Mumbai/Lucknow/Ranchi/Raipur: On Wednesday, Ram Prakash Gautam, a migrant worker from Mumbai, has just reached Varanasi and he says he feels blessed.
“I feel safe here,” he says, as he alights from a container truck carrying 49 workers from Mumbai, which was stopped by the police. “We found 49 people inside the container truck instead of goods mentioned in the documents,” says traffic circle office Awadhesh Pandey.
The workers started their journey on May 9 after hiring a truck for Rs 1,50,000 lakh. “We were left with no choice ,” Gautam said, claiming that they got out of the container only twice during the four day journey. “We survived on biscuits and water.”
A reverse migration, forced upon people by the loss of their livelihoods — itself the result of the lockdown enforced to fight the spread of the coronavirus disease — is playing out across India. Tens of thousands of workers are finally making their way back home. Some, the lucky ones, are on special trains organised by the government; others are on buses organised by the states; still others have hired trucks or stowed away on them; and there are those who are cycling back home — or simply walking. Anything between Rs 1,50,000 to Rs 3,00,000 is being charged for an inhuman truck ride back home.
On Thursday, 15 migrant workers died in accidents across three states, taking the total number of migrant workers who died on India’s highways as they struggled to find their way home to 110 since March 25 when the lockdown began.
For almost a month, the only way the workers could return home was by walking , cycling, or hitching rides. Then, a few state governments started organising buses. The central government came out with a protocol on inter-state movement of migrants on buses — all inter-state movement was barred until then — in late April, and then, perhaps realising that trains were faster, safer, and could accommodate more, finally started running special Shramik trains on May 1, International Workers’ Day.
Despite the launch of the trains, some workers have hired trucks, paying up to Rs 4,000 per passenger, to return home. Social activists said the workers are not willing to wait to take trains or buses — most states say it could take a week or 10 days to organise the trains or buses.
Huddled in container boxes, concrete mixture bins, and cargo compartments, the workers have taken almost non-stop journeys of up to 100 hours to reach their villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, travelling from Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Telangana.
Maharashtra home minister Anil Deskmukh said the state governments has provided migrant workers food and shelter and also transport to go back home. “We have also assured them that work will start soon and they should be patient,” he said.
Yet, after weeks of the lockdown, many workers do not want to wait any longer.
A report by Stranded Workers Action Network said that 79% of the workers returning are daily wage factory or construction workers and another 8% are domestic workers and drivers.
“It is layered and a complex situation,” said Anandita Adhikhari, a doctorate student at Brown University, United States, who has anchored the network with close to 100 young volunteers (mostly students) from across India.
SWAN’s study released on May 2 said around 72% of those returning home has almost run out of ration, usually provided by the local state government, and cash. Many said they did not receive salaries for March, nor cash handouts from the state.
Adhikhari said most of the workers, including those who have stayed back in anticipation of work being available , have fallen into another cycle of debt as they have taken loans from landlords or local shopkeepers to sustain themselves during the lockdown.
Chhattisgarh based social activist Priyanka Shukla said most of the workers travelling have not received any help from their respective states. “They are on their own. Their stories are of pain and anguish, which should shame us all,” she said, directing a group of 40 migrant labourers, cycling from Uttar Pradesh’s Lucknow on way to their village in state’s Champa district, towards a water cooler at a gas filling station in Bilaspur.
Shukla, who has documented travel of about 1000 migrant workers crossing Bilaspur in the past one week said: “About 200 workers cross Bilaspur every night on foot or cycling as they avoid the heat of the day. They are from Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and are coming from the southern states and Maharashtra.”
Sataria Hembrom, 31, walked back to his village in Jharkhand’s Chaibasa from Mumbai, a distance of more than 1,800 km, with six others. All the seven worked at a construction site in Navi Mumbai, where the work stopped on March 22. Initially, they bought food from their savings. They lasted a month. Then they started running low on money.
