liquor stores near Vandalur
with stock enough to last them through the lockdown; the picture on the right was taken at Ritchie Street, which has rebooted to normal mode | ASHWIN PRASATH & P JAWAHAR

Fake in India

When all of the country is making high-pitched calls to boycott Chinese products and instead “Make in India”, some ‘entrepreneurs’ have taken things too literally and started making e-passes considering the ‘public benefit’ and quick bucks it entails. Many travel agents have been selling it as a package deal.
Recently, police arrested a cab driver and his accomplice for arranging the travel of people stranded in Chennai back to Kumbakonam  for a flat rate of Rs 5,000 –which includes the cost of travel and fake e-passes. “The duo had prepared the passes using a designing software,” said police officials.

They had successfully made six trips before getting caught. “The e-pass has to be authenticated with QR code printed on it. The police need to have select model Android phones equipped with a QR scanner app to do the authentication,” a senior officer said. However, most cops on duty do not scan the code, but merely check if the vehicles have a pass stuck on it. As a result, they have been unable to catch fake ones.       

In Coimbatore, a photocopying shop owner was booked on Thursday over suspicion that he issued fake e-passes to migrants over the last three months. He made fakes using the same single QR code, and modified them on a photo editor. He is said to have sold them for a hot Rs 5,000 each, to workers who had lost jobs and were spending their lifetime savings in the desperation to get home.

The fortunate few who have a smartphone need not go into any troubles finding an agent. “It is easily available on the Olx app,” says a technically-abled citizen. “All you have to do is download the app, set your location as Chennai and scroll through the items on sale. You are sure to find an agent selling travel packages with ‘free’ e-pass on the list.”

No pass? Can’t pass!

While many managed to get away with fake documents, those attempting to go home without valid papers are facing action. Some even brought with them the dreaded, ‘invisible travel companion’. A 55-year-old woman who went home to Sankarankovil in Tirunelveli district was found positive for Covid upon arrival.

It later emerged that she had no valid documents with her. She came from Chennai along with a policeman by his car, and two personnel posted at the Velayuthapuram check post had allowed them to pass. The personnel have been transferred to the Armed Reserve now and the woman has been admitted to the GH.      

In another case, an Army jawan, desperate to get home, boarded a bus ferrying migrants from Chennai to Nagapattinam without any document. He was caught when the police stopped the bus en route for a check. He was booked, allegedly after he engaged in a scuffle with the cops. All the 18 people who travelled with him have been quarantined. Eight of them have tested positive.

Abandon ship

The Tamil Nadu e-Governance Agency is swamped with requests for passes. Though officials refuse to disclose exact details, estimates are that over six lakh people have left Chennai since June 1. Considering the sheer numbers leaving the city, authorities have asked certain toll gates at the borders not to collect fees from public.   

“I have never seen anything like this before,” says an officer on duty at the Paranur toll plaza, where vehicles stood in lines stretching for over 3 km. “This is an exodus.” The cop says people are pleading to be allowed to go home. “They are scared about the safety of their children. They say they are unable to live in the city anymore, having lost their jobs.”

“There is nothing left for us here,” says S Kumaravel, who was working as a painter in the city. With his 8-year-old son on the tank, wife in the pillion with a table-fan in her hand, and two big bags slung over the bike, Kumaravel is literally carrying his family’s burden looking for greener pastures back home in a southern district.

“I have to borrow money to even put food on the table. Even one of us fall sick, we would not even have friendly faces to comfort us here.” Kumaravel and family ride away, becoming smaller the farther they get, like a little drop that merges with an ocean of vehicles carrying many others like him, leaving the city for good with a tinge of pain.           

(*Names changed)
(Inputs from Sahaya Noviston Lobo, Aravind Raj, Ramesh & Antony Fernando)
(Written by Gokul Chandrasekar)

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