As I set out to drive nearly 300 kilometres on the Pune-Indore highway, I was prepared to hear stories of despair. I planned to interview dozens of migrant workers who were walking hundreds of kilometres back to their hometowns and villages. Their workplaces had closed after prime minister Narendra Modi locked India down to contain the spread of coronavirus in late March and many had run out of money, even food. And since public transport was suspended, they were forced to make the long journeys home on foot.
But what I witnessed was worse than I could have imagined. And all I could think was how we, as their fellow countrymen, had utterly failed them.
My journey began in Pune. Near Yerwada, I first spotted people with bags strapped to their backs and heads, walking down the Nagar highway. Some walked in groups of three or four, others marched alone. At a weekly market in Wagholi, a suburb of Pune, this trickle of people swelled into a crowd.
There, people sat on the ground, a lucky few with umbrellas to shield themselves from the scorching sun. Bags marked their places in a long queue, each placed a couple of metres from the next as a form of social distancing. In a corner of the ground, a red Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation bus stood parked next to a police vehicle, which made sporadic announcements about maintaining a safe distance from each other and the allotment of token numbers to the workers.
This solitary bus was headed to Gondia, a small town on Maharashtra’s border with Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Ninety percent of the assembled workers were from these two states, and the bus was part of an effort by the governments of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh to provide free transport for the migrants to reach their home states.
“Twenty-one buses left yesterday but there is only one today,” I heard someone say. It was Pratima Baghel who, with her eight-year-old son and elderly parents, had been wandering Pune for four days, looking for a bus to take them to their home in Chhattisgarh’s Bemetara district.
The family had been living in Undri, Pune. “We were told a bus for migrants will leave from Karve Nagar, so we walked 12 km to get there,” Pratima said. “After reaching there, a policeman said the bus was cancelled. Then we walked 22 km to reach Wagholi.” Pratima and her family got tokens but a day had passed and their numbers hadn’t been called yet.
Pratima’s mother, Satan Markande, had her face covered with a mask. But the tone of her voice as she spoke conveyed anger towards Bhupesh Baghel, Chhattisgarh’s chief minister. She held out a Rs 100 note. “I’m not lying, this is all the money we are left with,” she said. “Private buses charge Rs 2,500-3,000 to reach Chhattisgarh. If we had enough money, we would not be sitting here like this.”
Satan said Baghel “is not listening”. “He’s not worried about the workers stranded here. He has opened wine shops in Chhattisgarh while migrants in other states are struggling to get water for their children.”
Many migrants waiting in Wagholi told me similar stories, about the apathy shown by the authorities, about how they were struggling to get two square meals a day, or waiting for days for a bus with just Rs 100 left. An official from the Lonikand police station who was on duty at the ground too had heard these stories, and he sounded sympathetic. “These poor people are in pain. Their condition is pathetic,” he said. “They are the ones who erected the buildings in Pune. It hurts to see them like this.”
I left Wagholi and drove down the highway towards Shirur. Here, four men walked in single file down the side of the road, luggage strapped to their heads, water bottles in their hands. They were visibly tired. They were walking home to Bihar’s Buxar.
The name Buxar rang a bell. I remembered it from history lessons in school. Wasn’t it some 2,000 km away, I asked. Sanjeev Singh, 25, corrected me tiredly, “It’s about 1,600-1,700 km from Pune.” And Sanjeev and his fellow workers — Babudhan, Kush Kumar and Sudarshan — were heading there on foot.
The four of them worked for daily wages in Pune, earning Rs 250-280 a day. When the lockdown began on March 25, they were left with no work and empty pockets. Their contractor would pay them Rs 100-150 every 15 days during the lockdown — an amount that so many people spend on a pack of cigarettes without blinking an eye.
Sanjeev said the rations they were given were also limited: two or three kg of rice and one kg dal every 15 days. They couldn’t afford to buy vegetables, milk or curd, so they survived on boiled rice and dal.
“The contractor then told us that he wouldn’t give us any more money or food, so we decided to walk home,” Babudhan, 19, said. “He hasn’t cleared my payment for two months too. We had no option but to start walking.”
When I met them, Sanjeev and his fellow workers had already walked 86 km from Bhugaon. Their water bottles were empty, and they were out of food and money.
Further down the highway, I met Sunanda Manzre, 24, who was walking to Washim in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha, nearly 500 km away. She had begun her journey on May 15 from Lonavala, covering 120 km in a day to reach Shirur.
Sunanda was accompanied by seven family members, including her daughters, Sushma, 6, and Priyanka, who is a year and a half old. Sunanda is seven months pregnant.
Their journey began with Rs 175 and hardly any food. They ate whatever was distributed along the highway by the police and social organisations.
