The Lockdown Story: The road to hell and back
Exactly two years back, on March 25, 2020, the nationwide lockdown came into force. Millions of migrant workers from rural India were stranded in cities without a place to stay, and with no food nor other means. Hundreds of thousands of them walked back home. Two years on, Gaon Connection caught up with these migrant workers and found their wounds haven't healed and their scars run deep.
गाँव कनेक्शन 25 March 2022 11:23 AM GMT
It is two years to the day when the country came to a screeching halt as a nationwide lockdown was imposed in response to the COVID pandemic. Chaos ensued as people grappled with the as-yet-unfamiliar coronavirus. There were rumours, desperation and horrifying news reports of people dropping dead of the virus, not just in India, but the world over.
In India, the coronavirus juggernaut felled anything and everything that came in its way, and the brunt of its fury was borne by the millions of daily wage earners and migrant labourers who were stranded in cities without a job, food or water and far away from their homes in rural India.
Gradually, horrifying statistics began to trickle in. The exodus or reverse migration began of labourers who preferred to walk back home than stay without food and water in unfriendly cities. They walked, cycled, clambered on to overcrowded trucks, vans and autos if they could find them and made their ways home. All public transport had stopped. The central government informed the parliament that more than 10 million (10,466,152, to be exact) such workers had returned to their hometown in the lockdown.
After walking hundreds of kilometres, some of them made it, many of them died on the way. Gaon Connection recorded and reported stories of migrant workers who undertook the long march home during the lockdown.
Gaon Connection also conducted a survey in 179 districts of 23 states and Union Territories between May 30 and July 16, 2020. The survey had 25,300 rural respondents (visit www.ruraldata.in for the complete survey report). It revealed that 23 per cent of migrant labourers walked home; 18 per cent of them used buses, and 12 per cent, trains.
Meanwhile, a private website began recording the number of non-COVID deaths during the lockdown. According to the website, there were 991 such deaths in India, until July 30, 2020. Of these, 209 were 'accidents due to walking or during migration', 224 due to 'starvation and financial distress', and 47 due to 'exhaustion (walking, standing in lines)'.
Two years along, how have these migrant workers, who returned home, fared? Gaon Connection met some of them who made that long walk back to their villages, and found that the trauma and nightmare still haunts them. For many, they have decided to stay back in their villages, even if it means less to eat. Anything is better than to go through the ordeal of being abandoned the way they were, they say.
For some others, life back in the village was far from what they thought it would be. They found no jobs and were forced to return to their old sources of livelihood in distant cities in order to support their families. And, yet some others live in perpetual heartbreak and despair as their only source of livelihood, the only bread earner of their family died and never came home.
"If only the transportation had not stopped, my son would be here today…."
– Rajkumari from Mirzapur (UP), who lost her only son 23-year-old Raja Babu
For one family in Baghela village in Mirzapur district of Uttar Pradesh, life will never be the same again as it was before April 18, 2020. Rajkumari and Swaminath eagerly awaited the return of their only son, 23-year-old Raja Babu, who they believed held the key to happiness and prosperity of the adivasi family.
"My son was a strapping young man who completed his BA in Mirzapur and a basic training course," Rajkumari, Babu's mother told Gaon Connection. She worked as a farm labourer in order to educate her son. "I spent almost three and a half lakh rupees on his education. Then, he wanted to appear for an examination in Aligarh and asked me to send him more money which I did," Rajkumari said.
Raja Babu promised her that he would come home directly from Aligarh, but that never happened. The same evening, on March 24, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the nationwide lockdown, and Raja Babu was stranded at Aligarh.
Rajkumari, then, in between her sobs told Gaon Connection the horrors of what happened next. "He called home soon after that to say it was getting difficult to get food in the city and that he was planning to walk back home. He and his friend walked about 380 kilometres all the way from Aligarh to Kanpur," she said.
Then, from Fatehpur, they decided to walk by the side of the railway tracks to reach home. But, barely had they started out when Raja Babu felt unwell. His friend called for help and the police responded by admitting him to the government hospital in Fatehpur. But, the following morning, on April 18, 2020, Raja Babu breathed his last.
