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COVID-19: Read How A Chandigarh Businessman Took A Loan To Send Migrants Home

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“When the first lockdown was announced for three weeks, the news scared me. My family would often get worried and break down on the phone. I was keeping faith but deep down, wondered if I would get food to survive. Not just rice and dal, that man made sure we have everything from aata (flour) to soap. Wo aadmi hamko bahut madat kiya. Khana peena dawai ka koi dikkat nahi hua (That man helped us a lot. He took care of food and medical supplies too). He also helped us with the process of registration, medical check-up, and arranged and offered money and food for our journey back home. I knew that many like me were starving and walking back home. Akash kept reassuring me and the many that help will arrive to us,”

says Sajjag, who is from Bihar and works as an underground lineman in Chandigarh.

The migrant labourers who build our houses and industries, and keep the economic machine whirring, have been at the centre of an unprecedented crisis — a pandemic that cost them their dignity and trust. Over the last few months, TV channels and newspapers flooded our minds with strong agonising symbols of a systemic failure, of children sleeping over suitcases in transit, women giving birth on the roadside, and then walking another 60 km with blisters on their feet and babies in arms.

In many incidents, migrants were beaten up by cops for wanting a simple thing — to to go back home. We felt gutted by images of a child on a railway platform, pulling the sari of dead mother, who died of starvation and fatigue — an image of how an entire system allowed the migrant labour community to be treated sub-par. 

Images of a child on a railway platform in Bihar, pulling the sari of dead mother, who died of starvation and fatigue has been circulating all over the internet.

But then, every once in a while, we witness common people do extraordinary things with limited resources for fellow humans. These incidents are a gentle reminder of the beauty of the human spirit. Akash Sharma, who took a loan to look after migrants, provided them with ration and sent them home, is one such reminder of warmth and compassion.

“Most of the labourers here used to make Rs 8,000- Rs 10,000 a month and needed only Rs 3,000 to survive. They used to send the rest of the amount to support their families. Some of them are away from their families because they want to make enough money so that their children can get an education,”

says Akash Sharma, owner of Rudra Remedies, an Ayurvedic medicine manufacturing company and Art of Living teacher.

Sajjag, a migrant labourer from Bihar, said:

Ham log rozi kama rahe they. Ham ko kuch nahi pata tha. Lockdown ke 3 din pehle, phone pe announcement suna corona ke baare meinTab pata chala aisa kuch ho raha hai (We were working as usual. We only heard about corona three days before the lockdown got implemented, when we heard the announcement on our phones). Itna beemari ke bare mein sunte hai, waise hi kuch hoga (We thought we keep hearing about so many diseases. Corona must be one of them). Thekedar bhi phas gaya tha lockdown mein. Bola wo kuch nahi kar sakta. Pehle week khana diya tha (Our contractor also got into trouble because of the lockdown. He said he was helpless and gave us food for the first week).”

37-year-old Akash Sharma helped over 2,000 migrants get home safe and with dignity. Image has been provided by the author.

Sharma was witness to the helplessness of labourers first hand, with no work, zero income, and nagging worries about home. For them, the financial and safety risks involved in going back home now seemed worth it. Sharma continued to provide ration to many migrants, organised with the help of the Art of Living and IAHV. But soon, he realised this was not enough, as anxiety and desperation among the labourers to go back home rose.

Sharma knew he would have to arrange transportation so that most of the laborers could go home without having to risk their lives.

“This shouldn’t be called help,” Sharma says. “It is their right. They are the backbone of our country. Agriculture and industries flourish because of them. They deserve to be seen, loved and valued. I hope I was able to reassure them that we care about them and they matter.”

To show the subject in waiting
Akash Sharma provided ration to many migrants, organised with the help of the Art of Living and IAHV. Image has been provided by the author.

Over 2,000 labourers have reached home in various parts of the country from Mohali to Unnao, Gwalior, Hardoi and Lucknow, thanks to Sharma.

