Indian Express Stories of Strength

Facebook and The Indian Express bring you a series on those at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic. From healthcare workers to government officials to innovators — a look at their day at work, their struggles and challenges.

Across continents, a family unites to help stranded migrants reach their homes

While the Kaushiks initially set out to help migrant labourers, they have also opened up to those students, travellers, or young professionals stuck outside their home cities as well.

May 22, 2020 6:08:26 pm

NEW DELHI: It was a video of migrant workers clashing with the police in Surat that convinced Vipin Kaushik of the mission he had been mulling over for the past several days. “I kept wondering why these people are being harassed unnecessarily. They just want to go home. Why can’t the government let them go home?” asks Kaushik in a telephonic conversation with vsmcomm.com.

The 61-year-old resident of Dwarka in Delhi had been following the tragedy faced by migrants in the wake of the country-wide lockdown on television, newspapers and social media. As the country entered the third phase of the lockdown, he decided to put together a team that can help facilitate movement of the migrants stranded in different parts of India.

He called up his younger daughter in Bangalore expressing his desire to be of some help to the migrant labourers. Pankhuri Kaushik and her husband Hiren Sharma, both software engineers at an IT company in Bangalore, agreed immediately. “At first, I was a bit baffled. Though I understand that it is an important cause, I was wondering how we would reach these people because most do not even have an internet connection,” says Sharma. After much discussion, they settled on creating a website and circulating it through WhatsApp.

In the course of the next weekend, Pankhuri and Hiren collected a set of software tools needed for the purpose and pulled together the website that can serve as a database for information on migrants stuck in different parts of the country and where they want to go.

The next step was to spread the word. Kaushik and his daughter got on board a young graphic designer and marketing specialist for the purpose- Yamini Kaushik from Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh, and Manisha Sharma from Chandigarh. Together they designed logos and posters to be shared across on social media. Finally, the older daughter of the Kaushik family, Ritika, was pulled into the project. The 32-year-old Phd scholar in an American university was asked to make her contribution through creating the content of the website.

“I was pretty struck because I do realise it is the most urgent thing to do right now. Yet, I was not sure how they would go about it,” says Ritika. A student of media and cinema studies, currently residing in Chicago, Ritika says being so far away, she is always at least 12 hours late to be informed about her family’s plans.

“I had to ask a lot of questions before putting together the content. But I managed to finish it overnight,” she says.

61-year-old Vipin Kaushik, a resident of Dwarka, Delhi has been closely following the tragedy faced by migrants amid the lockdown. With his family during a video call.

Finally, on May 6, LockdownMovement.in was born with the tagline saying /‘aa ab laut chalein’/ (come let’s go back home). The objective of the project, as Kaushik explains, is to connect stranded migrants to local authorities, and ensure they reach their home destination.

Once developed, the website was circulated across social media, with a form asking for name, phone number, location, destination, and number of passengers. A couple of days later they were connected with the first batch of migrants who needed help — a group of 4000 construction labourers in Mumbai’s Kamathipura. A group of young men from Katihar in Bihar, they moved to Mumbai few years back, at the invitation of the Maharashtra government to help with construction work there. “They are absolutely desperate to leave. They have no money, and have to stand in a queue for at least two or three hours to get some food,” says Kaushik about his conversation with them when they first reached out to him.

Zabidul Ali (32), one of the labourers in Kamathipura, says he came across Kaushik’s initiative on WhatsApp and filled up the form on May 6. A day later, Kaushik called him up to enquire about his status. “We have been told that the government authorities have been informed about us and that we will be able to travel back home soon,” says Ali.

Ali has been working as a daily wage construction labourer in Mumbai since 2011, while his wife and four children stayed back in Bihar. “We are very confused about the procedure to get tickets for traveling back home. Every time I approach the local police, they shoo us away with the promise that we will receive a phone call when our tickets are ready,” says Ali, adding that for the last two months he has not been able to earn a single penny on account of the lockdown, making his existence in the city incredibly difficult.

Once he collected their information, Kaushik first tried reaching out to the local authorities on social media. When they did not respond, he reached out to a few politicians among his acquaintances.

Two days back, they managed to get in touch with local MLA Amin Patel, who is now trying to arrange for their movement. “The police station has made note of their request, and we have made an appeal to the government for a train to drop them to their destination. Once we hear back from the concerned authorities, we will let them know and make arrangements for them to be brought to the railway station,” says Patel who represents the Mumbadevi seat.

In the course of the last week, the Kaushiks have collected information of about 9000 stranded migrants across 53 different locations in India. While Kamathipura is the largest group as of now, there are other smaller groups in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Goa, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, among others. The family has created a heat map which is being updated everyday, highlighting locations of the stranded migrants they are trying to put in touch with the authorities.

While the initiative is primarily to help out migrant labourers, they have also opened up to those students, travellers, or young professionals stuck outside their home cities as well. “The biggest challenge is to get in touch with clusters such as the one in Kamathipura. They are not to be found anywhere on social media so it is difficult to spread the word among them,” says Kaushik.

“The people so far being moved are only those who have some sort of connection,” observes Kaushik. “For example, if a factory owner has about 250 people working under him, he might approach the local authorities and request them to arrange for transport. But these daily wagers are not employed by anyone. And whoever was employing them in the past has now disappeared from the picture. So they do not know who to reach out to,” he says.

Since the time he conceptualised ‘Lockdown Movement’, Kaushik has been glued to his laptop and mobile phone throughout the day. He says about a hundred forms pour in everyday, and he then keeps going back and forth with the requests, calling up the individuals, confirming their locations and destinations, and verifying their status. Then there are frequent meetings over zoom with his team of six other members — his wife, two daughters, son-in-law, and the two graphic designers.

A freelance consultant for serological kit manufacturers, Kaushik has been involved in acquiring raw materials, equipment, and production machines from abroad for the last 16 years. His daughters explain that for the past couple of years though, he has shifted attention from his work towards community service efforts.

“Last year on his birthday, my father organised a green drive, wherein he adopted 60 trees in front of our society,” says Pankhuri. “There are other small ways in which he tries to make a difference. Sometimes he would assist the traffic police in front of our house during peak hours, at other times he would help out the needy around their housing complex in Dwarka. This, of course, is his biggest initiative so far,” she adds.

“People in our country lack an enterprising spirit,” says Kaushik, who now wants to develop the site into a “large database” so that in future also he can help out these people in other ways, like getting them employment. Asked about what his inspiration is behind starting ‘Lockdown Movement’, he laughs and asks, “how long can we just sit idle at home?”

Also in this series: In Assam, ‘one-man call centre’ for stranded migrants