The nightmare did not end there for the family. There was a post mortem and Raja Babu's body was sent to his village in an ambulance that cost them Rs 16,000, informed the family. His father, Swaminath, who worked as a daily wage labourer in Surat, Gujarat never saw his son, as he was stuck there.
Having lost her 23-year-old son, Rajkumari still works as a farm labourer to make ends meet. She also has two daughters, both married. According to her, she has received no help from the government. "If only transportation had not stopped, my son would be here today…," Rajkumari cried.
Swaminath, Raja Babu's father was distraught when he spoke to Gaon Connection. The 55-year-old was working in Surat at the time of his only son's death. There is horror in his voice as he recollected the phone call from his son's friend telling him Raja Babu was in hospital. And the second phone call that gave him news of his death. "He was in Fatehpur, I was in Surat and his mother was in the village…." Swaminath trailed off, his words choking.
Swaminath and Rajkumari are yet to come to terms with the death of their only son who they had educated despite all odds hoping he would be a support in their old age and would raise their standard of living.
According to Swaminath, "The government has given us no support. On the contrary, we have borrowed money to prepare the papers so that we can claim his life insurance. We are still waiting for that," he said.
"I was pregnant, and midway to the Madhya Pradesh border, I delivered my baby…"
– Shakuntala Kol (32) from Satna (MP) who delivered her baby while walking back home
Shakuntala Kol shuddered at the memory of the first lockdown. She and her husband, Rakesh Kol had worked as house painters for five years in Nashik, Maharashtra when the first nationwide lockdown was announced two years back. Their home in Mohgani village of Uchehra block in Satna, Madhya Pradesh, was over 1,000 kilometres away.
"We started walking back to our village. I was pregnant and midway to the Madhya Pradesh border, I had labour pains and delivered my baby with the help of other women in our group that was walking back," the 32-year-old told Gaon Connection. They stopped there for a mere two hours before they resumed their walk with the new born baby, Shakuntala recalled, tearfully.
Things did not get better for them, as they had hoped.
"Upon reaching our village, my father and brother did not allow us to stay at home and we were forced to make a hut and live there," Rakesh Kol told Gaon Connection. They slowly built a brick home with the help of a benefactor, Archana Shukla, a school teacher from Satna who heard about their plight.
In Nashik, Rakesh and Shakuntala together earned about Rs 800 a day, and the contractor they worked for provided them with a room. Back in the village they are trying to survive on half the wage as one of them has to stay home to look after their three daughters and two sons. "None of the children, the oldest being nine years old, goes to school," 35-year-old Rakesh said.
But, no matter how straitened their circumstances are now, Rakesh and Shamuntala have decided they will not go back to Nashik. That is a closed chapter and they never want to revisit those days again, the couple said.
"We were lathi-charged by the police, our feet swelled up and there was no one to help us."
– Suman Lata (32), who walked 250 kms with her kids from Delhi to Etah (UP)
Within a month of the announcement of the first lockdown, and with no sign of it being withdrawn, Suman Lata and her family of four, who worked in Badarpur on the border of Delhi, decided to go back to their village Bhaupara in Etah district of Uttar Pradesh, 250 kilometres away. They walked the distance.
"It took us four days along with our two sons who were two and five years old," Suman told Gaon Connection.
Recalling the gruelling walk, Suman said, "We were lathi-charged by the police, our feet swelled up and there was no one to help us." Along with other migrant labourers, also from Uttar Pradesh, they had to fend for themselves, she told Gaon Connection.
They had no other option but to return to their village. "We depend on our daily wage to eat. Without any work, how could we do that," she asked.
But four months later, Suman and her husband Meghraj returned to Delhi. They had to, she said because there was no source of livelihood for them back at the village. "Our family owned one small farmland tilled by my brother-in-law. There were too many mouths to feed and too little to do that," the 32-year-old told Gaon Connection. Suman's family back in the village consisted of her brother-in-law's family of five, her mother-in-law and her family of four.
Back in Delhi, the couple now sew cloth bags from discarded fabric. It fetches them Rs 10,000 per month.
