These migrants were told buses would be plying from Lucknow to Chhattisgarh. But they were told to get some documents. Dejected, most of them started walking to their hometowns
Parvati, 30, was walking on the highway at about 2 PM with her one-year-old child braving 45 degrees heat. She was on her way from Lucknow to Chhattisgarh and had to cover a distance of 700 kms.
Their faces were burning red in the scorching sun. The baby’s face was drying up with sharp gusts of heat and he was constantly crying. Parvati was striding ahead while covering the head of the child with the pallu of her saree.
Dozens of women like Parvati were walking recently in Lucknow, with children ranging from six months to one-and-a-half-year of age in tow. Some children were seated upon the shoulders of their father or uncle and some were walking wiping off the sweat while holding their mothers’ fingers.
In the scorching heat of May, this scene was quite unsettling, leaving a lot many questions for the government to answer? While Gaon Connection made videos and took some pictures in order to convey the agony of these faces to the corridors of power, Parvati came up and with great hope in her voice said: “You are giving us water and food, taking our photo, making videos. Do arrange a vehicle. My child is crying because of the heat.”
As a reporter, I was speechless. Gaon Connection had, on that day, arranged for water and some food for dozens of women like Parvati and their children on their way. It had also transported many to the place from where the policemen were helping them get on the trucks. But it was simply not enough to alleviate their suffering.
Parvati had come to Lucknow with her husband, leaving her three children with her mother-in-law in Bilaspur district of Chhattisgarh. A one-year-old child was with Parvati. Parvati was carrying the child and her husband was carrying a big bag on his head. They had walked to this bus station in the hope of catching a bus to their home town.
When asked why were they walking in the sun when the government had arranged for buses, Parvati said: “It is no pleasure for us to walk with a child in this sun. We received a message on mobile that there would be a bus from here. We vacated the room that we were living in, and came here to catch the bus. Now, these people are saying that we need some permission from the Municipal corporation and only then we’d be allowed to board the bus and leave. Where do we go now?”
Khileshwari Sahu, 28, while holding her daughter’s finger, said: “Where do we now go with a small child? We are not educated. We don’t know what to do? Why have all the rules been made for us (the poor)? This is my three-year-old girl. If we do not find any means, we will have to go on foot with her. Now, we have surrendered to our fate.”
Lakhs of labourers took to the streets on March 24 when the Prime Minister had announced the first phase of the lockdown without any particular action plan in place. For weeks, these crowds walked and reached their village. Some were on foot, some on bicycles and some took lifts. Following the extensive media coverage, the state governments then arranged for transport for them. But it was too little, too late. The countrywide lockdown continued to be extended, forcing these unemployed labourers to walk on the highways to reach their hometowns.
More than 500 labourers have lost their lives during the countrywide lockdown. The death toll was the highest among the homebound labourers on foot. It tells a lot about the government’s gross failure in handling the crisis when one witnesses thousands of labourers walking hungry and thirsty on the road. Even by the fourth phase of the lockdown, the government has not been able to assure millions of migrant labourers of proper arrangements for their food and to stay where they live.
Khileswari Sahu was carrying a bag in hand while holding her three-year-old girl’s hand with the other. Whenever any truck would stop, she would run towards it and resumes walking once she comes to know that it is not headed her way.
When asked why didn’t they wait for a few more days, she said: “We got ration only once throughout the lockdown. We don’t like standing in long queues for food. How many days could we have lived like this? We are proud hardworking people. In the past two months, we have faced great difficulty in feeding ourselves and paying for the room. I even have small children back home. They are worried too. When would all this end? When would we have our jobs back?”
Khileswari has been living in Lucknow for 10 years. She has left behind her five-year-old child in her village and now is going back to the village with her husband and a three-year-old girl.
What prompted you risking this walk in such a heat? She said: “We don’t have jobs. For how many days will the people give us ration? The disease made the poor man even poorer. If you fall ill now, there is no treatment available in the hospital. There is no food to eat. If we live here, we will die.”
She added: “We will not die from coronavirus, we will die from starvation. For the past one week, we have only sustained upon rice. My son calls daily from the village and asks me to come back.”
There were many waiting at the bus stop. Each had a small child on one’s lap. When a four-year-old child began to protest hunger, his mother Tejan took out and handed the child a roti.
She said: “How would the child eat dry roti without any vegetable or pickle? Our children have become accustomed to all such meals during the lockdown. While we were earning, we had fed them vegetable and dal, but for the last two months, we all had been eating plain salted roti. This roti has salt and onion and he will eat it like that.”
The reasons of these women to walk were justified. Despite the tragic death of many labourers in road accidents during the last several days, they are putting their lives at risk.
Seating a three-year-old girl upon his bicycle, Radheshyam, labourer, said: “I had registered online to go home, and there came a message on mobile that the vehicle would be there today. Now, these people are asking for some paper from the municipal corporation. I have no clue where and which officer sits? It is better to return to the village like this.”
When suggested to return to where they had been staying so far, Raddhshyam said: “He will not keep us now. It is not possible for a worker to pay rent and sit and eat for two months without working. This is why we worry about going to the village. There we have a few people we call our own. Here, we are only faceless labourers.”