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Mumbai, April 14, 2020
Social distancing went for a toss when over 3,000 stranded, hungry and angry migrants from different parts of India thronged near the Bandra railway station on Tuesday demanding that they be given transportation to return to their native places immediately.
The Mumbai Police, which attempted to cajole them and prevent them from gathering there in such large numbers, resorted to a mild lathi-charge when sections of the restive hordes threatened to go out of control.
By 6 p.m., Mumbai Police spokesperson and Deputy Commissioner of Police Pranaya Ashok said that "the crowd had dispersed" while local police sources said that the "situation is under control, and the entire area would be sanitised" as a precautionary measure.
The gathering -- violating strict prohibitory orders enforced throughout the state -- took place barely a couple of km from "Matoshri', the private residence of Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray. The incident has sparked a political row.
Coming in trickles, the jostling sea of humanity, including women, virtually caught the police unaware and sounded alarm bells among the state health authorities struggling to keep people indoors and avoid crowding in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though the reasons for the sudden crowding were not clear, there were some rumours of food packets to be distributed by local groups and of some long-distance trains being started from Bandra on Tuesday night.
Several of the migrants heatedly demanded that they could not continue to live in Mumbai, away from their homes or families in different parts of India with the lockdown getting extended till May 3 following the announcement made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier in the day.
They asked the police to make arrangements for suitable transportation facilities to enable them to go to their respective towns and villages. Congress MLA Zeeshan Siddique tried to calm them down, appealed to them to disperse and promised to take up their issue.
In a veiled attack on the Centre, Tourism Minister Aditya Thackeray said that these migrants have no homes or food and want to return to their native places, but no transport facilities are currently operating.
Mumbai Guardian Minister Aslam Shaikh said that the Chief Minister had discussed with the Prime Minister the issue of sending the migrants to their homes, but the lockdown has been extended now till May 3.
In a sharp reaction, former Mumbai Congress President Sanjay Nirupam said: "This was bound to happen. People have no food to eat, they are prevented from returning to their native villages. For how long can they remain like this? The government's figures are merely on paper. For how long and how many people can any government keep feeding free of cost? Is there no alternative?"
Attacking the Centre, Congress state spokesperson Sachin Sawant said that if the Prime Minister had given time to the migrants to return to their homes, they would not have come to the streets like in Mumbai, Delhi, Surat and other places.
"The state government can provide them food, but cannot send them to their homes in view of the lockdown," Sawant pointed out.
The Convenor of the Trade Unions Joint Action Committee, Maharashtra, Vishwas Utagi said there are over two million migrants stuck in Mumbai since the March 25 lockdown, besides 3,000 fishermen stranded at Gholvad in south Gujarat.
"They have no food, no work, no homes, no transport to go home. How can they survive? The government machinery is not responding to the challenge and this is a human tragedy in other parts of the country as well," Utagi said.
Bharatiya Janata Party MP Poonam Mahajan demanded that the state government should make separate planning for the migrants, which it was not doing, resulting in this chaos on Tuesday.
BJP state Vice-President Kirit Somaiya asked the government how such a huge crowd could gather flouting Section 144 (the prohibitory orders)?
"It's a matter of deep concern. What about intelligence, and why today? The state government must treat this incident seriously and modify its schemes to provide food to the migrants," Somaiya urged.
Countering this, Congress' Sawant accused Somaiya of raking up a "conspiracy" angle without the BJP understanding the plight of the migrants. "Should we say the same (conspiracy) for the Surat and Delhi incidents," he asked.
Targeting the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi government, BJP leader Nitesh Rane said tomorrow it could be a (migrant) crowd from the Konkan.
"It's the angst of the people. Ten people live in a 10x10 hutment in Mumbai. They should be given proper food or be allowed to return home," Rane said.