"We spend Rs 4,000 for the rent. I haven't been able to send my child to school. The elder one is now eight years old. The schools are also shut, had the pandemic not been there, he might have been in 3rd grade. He sits idle here and does nothing," she worried.
Sukhdev Singh Shakya, was part of the group of migrant labourers who walked from Delhi to their homes in Uttar Pradesh, along with Suman and Meghraj. From Farrukhabad, Shakya was also back in Delhi within four months.
"I was left high and dry, I went back thinking that I will find work in my village but nothing worked out and I had to return," he told Gaon Connection. Shakya had left his wife and four kids in Delhi, with a little money he had saved, and had walked to his village hoping that he would find a job and then call his family back in Delhi to join him. But that never happened. The 35-year-old now is back in Delhi selling cloth bags and earning his daily bread.
"I walked for ten days, I think, and my feet were in a mess by the end of it."
– Raju (35), who walked about 725 kms from Ludhiana to his village in Sitapur (UP)
Raju has come home for the Holi break, to his village Vishweswardayalpur in Sitapur district of Uttar Pradesh. Most of the inhabitants of his village depend on a daily wage for their survival.
"Two years back, when the lockdown happened, I was in Ludhiana, Punjab, where I was earning about three to four hundred rupees as a daily wage labourer," Raju told Gaon Connection. Like many others, when there was no sign of the lockdown lifting, 35-year-old Raju decided to walk back home to his village, a distance of nearly 725 kms.
"I walked for ten days I think, and my feet were in a mess by the end of it," he recalled.
Raju stayed back in the village for two months after that but was forced to return to Ludhiana as there was no livelihood to be had in his village, and he had to support his 65-year-old mother too.
Many inhabitants of Vishweswardayalpur had similar stories to narrate. Munendra was in Delhi, working in a company that made seat covers, when everything came to a screeching halt. The 27-year-old tried staying back in the hope of earning some money, but gave up after two months and began his long 800-km walk back home.
"It took me 15 days to walk back home. There are not many job opportunities here. I work as a daily wage labourer whenever I get work. I make about Rs 100-150 a day if I am lucky," Munendra told Gaon Connection.
"The experience still haunts him. I did not let him go back when the lockdown ended," Poonam, his wife, told Gaon Connection. Munendra said he was willing to settle for the sporadic work he gets and will not go back to Delhi for work again.
"I would be dead if I did not have my cycle"
Rakesh Ram (30) cycled more than 2,200 kilometres from Chennai to his village in Kaimur, Bihar
It was his cycle that saved his life, said Rakesh Ram. When the lockdown was announced Ram was in the Red Hills area in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. He spent a few weeks there, but on April 30, 2020, he decided he would head home to Darwan village, in Kaimur district of Bihar.
Along with his older brother Amrichand Ram, and Chotan Ram, a fellow-villager, Rakesh embarked on the hellish journey of 2,200 kilometres. They walked 81 kilometres to Sullurpeta in Andhra Pradesh, where they bought cycles and pedalled their way home. They arrived on May 15, 2020.
"The company I worked for had made all arrangements to provide us with food. But where I lived was a small settlement with nearly 700 people squeezed into it," Rakesh told Gaon Connection. "It was like inviting death, and so I decided to head home. It was better to die at home or while making the effort to get home than dying in a city so far away from my village," the 30-year-old explained.
"We would start cycling at two in the morning and continue till eleven in the morning. Then, again we would set off at three pm and cycle till eleven at night," Rakesh said.
Rakesh, who had Rs 32,000 with him, said he and his companions spent Rs 24,000 on buying the cycles and another Rs 8,000 on food and other expenses. Using the roads, rivers and railway lines as guides, they finally entered the narrow lanes of Darwan village.
There is a tinge of sadness in his voice as Rakesh described the reaction of the other people in the village when they saw him and his brothers return from Chennai. "They behaved as if we were criminals who came to spread the virus in the village. No one thought of the nightmare we had gone through," he said. "At the border of our state, authorities stamped our arms with a seal. We felt like we were branded animals, or worse, criminals," he sighed.
