Now, NLSIU alumni plan second flight for migrants to Jharkhand on Sunday
The relief efforts of National Law School of India University (NLSIU) alumni have inspired Godrej and parents of Ascend International School to sponsor additional flights for migrants
When litigator Shyel Trehan called Chotan Yadav to inform him that they were putting him on a flight back home to Jharkhand, the former valet parking driver, who lost his job during the stringent national lockdown, asked worriedly, “Madam, airport jaake dhokha toh nahi hoga (We won’t be betrayed when we reach the airport, will we)?" It was a concern that was repeated by more than one person.
“Our guests have arrived," the AirAsia representative messaged Trehan from the airport. In a turbulent time when elected representatives and the apex court have displayed minimum empathy for stranded, starving citizens, this ordinary message according them the respectful title of “guests" felt like cool breeze.
The call and the text message belong in a rollicking story that features a plane full of migrants, the friendly chief minister of one of India’s poorest states, policemen (with no accompanying brutality), and a group of citizens who did what the government could have done—but didn’t.
The central characters in this tale, all lawyers with full-time jobs, are now scaling up. After they successfully funded and chartered a plane full of migrant workers to Ranchi earlier this week, they decided they needed to do more. They set a goal of 10 flights.
On Sunday, their next flight to Ranchi takes off, and this time it’s sponsored by Godrej. Next week, they plan to organize a relief plane to Odisha, funded by the parents of Ascend International School in Bandra, Mumbai. Their good deed, it would seem, is extremely contagious. Many people asked how their effort could be replicated, and they are now replying with an SOP (standard operating procedure) document.
After the first flight, they kitted up. Donors can now avail of 12AA and 80G tax benefits. Companies can contribute from their CSR funds. There’s Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) clearance for international donors.
When the group of friends from the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) class of 2000 began brainstorming about how they could help the millions stranded in cities because of the lockdown, they were surprised by what they found. The cost of hiring a bus for the roughly 2,000km journey from Mumbai to Ranchi was as much as hiring an 180-seater A320 aeroplane. Both options cost approximately ₹12 lakh.
By 20 May, the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations fund, better known as PM CARES, had collected ₹9,677.9 crore, data journalism website IndiaSpend estimated, enough to fund over 21.5 million covid-19 tests. At ₹12 lakh a planeload, PM CARES could potentially have flown home 15.7 million migrants.
The friends, based in four cities, were struck by the abandonment of millions of citizens by the state. Workers who suddenly found themselves without a job, money or any transport home had begun walking home. Along the way, they faced exhaustion, hunger, death and police brutality. “Our systems have to develop empathy. They are supposed to deliver welfare and provide care. If they had empathy, we wouldn’t be beating up migrants, denying them rations," says Suhaan Mukerji, a graduate of the 2001 batch, who was drawn in to help because he was familiar with how government worked. In his day job, he drafts legislation and writes policy. “You have to shift from the perspective that everyone is out to game the system to are you delivering effective relief?"
Among themselves, the friends raised enough money to buy 45 seats on a commercial flight. When the idea evolved to hiring a chartered flight, they asked other alumni for funds. Within half a day, 80 lawyers across NLSIU batches had contributed enough to hire a plane.
Next, the lawyers began working on permissions. One had contacts in Jharkhand, another knew someone in the Mumbai police. “Jharkhand said we will drop all the people home once they reach Ranchi," says Arkaja Singh, one of the lawyers. “They said they would send a minister to the airport so the group faced no further problems reaching their homes in remote districts."
Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren called Mukerji and assured him of support. In fact, likely inspired by the success of the first flight on 28 May, the next day, Soren’s government flew 60 workers who were stranded in Batalik in Kargil from Leh to Ranchi. Actor Sonu Sood, who was coordinating his own effort to help women labourers return home to Odisha from Kerala, also switched to a chartered flight after Trehan told him about the costing.
On 23 May, Singh joined a covid-19 relief WhatsApp group where she announced that the lawyers had funds and a route. They only needed a list of people who were looking for help. Priya Sharma, a PhD student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, who had been compiling lists of stranded workers since mid-May, immediately replied. The final list of passengers for Flight I5 9183 from BOM to IXR that Sharma repeatedly updated until hours before take-off at 6am on 28 May was a collaborative effort of students, NGOs and the lawyers.
Pallavi Xalxo, who runs Pahunch, an organization that works with tribal migrants from Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, contributed 24 names to the list. “When we first got the message, I didn’t believe it. We began collecting names but we didn’t tell people it was for a flight. They would have said what mazak (joke) is this. Besides, until I got the tickets in my hand, I didn’t want to give people false hope," she says.
Many migrants had already been cheated by people promising to organize safe passage home and the apprehension of those selected to go on this flight was understandable. “They were taking a big leap of faith, there were so many scams running in Mumbai," says Singh.
As volunteers started making calls to verify the names on the list and news that they would be travelling by plane broke, people panicked. “We cannot afford a flight ticket. Who arranges for free? They will leave us midway," were just some of the things they told Xalxo. “It was difficult to convince them," she says.
Deepak Mahato said he wouldn’t board the flight. He explained that just before lockdown he had purchased a television with all his savings. “I can’t leave it here and go," he told Xalxo. He agreed to go home only after she promised to keep it in safe custody for him.
On the night of 27 May, at 10pm, when the bus came to escort the group to the airport, four penniless young men were still unconvinced: “How can we believe that we are getting on a flight?" It took Xalxo’s team a while to persuade them. Two people from this group of 24, both domestic workers, backed out because their employers convinced them it was a fraud.
Mumbai police helped with ensuring people reached the airport in the midst of a lockdown, Mukerji says. The police control room stayed in touch with him and when a bus was stopped, they intervened promptly. “Everyone had different problems," laughs Singh. Someone had an infant without identity papers. The lawyers had to speak to airport officials and the Central Industrial Security Force personnel responsible for airport security. Another family had forgotten to mention they would be travelling with an infant. Tickets had to be reissued, uncomfortably close to the departure time of 6am.
Many of the migrants were too embarrassed to tell the lawyers that they didn’t have transport to the airport, Singh says. They began walking the previous night. Two got lost and didn’t make it to the airport on time.
The story didn’t end when people boarded the flight. Volunteers—all former classmates—had been assigned to various families and they stayed in touch even after the plane had landed. Singapore-based Pooja Sinha was coordinating with Mohammad Rijwan. A few hours after he landed, he called her to say that the bus driver wanted to drop him 200km away from his home. Sinha worked the phones and organized alternative transport for him. Later, he sent her a smiling image of himself with his brother at home in his village Champa.
Somewhere along this roller-coaster journey, the group of lawyers decided they needed a name. Two names actually.
“The NLS Migrant Mazdoor Programme may do other things," says Mukerji. For now they are concentrating on Mission Aahan Vaahan, which flies migrants back home. Translated, it means The Vehicle of New Light.
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FIRST PUBLISHED30.05.2020 | 06:47 PM IST