Through sea and forests: How workers are trying to reach home amid lockdown
Many workers in cities such as Mumbai and Surat protested, demanding permission to return to their villages as they had no money. But some workers defied government orders and took different ways to reach homes. HT looks at five ways the workers took to reach their villages.Updated: Apr 21, 2020 14:39 IST
Millions of workers and other people have been stranded across India since a nationwide lockdown was announced on March 24. Many have shown unprecedented grit and determination to return home despite restrictions on travelling.
Around 1.5 million workers were stopped and kept in shelter homes and camps set up by state governments across India, where they got food at least twice a day.
Many workers in cities such as Mumbai and Surat protested, demanding permission to return to their villages as they had no money. But some workers defied government orders and took different ways to reach homes. HT looks at five ways the workers took to reach their villages.
On Monday morning, a group of 27 migrant workers from Andhra Pradesh and Odisha returned to their villages using the sea route from Chennai. They pooled in whatever money they had to buy a boat for Rs 2 lakh and decided to travel along India’s eastern coast as travel by road was not allowed during the lockdown.
Ganjam district collector Vijay Amrita Kulange said these workers, including 10 from Odisha, had gone to Chennai a few months ago to work in local factories.
“After the lockdown was announced and their factories shut down, these labourers could not get transport to come back. They decided to pool their money to buy a fishing boat for Rs 2 lakh, in which they decided to escape,” said Kulange. However, these 27 workers, who landed at Donkuri, have been booked under the Disaster Management Act for violating lockdown norms and put in quarantine, said a police officer of Srikakulam district.
On Sunday, 191 migrant workers were arrested in Guntur district of Telangana when they were found travelling in a boat on the Krishna river to reach their destination. Each worker paid Rs 500 to the boat-owner, who promised he would ensure they reach their villages, police said.
Walking through forests
The death of a 12-year-old girl in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur after she walked about 100 km over three days revealed that hundreds of workers from Telangana, Odisha and Maharashtra are returning to their villages in Maoist-affected Bastar region through dense forests. The girl was part of a group of 13 migrants who were returning to their village from a chilli farm in Telangana’s Mulgu district, where work was suspended because of the lockdown.
The workers began walking from Telangana’s Perur on April 15, and the girl named Jamlo Madkami died of stress (not Covid-19) on reaching Chhattisgarh on April 18. The other 12 workers have been put in quarantine.
Police officials said there were reports of tribal people walking back from Odisha and Maharashtra through the dense and tough terrain of Chhattisgarh’s forests, which are being verified by different police stations. “The workers took a forested route to reach their village because of the closure of roads due to the lockdown,” said Bijapur’s chief medical officer, BR Pujari.
On April 1, Mahesh Jena, like many other workers in India, set off on an unusual journey by cycling back to his home in Odisha’s Jaipur district from Sangli in Maharashtra, a journey of 1,700 km. As there was a rumour that factories would remain closed for at least five months, Jena said: “Everyone was very scared. How we will earn? How will we eat? How will we pay room rent? No one said anything to us about how we will survive, whether we will be paid.”
On his way back, Jena saw crowds of migrant workers on foot. “I did not think of anything more. I did not think about food or water, or whether the cycle would last,” he said. Determined to reach home, Jena cycled an average of a little more than 200 km a day and reached his village on April 8.
On April 1, another worker named Arif made an arduous bicycle journey from Mumbai to Jammu to see his ailing father, who had suffered a stroke. He was helped by CRPF’s Madadgar helpline to complete his journey in about eight days.
Many other workers have cycled shorter distances to reach home. Radheshyam Patel was among a group of 50 workers who cycled from Gujarat’s Ahmedabad to Rajasthan’s Dungarpur district, a distance of 150 km. “Since no buses were available, we decided to cycle back home,” Patel said. Similar reports were received from Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Stuffed in vehicles
On Sunday, Telangana Police found three students hiding in a milk tanker at Pondugula check-post. They were on their way to Singarayakonda in Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh from Miryalaguda in Telangana. Nalgonda district’s superintendant of police PV Ranganath said each student paid Rs 1,000 to get back to their villages.
On March 28, around 10 workers were found hidden in a milk tanker in Thane district of Maharashtra, travelling back to their villages in Rajasthan. They were detained at Talasari in Palghar district of Maharashtra along the Gujarat boundary, PTI news agency reported. The migrants chose this method as regular transport was not available.
In another incident, 32 workers, including women and children, were caught packed into a truck like sardines and covered by a tarpaulin at Lucknow’s Gomti Nagar on April 2. They were travelling in the truck with a Delhi registration number to their villages in violation of the lockdown, police said. Vijay, who identified himself as the leader of the group, said, “We managed to enter Uttar Pradesh, despite the border being sealed because we knew alternative routes to sneak in. We managed to reach Lucknow with great difficulty. We somehow managed to come this far and now are not too far from our destination.”
All of them were from Barabanki district of Uttar Pradesh. Similar reports of workers hiding in trucks and pick-up vans were received from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar.
A couple from Tripura travelled 3,213 km from Tamil Nadu in an ambulance to reach their home amid the lockdown last Saturday. They had gone to Chennai on March 20 and got stranded because of the lockdown. As the lockdown was extended, the couple decided to return home on April 15 and reached Agartala on Sunday night. “It was quite difficult to stay at hospital and bear the high cost. We needed to defer our daughter’s marriage, which was supposed to be on May 8,” said Chanchal Majumder, who had taken his wife to Chennai for treatment for a brain tumour.
Majumder, a retired government official, spent Rs 1.4 lakh for the journey in an ambulance and travelled almost non-stop, zipping past seven states. They bought food from whatever shops were open. The couple has now been put in institutional quarantine at Udaipur in Tripura. “After they came here, we immediately shifted them to institutional quarantine. They didn’t meet anyone, not even their daughter. I have visited them. Both are fine now,” said Gomati district magistrate TK Debnath.
Earlier, a couple from Nepal travelled from Chennai in an ambulance to reach the India-Nepal border in West Bengal, where they were put in quarantine. A police officer, who declined to be named, said the Nepalese couple paid Rs 2 lakh for the ambulance with a curfew pass. The couple told police that people on the way provided them food during their 2,300-km journey.