“In today’s times, it’s unacceptable if someone has to struggle to find the means to feed themselves,” Sharma says. “Even if these labourers had money, finding a way to reach the stores to buy essentials wasn’t very easy. Some of them live 20 km away from their workplace. I knew they would need food and something had to be done to arrange for that,” he shares.

Sharma got in touch with the local authorities to get a nod on the project. The ADC Mrs Aashika Jain of Mohali thought it was a good idea, and the police agreed to help Sharma too. 

While on ground, Sharma realised that there is an absolute lack of trust. The labourers have probably never been treated well in life. Some people had approached them with food and money, but it was a one-time act, which was more self-serving than working to resolve their issue. They knew they couldn’t go on arranging meal after meal. Now, they were getting restless. 

Meanwhile, the administration took over and Sharma could see that the food supply had been regularised and was reaching the labourers. The langars had also sprung to action. 

 The panic and anxiety, however, was increasing. Sharma realised that the labourers were feeling lost. He helped them register for the Shramik trains, but the anticipation of getting a confirmation and nod to travel was pushing them over the edge. The stories of their family members walking back to their States had started pouring in by then.

“A lot of them, as mentioned before, live 20 km away and couldn’t walk back and forth from the station every day. They didn’t need to, but in anticipation, fear, and lack of information, they gave up their houses and decided that they would live on the roads as a stop-gap arrangement. The rents had become difficult to bear. There were children, women, and elderly people living on the road. Some of them had emergencies back home that demanded their presence. They were right in wanting to leave,”

says Sharma. He recalls the moment when there were 1,000-1,200 labourers boarding trains and another 5,000 waiting outside the station. 

After the initial drives to raise funds for the distribution of ration, Sharma was hesitant in circulating the message in the same circles. He decided to use his money and considered taking a loan if need be, to help them get home.

“Aise to EMI kat ti hi rehti hai apni, ek ye bhi loan cut jayega (We anyway pay EMIs for our expenses. So what if another one gets added),” Sharma said. He began by arranging two buses for 60 passengers, which were to cost him Rs 1,20,000. The administration extended support. SDM Mr. Jagdeep Sehgal of Mohali suggested that Sharma team up with the administration’s medical team and the police get this plan mobilised. 

Sixty passengers reached home safely, on the first bus. 

Sharma posted a video of the 60 laborers reaching home, and a senior teacher of the Art of Living Foundation in the US got in touch with him to raise Rs 2 lakhs. Image has been provided by the author.

He couldn’t stop now. Thousands needed his help in simply getting home.

Sharma took one step at a time. He posted a video of the 60 laborers reaching home, and a senior teacher of the Art of Living Foundation in the US got in touch with him. She raised Rs 2 lakhs from the US, while he found donors to generate another Rs 1 lakh in India. Five more buses were good to go.

Sharma believes in the concept of Sankalpa or intention, he says, that if you have a positive intention to help others, then help arrives in unfathomable ways — something he had learned from his spiritual teacher Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who had himself by then fed 7.5 crore meals all over the country during the lockdown.

People started approaching Sharma to provide help. Some of them wanted to join the movement and work hand-in-hand with him. Some people came forward to help get donations. From a one-man army, Sharma was now working with six other volunteers, the government and police force, and various other NGOs and citizens. The fundraising was being done through social media.

Over 2,000 migrant laborers in over 25 buses had reached home now.

Sharma was now beginning to breathe easy. Things seemed to have picked up pace. Just then, he heard of a labourer who had committed suicide because of the helplessness of arranging food for himself and his family. “This was unacceptable. There is so much work happening on ground. Ration and buses are getting arranged. We are there to help and guide the labourers, and if even then, a labourer had to die in helplessness, then we weren’t doing enough,” Sharma said with a visible sense of helplessness and pain. 

Sharma then started a helpline (9876262222), on which workers and those in need could get in touch for required support. The police and administration also handed out these numbers so that more and more people become aware of it. 

“We think that labourers need help. No, they want respect more than anything. They feel mistreated. The politicians are inaccessible and the police resort to charging lathis to manage crowds. They have never felt heard or valued and that’s where we are failing,” Sharma shares. 

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