Coronavirus update: A long walk home on empty stomachs for masked migrants

Updated on Mar 27, 2020 04:11 PM IST

Stranded after the lockdown, thousands of migrant workers are walking back to their villages and towns from their places of work hundreds of kilometers away.

Migrant workers leave Delhi on foot on the second day of the nationwide lockdown over coronavirus outbreak on Thursday.(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)
Migrant workers leave Delhi on foot on the second day of the nationwide lockdown over coronavirus outbreak on Thursday.(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)
Hindustan Times, Lucknow/Ranchi/New Delhi | ByPankaj Jaiswal, Sanjoy Dey and Dhrubo Jyoti, Lucknow/ranchi/new Delhi

Manna Lal has walked 100 km over the last 24 hours with almost no food or water. He has to cover 150km more to get home.

Lal, 48, is one in a group of eight labourers walking across the length of eastern Uttar Pradesh to get to their ancestral village of Gatla Beli in Bahraich district – roughly 250km from Kanpur city, where they worked as masons.

They left their construction site at 3am on Wednesday after the care-taker told them that work would be halted in the wake of the 21-day national lockdown imposed by the government to halt the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) that has infected 606 people and killed 10.

Hours after the announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the local contractor stopped work and told them they had no place to live.

“By Tuesday night, we had already exhausted half of our money. So we decided to go home,” said Guddu, 15. They first walked to the local railway station, 20km away but it was shut. “Our hearts sank…we rested a bit and started walking.”

With a small bundle of clothes and belongings slung over his shoulders, Lal and the others walked for 12 hours with no food – his last meal was at the construction site on Tuesday night. “We survived only on water,” he said. “But it is better to be in village than in a city where we will not even get food,” he added.

Each of them have between 50 and 200 but are unwilling to part with it, hoping that they will eventually find a bus to board. “Also, we don’t know what the situation would be back home with no income coming,” said Ram Achal, 28.

Their feet sore with blisters, the group lumbered into Lucknow on Wednesday afternoon, where they met with an unexpected stroke of good luck – the constables at the local check post opened their tiffin boxes and gave them eight rotis, one for each of them, and some sweets. “We haven’t eaten them yet. We are saving them for when the hunger becomes unbearable,” said Lal.

They aren’t the only ones.

Munna Mahto reached his village in Jharkhand’s Latehar from Ranchi, about 110 kms away, on Tuesday. Dashrath Yadav, walked all night on Tuesday without food and water, with three other family members, to reach Gujarat’s Ahmedabad from Vadodara, a distance of 110 kms. And, Rabiul Shaikh just reached his home in West Bengal’s West Midnapore district on Thursday morning after walking with his family for almost 10 hours.

Stranded after the lockdown, thousands of such workers are walking back to their villages and towns from their places of work hundreds of kilometers away. Some of them have cooking gas stoves with them, others are begging on the way, and the rest are trying to suppress their hunger while they desperately look for any mode of transport to get back home. “When we got off the train at Howrah station, I was scared the disease will catch us. But we were so hungry, we didn’t think too much about it,” said Shaikh.

Last rung of the ladder

According to the 2011 Census, 54 million or nearly 5% people living in India migrated to their present state of residence from some other state. A quarter of them, or about 13 million people, migrated for economic reasons such as work, employment or business. More than half of these 13 million migrated out of just three states – Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan. More than half went to four states – Maharashtra, Delhi, Gujarat and Karnataka, primary driven to urban clusters such as Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Bengaluru.

Starved of economic opportunities, workers make their way through formal, informal, family and clan networks into a variety of jobs on the economic and social hierarchy: a private security guard at the top and a construction labourer at the bottom. Millions of women work as labourers, domestic help, cooks and cleaners. They are at particular risk of Covid-19 because they live in cramped quarters. Families often share a room and it is not uncommon for 10-12 men to share one kachha house. “They are at great economic precarity at the hands of contractors. And, there is precarity on both sides. At home, agriculture is risky and there are few economic opportunities. And in the city, there is the threat of recession shock, floods and epidemics,” said Chinmay Tumbe, a faculty member at IIM-Ahmedabad, and author of India Moving: A History of Migration.

He pointed out the difference in approach between internal and international migration, the latter being a matter of prestige and national image. “State governments need to do more and with greater coordination,” he added.

Better coordination could have saved Mahto and three friends a world of trouble. They took a train from Bengaluru for Latehar but the journey ended in Ranchi on March 21 as the railways cancelled all trains. After staying at a night shelter for two days, they decided to walk. “Whatever money we earned was spent on food. We have nothing left. We will go to our village, where we can at least survive on herbs and vegetables from jungle,” he said.

Many migrants have faced harassment from police. Shaikh said his family had to start running to escape the lathis. “A lot of other men were beaten up and forced to kneel down on the side of the road,” he said. Videos and television visuals from across India showed workers being forced to crawl on roads, made to do sit-ups and kneel down on the side of highways. A number of state governments have now set up community kitchens and some states such as Odisha have allowed eateries to open along the highways so that the labourers can get food and water. Some states such as Delhi, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have made night shelters operational.

Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee wrote to CMs of other states asking them to assist stranded people.

Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot has written to his Gujarat counterpart Vijay Rupani to ensure workers reach the state borders from where they can be taken to their villages.

“We are also trying them to convince them not to leave,” said Gujarat deputy chief minister Nitin Patel. Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren has promised that any worker stuck in the state would be cared for by the government.

Fear and stigma

Returning home has not been pleasant for Bhajaman Nayak. A resident of Kumbharapipiliguda village in Kalahandi district of Odisha, Nayak was one of the lucky workers who found a berth on the Alappuzha-Dhanbad Express from Thrissur, where he worked, and returned home a day before the lockdown was imposed on Tuesday.

But fear and stigma about the disease wiped out his luck. He was forced to pitch a tent outside the village as local residents barred him from coming within 200 metres of habitation. “Our only scare is that we can be bitten by snakes. Some of us guard against snakes in night,” he said.

In many other villages, migrant labourers have been barred from entering and compelled to stay in make-shift quarantine homes.

In Haryana’s Hassan village, even the entry of relatives has been banned. “We have sealed the boundaries of the village and people going to fields are only allowed to pass through it,” said Pratap Singh, village head.

For women workers, the sudden migration has brought forth a loss of income, safety and the added burden of unpaid work.

“I earned more than my husband as a help. I was saving up to buy a cycle, but now I fear I will cooking and cleaning for the family and not earn,” said Pinki, Shaikh’s wife. “But it is alright if we are saved from this disease.”

It is Thursday evening, and Lal and his group of eight still have several hours of walking ahead. They are tired, but continue with only short breaks. “If we go at this pace and determination, we will reach home Friday morning,” said Kandhai Lal.

(with inputs from Vijdan Mohammad Kawoosa)

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