Mungeli is more than 700 km away from the Uttar Pradesh capital. Yet for desperate and hungry Lalaram and his family, the distance did not matter as they set out on foot on Thursday evening, with a few bicycles loaded with meagre possessions, heading home to Chhattisgarh.
With Lalaram were his wife, their four-year-old daughter, his father and other relatives.
As the lockdown stretched on, the stranded workers had run out of patience and decided to undertake the uncertain journey home.
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A construction worker staying in a slum colony in Lucknow’s Gomti Nagar area, Lalaram has been out of work since the lockdown began in late March. Though he, like other labourers in the colony, has been occasionally receiving ration kits and food packets from NGOs, local authorities and a political workers, he said these were not enough for sustenance.
“We get puris. How long will we survive on puris? We also need money for our expenses,” he said.
Since no bus or train services are operational to Chhattisgarh, the family is attempting the journey on foot, like several other migrant workers across the country desperate to reach home.
Abandoned by authorities
Lalaram’s wife Santoshi is agitated. She blames the government for not taking note of their situation even after two months.
“Kya kare? Sarkar toh andha ho gaya hai (What can we do? The government has become blind to our plight),” she says. “Hume kuch matt de, khali humko ghar chorde, Chattisgarhh (We don’t want anything from the government. We just want to be dropped home).”
However, Mungeli will not sustain these landless labourers too long, with limited opportunities for work. They say they will be compelled to return to Lucknow for work once life returns to normal. But home, where the couple’s three other children live, offers emotional and social support, especially amid the COVID-19 crisis.
“Yahan marenge toh koi nahi dekhega. Gaon mein marenge toh koi hamare parivar toh dekh lega (Nobody will care even if we die here. If we die in our village, at least we will have our families to take care of us),” says a clearly desperate Santoshi.
The summer is yet to hit its peak but these workers estimate that they will not be able to return to their work for many more months. Construction work also slows down during the monsoons, so they feel it is better to leave now.
Many of the labourers in group said they had waited for weeks in anticipation that the U.P. government would start plying buses to transport them home, just like it was bringing back its migrants stranded outside.
Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has been regularly asking migrants, categorically those entering U.P., to not walk back home as it was fraught with risks.
Santoshi’s brother, Santosh echoes her anxiety and is desperate to get back to work or go home. “We can’t spend our days on rice and pulses,” he says.
But what if something happens on the way or they face a medical emergency given the heat? “The government will be responsible for it. Government is not coming here to check on us,” says Santosh.
The journey is precarious. On Wednesday night, a migrant couple Krishna and Pramila, from Chattisgarhh’s Behmetara district living in a slum in Jankipuram area of Lucknow, who had set out on a bicycle towards Chhattisgarh’s Behmetara, were killed in a hit-and-run accident on the outskirts of Lucknow; their two young children survived but are seriously injured.
Fear of infection
The workers are also haunted by the fear of getting infected. Lucknow has reported more than 235 cases while U.P. has crossed 3,070 cases overall, with a death toll of 62.
Another member of the group, Tej Ram says since COVID-19 cases are rising, it will be calamitous if a poor labourer like him is infected, hundreds of kms away from home.
“Maan lo hamare upar woh bimari kahi agayi, jhopdi wale pe upar aagaya. Toh kaun hai hamare yahan? (Who will take care of us, living in shanties, if we get infected with the disease,” he asked.
Many of the labourers also said they were not getting enough rations from the local administration. Since the lockdown began, Tej Ram claims he received only 5 kgs each of wheat and rice, and one kilo oil from the authorities.
Dinesh Kumar, another labourer, plans to leave for Chhattisgarh on Monday as he feels the government will not resume work for him anytime soon.
“For its own revenue, the government has re-opened liquor shops. Shouldn’t they also start our work? Is anyone thinking of poor, labourers like us who are stranded,” he asks.
Many of these workers from Chhattisgarh have applied on the online portal provided by the government for migrants willing to return home. But its been a long wait since then.
Kamlesh Sahu, of Kawardha district, has been in Lucknow for less than a year but already wants to return. He feels the government should have informed them about the extension beforehand. “They keep extending the lockdown; work won’t start anytime soon. Had they informed us about the lockdown, we would have left earlier,” he said.
But will he join the others on foot?
“Paidal? Bahut duur hai. Kitna cycle chalenge hum. Kitna paidal chal lenge? (On foot? But it’s so far! How long will I be able to walk or peddle a bycycle?” he asks.
With no options
However, despite the lockdown, many like Yamuna want to stay back in the hope that work resumes soon. She has no land to go back to.
“The government should make arrangements for those who want to go home as well as for those who want to stay back,” she says. She also complained that local authorities did not supply rations to her area.
“You can check my Aadhaar card. I have not received ration from the Nagar Nigam even once. They go to other areas. But not here,” she said.
A little distance away, Ramjani also from Mungeli district is sitting on the road, eating puris and sabzi with her daughter. “Char puri mein bache khayenge ya hum khayenge (There are four puris — will I feed myself or my kids with this much),” she asks.
The puris have been served by workers of an opposition party. Though grateful to receive the help, the migrants say they would have been better off with rice and dal, something they are used to back home.
In another corner of the city, in a labour colony behind the Charbagh railway station, Narmada Sahu lives with nine family members, including his wife and three children in a rented house.
The lanky labourer, who has not seen any work for two months, is also desperate to go back home. As his meagre savings run out, he faces a rent of ₹3,200. A contractor who owes him ₹8,000 has been evasive. “When I asked him for ₹2,000, he said make do with ₹500 for now. How will I feed my kids with ₹500-1000?” asks Sahu, who works as a plasterer.
In stroke of good fortune, Lalaram and his family managed to get a lift on a truck when they reached the highway. They were dropped in Prayagraj, closer to their destination yet still 500-odd kilometres from Mungeli.
Additional chief secretary of the U.P. Home Department Awanish Awasthi on Thursday said the State was sending home around 10,000 labourers to Rajasthan on buses to Bharatpur on the border.
However, there were no arrangements for workers from other States like Chhattisgarh.
Source: Thanks https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/coronavirus-lockdown-with-no-work-or-food-workers-in-up-brave-the-long-march-home/article31538788.ece