“We will eat sookhi roti and namak, but at least we will be home”

Thousands migrant labourers working in Delhi scramble to get home to their villages in Uttar Pradesh after a week-long lockdown was announced in the national capital. Gaon Connection met a few tired, hungry, thirsty and anxious migrant workers as they arrived in busloads at the Kaiserbagh Bus Depot in Lucknow.

Arvind Shukla
| Updated: April 20th, 2021

Anxious migrant workers arrived in busloads at the Kaiserbagh Bus Depot in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. Pic: Arvind Shukla/GC

Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

Tired, hungry, thirsty and anxious men and women clutching wailing children and hastily packed bags, got off packed buses, at the Kaiserbagh bus depot in Lucknow. They were returning from Delhi where a weeklong lockdown, announced by the Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, came into force last night at 10 pm and will continue up to 5 am on Monday, April 26. 

Kuldeep Yadav was one of them. With a baby girl in his arms and his young wife standing next to him, the exhausted family was headed to their village Jagdishpur in Amethi.

“As soon as we heard of the lockdown, we decided to return home,” Yadav told Gaon Connection. “We boarded a bus from Anand Vihar in Delhi and travelled on the roof of the bus as there was no place inside. It was a private carrier and we were charged twelve hundred rupees each to travel from Delhi to Bareilly,” he said. Yadav’s family had to shell out another Rs 400 per head to travel from Bareilly to Lucknow from where they will make their way to their village. The fare was almost double what they would pay in normal days.

Kuldeep Yadav, along with his baby girl and wife, was on way to his village in Amethi from Delhi. Pic: Arvind Shukla/GC

Normally the Uttar Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation buses should charge no more than Rs 350 or so for the distance, with private buses perhaps charging a little more. However, there was no time to bargain or wait for a cheaper option, and the Yadav family just paid up what was demanded and clambered on.

Like Yadav, thousands of migrant workers left Delhi last evening to head back to their towns and villages as they feared a repeat of last year’s sufferings when they were stranded in cities without food, water, shelter or money. 

Also Read: Delhi CM Kejriwal announces week-long curfew, triggering an exodus of panic-stricken migrant workers

Having burnt their fingers before, they don’t wish to take any chances this time, said the migrant workers who arrived at Lucknow, enroute to their villages.

Last year, during lockdown, more than 10 million (10,466,152 to be exact) workers returned home. Pic: Arvind Shukla/GC

Last year, during lockdown, more than 10 million (10,466,152 to be exact) workers returned home, as Santosh Kumar Gangwar, Minister of State for Labour and Employment, informed the parliament last September. 

A first-of-its-kind survey last summer conducted by Gaon Connection revealed that every fourth migrant worker had to walk back home during the last year’s lockdown (Read the full survey report here). The survey showed that 23 per cent of migrant workers walked home during the lockdown, 18 per cent returned home by bus, and 12 per cent by train. While on their way home, 12 per cent of migrant workers were reportedly beaten by the police. About 40 per cent of this workforce faced food scarcity during its painful journey back home.  

Also Read: Almost every fourth migrant worker returned home on foot during the lockdown

With memories of the harrowing time still fresh in their minds, this year, the migrant labour force was taking no chances.  

Migrant workers at the Kaiserbagh bus depot in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. Pic: Arvind Shukla/GC

Lockdown diary

“The announcement of the lockdown is only for a week, now. But what if it is extended,” Chandrabhan, who waited at Anand Vihar last evening to board a bus to Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh, some 700 kilometres away from Delhi, told Gaon Connection. He was hoping that along with his wife and brother he would get to his village safe. 

“There is no question of us staying back,” he said. “What will happen in the future? What will happen if the lockdown is extended to two, three, four months? Where will we stay, what will we eat,” he asked, clearly worried. 

Also Read: The trauma of last lockdown still fresh, migrant workers make a beeline for home

It was deja vu for daily wager Yadav, who had undertaken the same journey last year during the lockdown, but on foot. Last summer, he had walked nearly 300 kilometres from Delhi to Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh. So, this time when Kejriwal announced a lockdown yesterday morning, Yadav was not taking any risks. He gathered his wife, brother and infant daughter and, along with his meagre belongings, headed to the Anand Vihar bus stand to catch the first bus bound towards his home state Uttar Pradesh. 

“There is no question of us staying back.” Migrant workers are heading back home. Pic: Arvind Shukla/GC

At the Kaiserbagh Bus Depot in Lucknow, Gaon Connection met Govind who had just got off a bus coming from Delhi. “Delhi has been put under a lockdown. Our maalik told us to do whatever we wished to, stay here or go back to our village. He said he had no money, so we decided to return home,” Govind said. He, along with three more people, used to work at a local restaurant (serving choley bhature) in the national capital. All four, now jobless due to the lockdown, have come back.

Meanwhile, at the Kaiserbagh Bus Depot, a Corona Help Desk stands forlorn and deserted with no one behind its counters. However, everywhere else there is frantic activity and non stop din as buses, bursting at their seams, with people sitting on their roofs pull into the depot and disgorge hundreds of harried passengers who have perhaps spent their entire savings on the fare to get home to their villages. 

Delhi announced the lockdown yesterday that will last till the morning of April 26. The capital is reeling under a massive onslaught of COVID-19 cases and recorded 23,696 fresh cases and 240 deaths yesterday, April 19. Chief Minister Kejriwal also pointed out how the health system in the city was under great strain with hospitals running out of beds, medical oxygen and the life saving Remdesivir drug. 

Also read: Amid rising COVID19 cases, migrant workers in rural UP anxious about another lockdown

He did however assure the people of Delhi that this was but a short lockdown just to ease the strain on the health system in the city and requested them not to panic and leave the capital. 

However, in the face of uncertainty and with the nightmarish experience of  the last lockdown, many of the migrants were not willing to wait around to see what happened. All they wanted was to get back home. 

As one of the daily wagers who had just helped his family off the roof of a private bus at the Kaiserbagh Bus Depot told Gaon Connection, “We will eat sookhi roti and namak (dry roti and salt), but at least we will be home.”