“We had two options; face Covid without food or walk home. They started their journey on May 2 and ended it on May 13, walking and hitching rides. Hembrom, who has blisters on his feet because of the walking, appreciated the assistance of policemen all along the way. “At some places police helped us to get a lift in trucks,” he said. Otherwise, they would just walk.
Many of the workers have no money; whatever they had, including savings, went towards food, and to pay truck and bus drivers. “It was a horrible journey. One man fell down from the truck and hurt himself,” recalled Lakshmi Morya, an autorickshaw driver, who paid Rs 3,000 to a truck driver, to travel back to his village in Hardoi district of Uttar Pradesh. He reached on May 13, four days after starting from Goregaon in Mumbai, with 70 other people, all packed into the goods compartment of a truck.
Joshana S, a resident of Pratiksha Nagar in Mumbai’s Sion, said two of her brothers-in-law have already left for Kanpur in trucks and two other relatives will leave on Thursday. “It is getting difficult to survive in Mumbai with no income for two months and all work avenues closed,” she said. Sunil Yadav, from the Pani Haq Samiti in Mumbai said small companies, where these migrants work, have stopped paying them or helping them with food.
Some workers spent their money on cycles, paying anywhere between Rs 2000 to Rs 3000 to buy one and ride back home.
And those that couldn’t afford either , simply walked — like the 16 migrant workers from Madhya Pradesh, who were mowed down by a goods train while they were asleep on the tracks near Aurangabad in Maharashtra. Walking along railway tracks ensures two things, the workers said: one, there weren’t too many policemen around; and two, it kept them on the right track.
Not all are on the road. many workers continue to languish in caps.
Ramesh Kumar (26), a resident of Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh, and two-dozen of his friends, all working in the construction sector in north Kerala, decided to wak to Mangaluru from where they heard they could catch a train to Delhi. That was back in March.
They were intercepted by the Kerala police and sent to a government shelter — where they remain. “Government is providing food to us. That is true. But we are waiting for two months without any work. Some of our relatives are starving back home. We are not slaves. We are desperate to go back.”
Thus far, Kerala has seen 24 Shramik trains t o take back workers , but the state still has around 4 lakh migrant workers housed in 12,000-odd camps across the state.
In Gujarat, workers have protested over not been allowed to go back home even though a large number of them have returned in buses to Jharkhand, Bihar and Odisha — causing a spike in cases in those states. Now, the states governments are not allowing private buses to bring workers from Gujarat. During the ongoing lockdown, Surat reported seven violent incidents and Vadodara three, all caused by restive workers wanting to return home. “There is no or very less work here and the labourers want to go back,” said Rajabhai Vadala, a trade union leader in Surat.
However, the desperation to return is more visible in Maharashtra cities of Mumbai and Pune, which are under complete lockdown and where the possibility of work resuming soon is remote. Most of the workers coming in trucks are from Maharashtra, said a Madhya Pradesh government official, claiming that every day 20,000 to 30,000 workers from Maharashtra enter the state.
Many do manage to find their way home.
Like Gautam of Varanasi, who will be screened and quarantined for 14 days before he gets home.
Several migrant workers, mostly from Mumbai, were seen walking on Lucknow’s Shaheed Path on the way to their villages. All had com by trucks that had dropped them off on the highway.
Dilip Singh is lucky. He has a motorbike. And so, he is driving home from Mumbai, with his wife and child.
“I have been on the road for five days. It will take r another one day to reach my village in Barabanki district,” he said, adding tat he hopes to find some work in the village. If he doesn’t, he adds, “our relatives will at least give us food.”
Finding work may not be easy.
Madvi Lakshman, who walked about 150 km from Telangana to reach Bijapur in Andhra, is looking for work. “My family will starve if I don’t get work. I can go anywhere for work,” he said. Lakshman crossed dense forests in Bastar region to reach his village from the chilli fields in neighbouring Telangana.
Indeed, many are ready to migrate again.
Ranjit Kumar, 26, of a village near Lucknow, is desperate to return to Mumbai, from where he fled in mid-April. “I took a loan to go to Mumbai. All that I earned got exhausted in my return journey and now I am in debt. I will have to go somewhere to earn.”