At a time when India is in lockdown, a massive evacuation operation to take thousands of people home began in the early hours of Saturday at Delhi’s borders with Ghaziabad and Noida and continues as you read this report. At least 1,000 UP Roadways buses, backed up by 2,000 private buses, trucks, trolleys, tractors, goods carriers and any other vehicle that the authorities managed to bring out of the lockdown ban were deployed to clear a staggering pileup of people who gathered at the sealed borders, imploring to be allowed to pass. The Delhi government too deployed 100 DTC buses to ferry people from the border to Hapur in west UP.

Down the Barapulla, along Ring Road and DND, and on expressways and bylanes, as Delhi remained indoors, its deserted streets witnessed through Friday night and Saturday an unfolding humanitarian crisis – the desperate trek of thousands of migrant workers escaping the spectre of starvation and economic uncertainty that the lockdown has brought upon them.

The scale of this exodus and the massive crowding at the borders and Anand Vihar ISBT, at a time when even one person walking up too close is triggering paranoia about the novel coronavirus, led to an urgent evacuation operation being ordered despite a central missive to keep people where they are and provide them food and shelter. Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal made an appeal to all those leaving the city not to.

Fate hangs by a thread

Two Delhi ministers, including Manish Sisodia, were at the state borders to reassure people. “The evacuation exercise is unprecedented given the magnitude of people who are thronging bus depots to get back home, and in the process, safety precautions have received a setback because it is humanly impossible to screen all of them,” admitted Ghaziabad district magistrate Ajay Shankar Pandey. “But we have set up multiple thermal screening centres and are trying to get people screened, and all the buses that were pressed into service were thoroughly sanitised before boarding was allowed,” he added.

The boarding itself was chaotic, and though officials tried to maintain queues and keep people part, fears about left out led to people not only packing the buses but also the roofs. Some of them carried infants and young children. At one place, a group strained to find space inside a milk van. Many who got on the buses had masks on, but said they had a choice to make between starvation and infection. “There is no work, no money and no food left. How will I pay rent, buy food and survive? God knows for how long this crisis will continue. At least in our village in Bareilly, we have our own accommodation and food can be arranged through farming,” said Harihar, who walked at least 30km with 11 friends, all of them engaged at a construction site in Delhi and now jobless.

Not all on the streets were construction labourers. But the common concern binding the all seemed to be of stalled daily wages as also uncertainties about how long the current situation will persist. There was also speculation about the disease itself and concerns that it may wipe out entire bastis, all fuelling an instinct to reach homes in the hinterland. The biggest crowds were seen At Anand Vihar ISBT, on the Delhi-Meerut Expressway near Ghazipur, DND, Ring Road (near Millennium Park), Nizamuddin Bridge and Chaudhary Charan Singh Marg. At some points when they were told buses would come, the queues extended over a kilometre.

Delhi cabinet minister Rajendra Pal Gautam himself went to Anand Vihar ISBT, requesting people to stay back in the city. In the video uploaded on minister’s official Twitter account, he is seen making an appeal. The buses, officials said, would take people as far as Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. About 250, buses which were called from different districts, were pressed into service in Ghaziabad and over 100 in Noida.

Officials in Noida said over 40,000 people were transported out of the city throughout Friday. The state government has directed evacuation within two days as bot districts, particularly Noida, has several coronavirus cases. A database of all passengers headed home is being prepared. “The list will be passed on to respective districts where we have asked them to conduct screening of all passengers at the time of deboarding,” said Ghaziabad DM Pandey told TOI on Saturday evening. “Till now, we have ferried 15,000 passengers in these buses and distributed 16 quintals of fruits to them and 27,000 food packets,” he added.

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