Yesterday in his address to the nation, PM Narendra Modi urged migrant workers to remain where they were. But, haunted by memories of last year’s lockdown, they are leaving cities in droves. Gaon Connection met some of them on NH-24 while they made their way home.
With the horrors of the 2020 lockdown still fresh, migrant workers along with their families have started to return home. All photos: Mohit Shukla/Gaon Connection
Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh
Sitting under a tree on the roadside of NH-24 (national highway), Suresh Kumar tried to smile at his eight-year-old son. But, he was unable to hide the pain because of his swollen feet and smarting palms, red and hurting from all the hours of driving an autorickshaw, all the way from Delhi to Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh — a distance of about 426 kilometres (kms).
His ordeal, however, was far from over, as Kumar had another 600 kms to drive to reach his hometown Muzaffarpur in Bihar when Gaon Connection met him on NH-24 between Sitapur and Shahjahanpur, where he, his wife and his son, and three more passengers had stopped for a short break. They had spread sheets under a roadside tree and were trying to sleep.
“Last year during the lockdown I was trapped in Delhi for three months. I had to sell my land in the village, and my wife’s jewellery, in order to pay my rent in the city and repay the instalments on my auto,” Kumar told Gaon Connection.
So, as soon as Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced a week-long lockdown in the national capital on April 19 morning, Kumar, an autorickshaw driver in Delhi, felt it was prudent to rush home. Despite Kejriwal’s appeal and assurances to migrant workers to not leave the city, Kumar was not swayed.
Yesterday, in his address to the nation on the situation of COVID-19 pandemic in the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also urged migrant workers to remain where they were. However, migrant workers like Kumar have little faith in the government as last year, amid the lockdown, millions of them were stranded in cities without shelter, food, water or money. Thousands of them had to return home on foot in peak summer heat. Some even died in the effort.
“We left Delhi at 10 pm [on April 19]. My auto besides running on CNG also runs on petrol and I am spending from my pocket refilling the petrol that gives me ten kms per litre,” said Kumar. “Just when I thought I would complete the payment on my rickshaw and repay his other loans, the second lockdown has been declared,” he added.
Gaon Connection spent a day yesterday (April 20) on NH-24 near Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh to capture the reverse migration that has once again hit the country’s highways as the migrant labourforce makes its way back home in fear of another lockdown.
Making their way all the way from Delhi to Malda in West Bengal, a distance of over 1,500 kms, were 35 other auto drivers. “We were actually booked on the train to go back home in time to cast our votes there on April 26,” SK Merajul told Gaon Connection. They had hired a small truck, strapped down their pillows, mattresses, water coolers and backpacks in place, and squeezed themselves in the cramped space. The lot had got off to stretch their legs and eat something at a dhaaba, just outside Sitapur.
“Last year, too, we were told the lockdown was for a brief time but we were stuck for days on end. Who knows if trains will work by the end of April. That is why we cancelled our confirmed train ticket for April 22 and took some loan and organised this tempo,” Merajul said.
He added that with the lockdown last year, as their daily wages dried up, exploitation was rampant. “Stranded in the cities, we were overcharged for rice and oil and it was miserable.” So, the drivers from West Bengal decided they would not let that happen to them again. They pooled in money, hired the truck and headed out. “To travel the fourteen hundred kilometres, we have spent fifty one thousand rupees,” Merajul said. He wondered why the lockdown was announced in Delhi while full blown campaigning was happening in his home state, and till recently the Kumbh Mela was underway too with so many millions travelling there.
Near the Hempur railway crossing on NH-24, Rajesh Singh and Vinay Shukla despaired of ever reaching their village in Bahraich district, Uttar Pradesh. Both battery-rickshaw drivers in Delhi, they had left the national capital 24 hours ago on April 19 in a private bus, of which 12 hours had been spent stranded as their bus had broken down when Gaon Connection met them yesterday.
“They charged us a thousand rupees to get onto this bus,” Singh said. Singh and Shukla paid the money for just standing space, with not an inch of space to even shuffle their feet. “The bus has been giving problems right through. It had a punctured tyre, something went wrong with the engine and finally it stopped moving,” an exasperated Shukla told Gaon Connection.
The passengers had neither eaten or slept. “The bus driver has been assuring us that a replacement bus is being sent to pick us up. It has been twelve hours, but nothing has happened so far,” Singh added.
There are hundreds of autorickshaws, tempos and buses bursting with migrant labourers out on the National Highways, bumping their way out of the capital towards different parts of the country. No amount of persuasive rhetoric or reassurances from chief ministers or even the prime minister could hold them back, not even the prospect of a bone-crushing and hazardous journey amid the raging pandemic.
Meanwhile, when Gaon Connection last contacted Suresh Kumar, his auto had broken down and they were pushing it from Khalilabad to Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, with another 300 kms approximately still left to reach their village in Bihar.