Around 3 p.m. on April 14, just a few hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an extension of the nationwide lockdown to May 3, groups of people started gathering at the Bandra bus depot near the train station in Mumbai. They were workers from other States anxious to return home.
As the crowd grew, the police were called in. Apparently, the workers wanted transportation to go back home. The authorities tried to pacify the crowd by distributing food but it was largely refused.
Joint Commissioner of Police (Law and Order) Vinay Kumar Choubey told mediapersons: “When food was being distributed one group refused it, saying they wanted to go home.”
The crowd began swelling to 1,500 people by evening. The Bandra bus depot is sandwiched between railway tracks on one side and an arterial road on the other.
“Since a huge crowd had gathered we called for extra force and the crowd was dispersed. They went back to their residences near the railway station,” said Choubey.
But the actual situation was more volatile. The police resorted to a mild lathi charge and local leaders were brought in to implore the people to disperse. The sheer numbers alone created tensions because of the potential of a riot and the dangers of proximity at a time when physical distancing is crucial.
Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray said the people had gathered because there was a rumour that train services were about to start. He gave an assurance that as soon as the lockdown was relaxed the State would arrange to transport people home.
His son Aaditya Thackeray, the Minister for Environment and Tourism, blamed the Centre’s decision to extend the lockdown for causing anxiety in people who wanted to return home. Leader of the Opposition and former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis responded, saying: “As the opposition party we have been repeatedly pointing to the government to initiate concrete measures to reach out to unorganised workers and migrants who are facing hardships in the city.”
Although highways are sealed to all traffic except essential services, people have been setting out determined to reach their homes even if it means walking all the way. Maharashtra is in favour of a continuing lockdown, but the State has also been asking for a mutually acceptable plan from the Centre to repatriate people to their home States. Currently some 6 lakh people are housed in camps all over Maharashtra. Their daily needs are catered to but they say that they just want to go home.