“I have two small children and I didn’t have any money to provide them even with milk. We ate bhakri, chutney and dal everyday, and gradually started skipping our meals,” Sunanda told me. “My husband and other men in the family didn’t have any work or money. Sitting inside the room in constant fear, worrying what I would feed my children, it was a horrible feeling. We did not get food or rations even once from the administration.”
As I neared the boundary of Ahmednagar district, I met a group of families packed into three autorickshaws. In desperation to get to their homes in Marathwada and Vidarbha, they had sold household appliances in Navi Mumbai and left.
“The state and central governments are both not doing anything. They make tall claims. They didn’t give us rations, despite the government policy of ‘one nation, one ration card’. I had to sell appliances worth Rs 30,000 for just Rs 6,000 because we were left with no money,” said Ashok Wakde, 55, an auto driver headed to Parbhani in Marathwada. “Using this money, my family and I are going home.”
Vijay Rathod, also an auto driver, said he was driving from Vashi to Akola, Vidarbha. His ration card had an address in Washim district, but he managed to get rations in Vashi in February.
“But on April 6, I went to the ration shop in Vashi and stood in the queue from 6 am,” Vijay said. “Then I was told I will not get rations since my card has a Washim address. We don’t have any earnings and the government is not giving us rations. What should we do?”
On the Ahmednagar-Manmad highway towards the Madhya Pradesh border, nearly 150 km from Pune, I saw a group of 11 children, nine women and six men sitting by the roadside. They had left Bijapur in Karnataka four days earlier and were headed to Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh and Bhind in Madhya Pradesh, around 1,300 km away.
Most of the men in the group ran pani puri stalls in Bijapur. They had been out of work since the pandemic broke out, well before India went into lockdown. They didn’t have any food with them and relied on charity.
A few women told me they couldn’t relieve themselves while on the road; they often held it and relieved themselves at night.
Bharat Singh, who was headed to Bhind, said he had already walked 50 km from Bijapur’s Hirerugi to Durkhedi near the Maharashtra-Karnataka border.
“The tehsildar and other government officials said they would arrange a bus for us to Jhansi, but we would have to pay Rs 4,500 per person,” he said. “The total fare was Rs 1.15 lakh. We didn’t have more than Rs 3,000. We are six men in our group, and each has just Rs 200 or Rs 500 in their pockets.”
The police arranged a state bus for the workers, free of cost, that dropped them at Patas, Maharashtra. “We spent the night on the road. At 4 am, we started walking,” Bharat said.
I arranged a mini-truck that took them near Sendhwa on the Madhya Pradesh border. There, they boarded a bus, run for free by the state government, that took them home.
On my way back to Pune, I crossed a checkpost at Shikrapur. A mini-truck had been stopped by the police, and I slowed down to see what was happening.
I met Pradeep Singh, 34, a daily wager who was traveling in the mini-truck with 24 other people. They had paid Rs 3,000-3,500 each to the driver to take them from Nigdi, a suburb of Pune, to Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh. There were several families in the group, with children. The police wouldn’t let them pass, however, insisting that they return to their rented accommodations.
Singh broke down. “I just want to go home, sir,” he begged the police officials, with folded hands. “Please let me go to my home.”
A police official at the checkpost, Nazir Pathan, told me they had been ordered not to let migrants travel in trucks after a group of labourers died in an accident in Uttar Pradesh. If the landlords of the migrants didn’t allow them back, another police official said, the workers should go to a police station.
The workers were finally taken back to Nigdi, to Transport Nagar, and left there.
But after I spoke about their plight with Sudhir Hiremath, deputy commissioner of the Pimpri Chinchwad police, they were shifted to a shelter home in the suburb. The workers spent a day in the shelter home before its supervisor, Raju Mankar, sent them to the railway station in a bus. He charged the workers for the bus and told them they could board a train to Uttar Pradesh even if they didn’t have token numbers.
But Mankar lied. The workers were not allowed to enter the station without tokens and spent the night outside it. I again spoke with the authorities. Finally, Hiremath and another senior police officer, Sarang Awhad, superintendent of police, Pune Metropolitan Region Development Authority, came forward and helped the migrants get to Allahabad.
Theirs is just one of thousands of such stories. Pradeep Singh’s face haunts me, and his words: “I just want to go home.”
This story is part of the NL Sena project, which 13 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Sridhar Raghuraman, Ravinder Dasila, Vishal Sharma, Huma Siddique, Siddharth P, Kashif Sayeed, Suraj Ravichandran, Sreekanth, Yateesh C, Nilkanth, Thejaswini, and other NL Sena members. Contribute to our , The Economics of post-Covid India by Vivek Kaul, and help to keep news free and independent.
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