Journey was challenging but she was prepared. It was a risk she took to get back to her friends & family at home. Helois Bhutia recounts her eventful journey from Delhi via a Shramik special train
Hello, everyone. My name is Healois Bhutia and I’m from Gangtok in east Sikkim. You must be all aware of the ordeal that passengers of a Shramik special train from Delhi had to face recently. It was a journey of a lifetime that I can never forget.
It all began when we were told that the Sikkim government was arranging a train for us. We were so happy when we got the news. We were given all information and were contacted individually. We were also told that it would be a non-AC train and we had to carry our own food and water. So, most of us were mentally prepared for a journey that would be tough in peak summer.
On the day of travel, May 22, we were told to report at 8 am to a boys’ school in south Delhi for screening. We were expecting proper checking, but the only screening we got was a temperature check. After that, we were told to sit inside the classrooms in groups of 22. We waited patiently for the entire day. Some rooms did not have fans, but we were provided with proper food and water.
People soon started getting agitated as they felt that making us wait for the entire day before the journey was unnecessary. Our departure time was around 9 pm and we were called at 8 am in the morning. We were all exhausted even before the journey even began, considering that Delhi is going through the worst heatwave.
We reached New Delhi railway station and many people from Sikkim House were volunteering and assisting us. However, despite best efforts, we could see that there was a lot of confusion between railway officials and volunteers. The train was delayed as it was coming from Chandigarh, we were told.
After the train arrived, we were given tickets. When I got inside the train, and to my horror, I realised we had to share one seat with three people. This was not as per norms set by the government, and in violation of the social distancing norms. I got down with my friends, they were equally disturbed. One seat had been issued to three people, this led to a lot of chaos. How could we share one seat with three people? We took it up with the railway officials, who told us that only 850 people were travelling with the train’s seating capacity of 1,500. They told us we could sit anywhere we liked. We then shifted to other seats. If only this message was communicated in advance, we would not have panicked.
Our journey finally began at 12:20 am, a good three and a half hours late. We all slept peacefully as we were all tired after waiting for an entire day.
Our troubles began the next day, on May 23 afternoon, when the restrooms had no water and started to get filthy. To add to our woes, no one came to clean them at major stops. There was a water shortage throughout the journey. At some stations, they did provide us with drinking water and snacks, but that was not enough. As the temperature began to rise, 43 degrees, our train began stopping after every 10 mins at stations and even in deserted places. We were worried as we saw no security guards or railway officials on the train. We also started getting information about people entering the train forcefully. The train would move for 10 minutes and then again stop for the next 20. We were all scared for our safety.
As water was scarce, we all began getting down at stations to refill cold water and to wash ourselves, the heat was unbearable. In some coaches, fans were not working. We were communicated through phone calls and on social media that at night we should close the compartment doors for our safety, so we all followed it.
On May 24 morning, I was woken up by lots of commotion. I saw that an aged man, who must have been around 70 years, shouting from outside. Another man was asking to be let in and started banging on the doors. Soon, there were hundreds. I went and spoke to him in my good Hindi. I have been staying in Delhi for 13 years. Then very calmly, I told the man that this train was booked by the Sikkim government and that we need to maintain social distancing. I told him that we might all get infected if we let everyone in.
After I made them understand, they calmed down. I saw the desperation in their eyes and I saw so many small babies, all families waiting to go home and expecting some help. Sadly, I couldn’t help them. One lady started screaming and asking young boys to break open the door. I requested him to not get aggressive and after the desperate man heard me, he said sorry.
I realised one thing from this particular conversation, they were not bad people. They were people like us who were desperately wanting to get home, but not as privileged. The commotion was also due to language barriers. Our people do not have good command over Hindi. If we had just spoken to them kindly they would have understood. Luckily, we were not stopped by any such groups at any station after that.
Everyone was making calls to the government officials and our nodal officers about the problems they were facing. We should thank them because they did an exemplary job. Even at midnight, they were answering our calls. I would really like to appreciate our government for their patience.
We had a lot of people with a medical history and small infants in the train. So they were the ones who suffered most. I knew the journey wasn’t going to be easy, but it’s a risk I took as I, like thousands of migrant workers, was desperate to get home. Many trains passing by slowly called us “Corona, Chinese and Nepali.” I think our country folk need to know our rich and diverse culture and heritage. This should be introduced in our school textbooks.
I also noticed that once we entered Bihar, our trains were sanitised from outside and Bihar police was very helpful and polite. The drinking water and snacks were provided mostly by the Bihar government. I had heard the opposite.
As we crossed Katihar station closer home, we were welcomed by a much-needed rain shower. The cool breeze and thunder made us all happy and we were just a few hours from home.
We reached New Jalpaiguri Station at midnight. and officials from the government of Sikkim were waiting for us. We were finally there. We boarded the Sikkim state transport buses and headed home.
At Rangpo, we were welcomed by officials who seemed paranoid. We were strictly told to stay inside our buses, not even provided water. After a few hours, we got down to use restrooms. It was very hot and humid inside the buses. We were told by police to get inside when we stepped out, but we had to tell them we could not anymore. It was a cold welcome. All officials were wearing PPE suits and shouting instructions through mics. Again, in the name of screening, our temperature check was done and nothing else.
We were told to fill forms that were never taken back. So, I felt the four-hour process was unnecessary. The officials looked tired, scared and when we asked questions, they got irritated. We felt humiliated. I get that people in Sikkim are scared of us and rightly so, but if you take precautions and maintain social distance you will not get infected. Don’t treat us like untouchables. We received a cold welcome at our hotel too. Corona doesn’t spread by looking at us or giving a warm smile and by telling us “welcome back” or something.
Though my entire journey was challenging, I don’t regret getting on that train. It was a risk I took to get back to my friends and family.
I would like to thank our government and all our nodal officers for their patience. It wasn’t an easy job. I’m happy that I’m home in one piece, safe and sound.