Migrants wait on Delhi streets, volunteers bring them food, but where is the sarkaar?

Our reporter who stood in line with migrants to get a first-hand experience of their plight discovered that the meal was hot and delicious, the water cool, and the fruits fresh, everything was served with dignity and respect


Tehri is a typical north Indian one pot meal which is an aromatic and satisfying dish made up of rice, and vegetables flavoured with turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, chilies, cumin and salt, all stir fried for a few minutes before water is added and it steam cooks till done. In summer it is best served with some cool curd. “This is delicious! God bless you brother, I was so hungry,” Bibek Kumar exclaims as he finishes off the brimming foil container in minutes. “I did not expect any food or water from the government, I was prepared for a day, but I have been here for two days now,” he says. He had slept on the pavement the night before and freshened up at a community tap nearby. This was his first meal of the day, he has some biscuits in his backpack, but is saving them, just in case. “It is the general public who I have seen come with water, or banana, and now this lunch. No sarkari officer has come to give anything,” he adds. 

The distress of thousands of migrant workers now lining Delhi streets leading towards Ghaziabad, on Uttar Pradesh border has to be seen to be believed. They are not protesting. They are just waiting in the scorching summer sun for a bus to take them to the train station so that they can go back home to Bihar and UP. They come in groups, line up outside local government schools, women and children are asked to stay in the shade as far as possible, leaving only their bags in queue. There is an active police ‘bandobast’ to maintain law and order. Law and order is not a concern here yet. Hunger, thirst and uncertainty are. 


I stood in the queue and spoke to some of the migrant workers as they waited for information. Volunteers distributing food and water were a welcome sight. But the mood was tense and the hopelessness was palpable. Human dignity has been stripped off by the powers that be, and it’s the average citizen who comes to share whatever they can. But even they cannot give the answers the migrant workers need urgently. Their question is: When can we go home? 

“Eat slowly brother, it is hot. Do not worry, I have another serving waiting for you, here drink some water,” a masked Rizwan is happy the food tastes good. He is fasting for Ramzaan and has not tasted the food he is now distributing. “We began preparation at 8 am at a kitchen near our home in Okhla, packed it in containers, and came here just now. I could not bear to see the images of so many people stuck here without food or water. My friends and I had to come,” he tells us. He has been doing this everyday for the past few days. He and his friends pool in money, cook, pack and distribute food, sometimes driving as much as 30 km one way. “We drive around and give the food wherever we see the migrants gathering. Today we have 200 packets,” added Suhel who is in charge of handing out sealed packets of drinking water, “We have also found many just walking towards the border with small kids in tow so we stop and give them water and fruits.”

A teenaged Haakim, who lives in East Delhi, came with his uncle on the fruit cart they own, carrying banana and water pouches for distribution, says he is a bit scared of the police stopping them as they are just boys. He said, “We are not an NGO, we are just regular people.” His uncle Firdeen is smiling from behind his gamcha and says, “Itna mat socho, apna kam karo, (don’t think so much, just do your work,)”. If a cop comes, Firdeen says he will give him a cold water pouch too. He said, “Many policemen understand, these people are just waiting to go home, we are just sharing food and water. This is harmless, nothing illegal.” The group says they will be back tomorrow, but hope that most of the waiting migrant labourers would have left by then.



“It is just the ordinary citizens like this who have even bothered to come ask about our well being, give us water and feed us. We are not beggars, we want to go back to Bihar because we have no option to stay in Delhi anymore,” says Govind, a middle aged man who says he grew up in Delhi and worked in a factory in the Northern part of the city for many years till it shut down recently, “I waited for two months for the lockdown to end. I could not dare walk back to my village with my children and wife. It is too risky. We want to take a train or bus back home. I can pay for the tickets too.”

“My landlord has asked us to go away. We cannot stay in Delhi any longer,” added Ravi Kumar, in his 50s who is not sure what he will do back in his UP village, all he knows is he wants to take his entire family and move back. “They (Delhi govt officials) have said they will drop us to the railway station. We could not move in the lockdown. Now we can, and we just need to be told how and where to go,” said Vikram, a young man who is here with his roommates and wants to go back to his parents in Bihar. He is well dressed, has a mobile, and is very reluctant to take the food being distributed as he says he has food but took the cold water pouches. 



“I have had to convince some people to at least take water and fruits. They have so much dignity and have refused food. I have no money to distribute but I will do what i can,” added Arif, who came from Batla house area, “This is not my charity, it is not even zakat (charity during ramadan), i need to do it because I am a human, and I will do it till i can afford to.” 

Across the street there is a group of volunteers from a Sikh NGO, who have come with cauldrons of hot sabzi and fresh puris. “We also got some fruits for the children,” says Vicky, a volunteer, who works from home but has taken a day off today for this. “These are our people, and this can happen to anyone,” he says, this group is more organised and experienced. “We just do what needs to be done,” says an older member, their food supplies too get distributed in record time. 

In a matter of an hour and a half, over two hundred people have been fed, and given water. The sun is still blazing, the children and women are worse off as they huddle together in whatever shade they can find. The menfolk adjust however they can. “I avoided drinking too much water today but now I want to go to the bathroom, will the school guard allow me to go there,” asked Reema, who once worked as a part time house help and has been waiting outside a government school with her two small children, her husband has gone to enquire about the train/ bus tickets. Someone from the waiting group volunteers to hold her umbrella and watch over her sleeping children. 



The Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses have been lined up outside this east Delhi school for a few days now. No one knew till late afternoon when the first one will leave. “We just have to wait till it is arranged, we do not have options now. We cannot even protest. I am not a criminal, I want to just go back to my old parents. But I do not want to make any official angry. The officials may not have visited us here but they read what you write and they watch all this on TV,” Rohit Rajeev is pragmatic and turns his back to the camera. 

The volunteers do not ask questions at all. They just hand out food and water to whoever they see waiting. People do not even have to ask. 

“You know, when it comes to hunger no one even bothers with the whole Hindu-Muslim nonsense,” Kavi, a former salesman volunteers and opinion as he begins to eat the tehri, offering the first mouthful to me. I taste some, it was delicious. Someone had made it with love.





Related Articles