Over 1000 Kerala bus drivers, staff stuck in eastern states without food, shelter

These bus workers are those who took migrant labourers from Kerala back to their hometowns, to vote in the state elections and to celebrate Eid, Bihu and other festivals.
Bus stand
Bus stand
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“We sleep in the bus. We use public taps for drinking water and for baths. We had to buy everything, right from the stove to utensils. We didn’t even have enough clothes. Since there are no toilets, we’re forced to go in the bushes,” Jibin, an employee of SR Travels from Kollam district now stranded in a village in West Bengal, told TNM. This is the plight of more than 1,000 Kerala travel agency bus staff members who are now stranded in villages in West Bengal, Assam, Bihar and Jharkhand for the past month or two. These bus workers are those who took migrant labourers back to their hometowns.

Buses to eastern and north-eastern states have been plying from Kerala exclusively for migrant workers for the last one year. These buses are hired either by an agent who takes money from the labourers and pays a portion to the bus service or directly by the labourers. Most of the passengers travelled back to their states for elections and to celebrate Eid, Bihu and other festivals. However, in many cases, after the bus reached the destination village, they did not get any return travellers as a lockdown was announced in different districts. Following this, the agents who hired the bus did not pay the promised amount. The bus workers don’t have money to make the return journey, so they are stranded there until they get some passengers.

According to data given by Kerala Transport Minister Antony Raju, a total of 469 buses are stranded – 297 in West Bengal, 149 in Assam, 17 in Jharkhand, and one each in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. But bus owners and staff say there are more than 450 buses stranded just in West Bengal while more than 150 are stuck in Assam. Every bus has two or three staff members, including the driver.

“Some buses here have two staff members while some others have three. In Jalangi and Domkal, both in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district, there are around 450 buses. They are parked in different grounds or barren lands. We face a lot of issues here,” Nazeer, owner and driver of Ervadi Travels from Kollam district who is stranded in Jalangi, tells TNM.

Usually, the journey from Kerala to these eastern states takes about three to four days. So the staff members plan a return journey on the fifth day. They carry things required only for a one-week journey. But now they have been forced to stay there for months.

“Some locals threatened us and asked us to pay Rs 500 per day for parking. But the issue was later resolved after we pleaded with them that we didn’t have money even to buy rice. We had to borrow from friends and family to buy ingredients to prepare food. There are some who can’t afford even that, so we have to share what we have,” Nazeer adds.

The expenses for a one-way bus trip is anywhere between Rs 65,000 and Rs 70,000. When agents hire a bus, they fix an amount of Rs 1.9 lakh to Rs 2.2 lakh, depending on the destination.

“My bus was hired for Rs 2 lakh. The agents gave me Rs 1 lakh and promised to give the rest after reaching here. Due to the COVID-19 situation, I couldn’t operate the bus and hadn’t paid tax for a while. So I spent Rs 40,000 for tax, Rs 10,000 for toll in different states and Rs 60,000 for fuel. I had nothing when I reached here. Now the agents refuse to pay me and there are no return passengers too. I have no idea how I’ll go back home,” Nazeer says.

Jibin, who has been stranded in Domkal for the past 40 days, shares a similar experience. “The agent had promised me Rs 2 lakh, but paid only Rs 1 lakh which is over now. None of us have been through such a bad situation ever. We’re not sure when we will get return passengers,” he says.

Rahul, another owner cum driver of Spider Travels from Thiruvananthapuram’s Vellarada, is stranded in the Lahorighat area of Assam’s Morigaon district. There the situation of the drivers is so bad that the Assam government pitched in and many organisations started distributing food and groceries to them. According to some local reporters, around 300 buses from Kerala are stranded in five districts in the state.

“I was not hired by an agent. There were around 35 passengers from Ernakulam coming here. We expected there would be a return trip too, but then a lockdown was announced. I expect there will be return passengers after the lockdown is lifted, otherwise we can’t go back. We had no food or water, but many organisations, local people and even the state government came forward to help us,” Rahul says.

Meanwhile, Minister Antony Raju told the media that the government would try its utmost to bring the workers back home by May end.

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