Bhaiyaram Lakshman is a youth from Naugavaa village located in Naraini block of Banda district ( Uttar Peadesh). He was working in Hyderabad as a construction worker when lockdown was declared. After waiting for a few days he decided to leave with two other friends from the area. After walking on the highway for a long time they managed to get a ride in a truck. This set a pattern — truck journey followed by some walking, then looking again for a truck ride, all the time remaining very uncertain about what happens next and struggling to eat something or the other on a very limited budget of the little money they had.
The initial Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra stretch was relatively easier to cover. Their problems increased after entering Madhya Pradesh as there were more restrictions here. The police helped them to get into a truck but sometimes they had to also pay some amount for this.
Here at some places if they wanted to buy a packet of biscuit or snacks, a shopkeeper would ask them to stand a distance away while they had to drop money in a utensil where it would be washed. Such was the fear of the pandemic. At some taps they were forbidden from drinking water. At one place the local people said you go stand on the road we will give you water there. However some people were kind also.
At the border of Uttar Pradesh the problems increased further. The police said that people like you are bringing corona in Uttar Pradesh so you have to go back. Bhaiyaram says we told them how can we go back after having come so far. Bhaiyaram and his friends left the highway and walked through villages and fields, sometimes sleeping in agricultural fields. Finally they reached Bagain river and crossed it. Now they were close to their homeland. However local contacts advised them to leave their bags with them and taking a stick in their hand pretend to be local farmers looking for their lost buffaloes. Hence they could advance further and reached a relative’s village where they hid in the fields outside the village. Hiding himself, the relative brought rotis at night ( their staple food ) and they could eat rotis after a long time.
Then they kept walking through villages and wilderness till they reached their village after a journey of 16 days, their feet swollen and with blisters. Here they were directed to a school where they were quarantined for 15 days. Here they spent their days with great difficulty. Their family members in the village would leave some food for them from distance but were not allowed a closer meeting. They themselves were in difficulty and were arranging daily food with a lot of difficulty.
Bhaiyaram says that three years may have passed since then but the pain in his feet still persists. He is finding it difficult to earn a satisfactory livelihood here, particularly with the persisting pain in his feet.
Bhaiyaram is one of several such workers whom this writer met during a recent visit to several villages of Bundelkhand region, workers who still need help.
The experience of Suleiman in his journey from Hyderabad to the same Naugavaan village was somewhat similar. He covered the journey with seven friends from this region and he also took one month to reach his home, including the 15 day quarantine. At some places they were asked to not even touch a tap even though they were very thirsty. Some shopkeepers selling them biscuits would shout at them not to get close to him and throw money from a distance.
Mahendra Singh also covered the long journey from Hyderabad to his village. He says he walked for 250 kms while the remaining distance was covered in various stretches on trucks. In Maharashtra policemen helped them to get into a truck to cross a forest area but later the truck driver asked them to pay some money. On the whole truck drivers played a very helpful role in giving lifts.
Pappu, a worker in the saree printing industry, covred the journey from Surat to his village Naugavaa. This journey took 26 days plus 15 days in quarantine. From Katni to Panna he walked for a stretch of 7 days with continuity. His estimate is that he walked for about 800 km. He was stopped at Paana and taken to Jhansi in a truck and then brought back to Jhansi, testifying to the confusion in official policy and lack of coordination. Then again from Mahoba to bear his village he walked for five days with continuity.
Karim Chacha of this village says that he had four sons working in Hydrabad and all of them covered the distance back to village, walking or in trucks.
Butu, an elderly person from Bhanwarpura village in Banda district (Uttar Pradesh) almost breaks down while telling the story of his family during lockdown. All of his three sons Sajan, Amarejeet and Rajaram were in Delhi at that time. They set out with their families to cover the over 500 mile distance to their village on foot. It was a group of 14 persons, including women and children. At times they got some help, at times they were chased away by the police. Each day spent on the road was full of difficulties and uncertainties.
They were on the road for over a month. They had blisters on their feet when they reached their village, Then they had to spend very difficult time in a school where they were placed under quarantine. They were so weakened that they did not get up for several days after reaching home.
Ramesh Prasad Ahirwar from this village was in Agra when the lockdown was imposed and he left with his wife Babita and children for his village. Fortunately, while they also had to walk quite a bit, they could get lifts in trucks for a considerable part of the journey.
So they could reach Bhanwarpura in 5 days, but after reaching their village they had to face a 15 day quarantine in very hot conditions, subsisting on food arranged by villagers who were themselves suffering from hunger.
Chuttu Anuragi was another migrant worker from this village who started a long foot journey back from his place of work in Mathura along with his wife Champa and four children. After walking some distance with great difficulty, they were extremely lucky to find a truck headed for Atarra, about 40 km. from their village. For the last stretch of the journey they again walked. As in their case, truck drivers appear to have come to the rescue of quite a few migrant workers at the time of lockdowns.
Mahesh, another resident of this village, recalls that his brother Kallu had come walking from Agra with swollen feet. After returning he was ill for some time and then he died.
Several hundred thousand migrant workers were on road during those days of lockdowns. .As they started their long trek home, many of them on almost empty stomachs, they faced harassment and several times they were asked to go back, but there was nowhere to go back to. Hence they had to continue their journey. Many of them, or their family members including children who accompanied them, may have suffered serious harm to health, disability including difficulties in carrying out hard physical work. Hence it is the country’s duty to look out for those people who need special help and to provide them help. With India’s administrative system reaching all parts of the country, India is a better position compared to several other countries to make such an effort for helping workers.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man over Machine, A Day in 2071 and Protecting Earth for Children.