Sushila Devi, the mother of Rakesh, shuddered at the memory of the non-stop news coming into the village about people dying on the road as they made their way home. "I never want to lose sight of them again. I want them to stay right here in the village with me," Sushila Devi said. "But they take care of our family of nearly 12 people, and we depend on them…" she trailed off helplessly.
While Rakesh returned to Chennai, when the second wave of the pandemic began to rise last year, he returned home. He has had to settle for half the wages he was earning in Chennai. "There, I earned up to Rs 800 a day and there was work all through the month. Here in the village if I am lucky I get work for about 15 days and that too at not more than Rs 400 a day. I have to go back to Chennai where I had been working as a house painter since 2011," he said.
"Sometimes we were lucky to get lifts in trucks. Other times we walked, sometimes through the nights."
Munna Ansari (30), who travelled 2,100 kms from Mumbai to Bara Dumarhir in Jharkhand
In the blistering month of May 2020, Munna Ansari walked from his workplace in Mumbai to his village, Bara Dumarhir, in Godda district, Jharkhand. It was a 2,100 kilometres journey of misery, pain, and fear.
"Sometimes we were lucky to get lifts in trucks. Other times we walked, sometimes through the nights," Ansari, a 30-year-old tailor, told Gaon Connection.
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Ansari made it home in five days and four nights. But after spending two-and-a-half months without work in his village he returned to Mumbai for work.
"There is no work in our village. Not even NREGA. I do not own land. Even if there is work, earnings from it are not enough for survival," said the 30-year-old migrant worker.
"The work has started. But it is not continuous or assured. For the entire last week, I had no work at all," said Ansari, who earns Rs 500 as daily wage in Mumbai. He sleeps by the side of sewing machines and a family of 10 back home, depends on him for its survival.
For Ansari, it is not his impermanent, scantily paying job that is causing him heartache. "Recently when schools reopened, we were told that their names have been removed, because we could not pay their fees. My greatest loss has been not my livelihood, but that my children's names were removed from the school, as I could not get them a smartphone," Ansari said softly.
"The teachers had asked the children to get smartphones if they wanted to study further. But, they cost at least ten thousand rupees. How was I supposed to afford it? We hardly had enough to get a square meal a day," he lamented.
Ansari said that since he had never been to school it was his dream to educate his children and ensure a better future for them.
"We spent five days at the railway station with no money to even buy milk for my two-year-old."
Renu Singh (30) along with her husband, toddler son and her parents in law almost starved in Chandigarh, before selling her jewellery and hiring a vehicle to get back to her village in Hardoi, UP.
It was just four months since Renu, her 34-year-old husband Shubham Singh, his parents and their two-year-old son had arrived at Chandigarh, from Baks Kheda village in Hardoi, Uttar Pradesh. And the nationwide lockdown was announced.
Renu and Shubham had jobs in Chandigarh as factory workers. Between them, they made about Rs 25,000 to Rs 30, 000 a month with which they paid rent and looked after the family of five.
"We stayed there hoping things would get normal. But our savings began to dry up and we decided to return to our village," 30-year-old Renu told Gaon Connection. Other migrant labourers began to leave enmasse for their villages and Renu with her family went to the station too hoping to board the promised special train that would take them to Uttar Pradesh.
"The real horrors began then. We spent five whole days at the station waiting in vain for the train. We had no money, not even to buy milk for my son," Renu recalled. They ate food if some social workers distributed it.
Every day there was a crowd lined up to board the train, but they could not do it, she said.
"In despair we sold whatever little jewellery I had on me, begged relatives to send us some money and hired a vehicle paying Rs 30,000," she said. They travelled the 630 kilometres back to their village, stayed there for about seven months, but were forced to return to Chandigarh for their livelihood.
"There was no work for us in the village. We were forced to return even though we did not want to," said Renu resigned.
Written by Pankajan Srinivasan. Reported by Brijendra Dubey, Mirzapur (UP); Sachin Tulsa Tripathi, Satna (MP); Ramji Mishra, Sitapur (UP); Ankit Singh, Kaimur (Bihar); Sarah Khan (Delhi); Virendra Singh, Hardoi (UP); and Shivani Gupta.