Agra/Lucknow: Before India was locked down in the face of the Covid-19 crisis on 25 March, Sangeeta worked as a mason in Delhi’s Sarita Vihar. Four months pregnant, she would never have thought she would have to walk hundreds of kilometres to her hometown in Tikamgarh, Madhya Pradesh, just days after she returned from Holi celebrations. Her parents had insisted she stay with them in Jatara village, but Sangeeta returned with her husband to make necessary arrangements and save up some more money for her unborn child.
Sitting outside Agra’s S.N. Medical College Sunday, 29 March, Sangeeta complained about being turned away when she sought medical assistance on the long walk home.
“I asked here for pain relief balm and tablets, but they said they’re just for coronavirus patients. Why can’t they give us pain tablets? We are also victims of the coronavirus, who are dying of hunger and pain,” she told ThePrint.
“I saved more than Rs 10,000, working day and night as a construction worker and maid for my child’s future needs, but it was all stolen today while I was trying to board a private bus, because I was slow to climb in,” she complained.
Sangeeta’s companions on the walk home to MP were a group of 15 others from the same area. Net Ram Singh, the oldest among the group at 52 years of age, said: “She started crying after all her money was stolen, then we took her in to our group. We will share what we eat and drink, because we share the same grief.”
Net Ram added: “She has pain in her back and abdomen as she has been for walking more than four days and hundreds of kilometres now.”
Sangeeta is not the only pregnant woman among the hundreds and thousands of migrant workers who exited the cities on foot once the lockdown was put in place. Other women too needed medical assistance for pregnancy, and some for blisters on their feet, but received none.
Bhagwati Devi, also from MP, who cleaned drains in Delhi’s Sangam Vihar before the lockdown, had developed four blisters on her feet. She said: “The government can send airplanes to bring rich people back home, but it has done nothing for us. At least the government could have distributed chappals if it wanted us to walk back home.”
As ThePrint traversed the Agra-Lucknow and Agra-Gwalior national highways, in every group of 10 or more people, one could spot at least a couple of pregnant women.
Among them was Pushpa from Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich, whose delivery date has been estimated as 12-15 April.
“If the government wants us to fend for ourselves, we can do that. But at least they should give us transport so that we can safely reach our homes,” she said. “I have vomited three times since last night,” she added, pointing to her swollen feet with a bleeding index finger.
Painkillers and cannabis
Running out of cash, the migrant labourers are now resorting to popping painkillers or smoking cannabis to ease the pain, so they have money left to buy food.
Santosh, who hails from Gaya, Bihar, was on the outskirts of Kanpur Monday, 30 March, walking back from Rohtak. He pointed towards a strip of Nicip painkilling tablets, saying he’s having them twice a day to ease the pain in his feet.
“We have to walk quickly now as we are running low on cash and have to reach our homes soon. We will die of hunger if the money gets over,” he said.
“Some in our group who don’t have money to buy medicines are smoking ganja to ease the pain.”
Some have even had to ignore their own pain to keep money to buy medicines for their children, such as Rajesh, who is pulling a cart with his wife and children from Delhi to Sultanpur.
Sitting at Parivartan Chowk in Lucknow Tuesday, 31 March, he said: “My two-year-old son Aaryansh has fever and dozens of mosquito bites on his face. My hands and feet have blisters, but I only have Rs 100 left with me, which I’m saving to buy medicines for my son.”
State buses charging exorbitant prices
The UP government has been providing state transport buses to ferry the migrants back to their homes. But they say they have had to pay three to four times the normal rate, or risk their lives travelling on top of buses, trucks and trailers.
Sunil, who was trying to go from Agra to Jhansi on 29 March, claimed the UPSRTC bus gave him a ticket for Rs 850 instead of the normal Rs 230. “I had to get down as I don’t have that much money. Then, I boarded this truck carrying potatoes, which agreed to take me on the roof for Rs 500 rupees,” he said.
Civil society in Agra, however, has taken up the cause of serving the labourers, distributing free water and food at dozens of spots.
Chura Mani, a transporter who was distributing these items from his vehicle on the same day as Sunil was passing through the city, said: “We have been doing this for the last few days, and will continue to do so. Though our businesses are facing losses, the lives of these labourers have been completely destroyed because of the government’s lack of planning and foresightedness.”
Police ‘diverting’, ‘harassing’ migrants
As thousands of migrants passed through the roads circumnavigating Agra, the ‘VIP roads’ in the city, in the vicinity of the Taj Mahal and the district magistrate’s residence, remained deserted. Multiple police check-posts enforcing curfew orders, with only sanitation vehicles and stray cattle abandoned by their owners visible on the streets.
The migrants, however, complained that the police “misled” and “diverted” them.
Arif, who worked as a goods loader in Jaipur, slept on the roadside with a group of eight other labourers, and said on 30 March: “We have to go towards Lucknow, but the police keeps diverting us on the route to Gwalior again and again. I have developed blisters due to walking all these extra miles.”
Nafisa, who is walking from Timarpur in Delhi to Gonda with her family, was stuck at the Agra-Firozabad border on the same day, and claimed they were harassed by the police.
“The police stopped our UPSRTC bus on the way to Lucknow, and made us vacate it to go towards our destination on foot,” she said.
“A policeman at an Agra checkpoint beat up my children and mother with lathis. I had to charge at them holding a stone lying nearby as my son’s palm had started bleeding,” she claimed.
Ajay, who had been brought to the migrant shelter camp at Lucknow’s Awadh Shilp Gram on 30 March, also said the police had been the most disturbing element of his walk. “At a Kanpur check post, I had to give Rs 400 to a policeman for letting us go on foot,” he claimed.
“I have just got Rs 200 left in my pocket, and I want to reach my home in Bahraich before it’s dark, as I can’t pay any more to any police personnel,” he said, adding that he is ready to leave behind the food and shelter arranged by the administration because he doesn’t feel safe anywhere near the police and wants to go home.
The police refused to comment on these allegations, except one senior officer in Agra, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to address the point about “diverting” migrants.
“It was an order from the highest level of the administration to minimise the passage of migrant labours through the city. That’s why they were diverted towards the highway,” the officer said.
Foreign-returned people unhappy with arrangements too
Individuals who have returned from abroad and are to be quarantined are also dissatisfied with the administration’s arrangements, but it’s a totally different story than the migrants’.
Satish Kumar Verma, chief superintendent of Agra’s district hospital, said the district administration had taken over an Ayurveda hospital with 200 beds for isolation. “We are getting a list of foreign travel history from the Ministry of Civil Aviation,” Verma said.
However, people like Omesh Jain, who have a foreign travel history and went for a check-up at the district hospital, expressed their dissatisfaction. Jain, who went with seven people to Dubai on 8 March and came back on 15 March, said: “We are ready to submit our passports, but we will go to the quarantine centre by our vehicles, because they are making everyone sit side-by-side in the ambulance.”
Responding to this, Verma said: “We can’t allow anyone to go in their vehicles to the quarantine centre, as the vehicles need sanitisation both before and after.”
Workers who stayed put also suffering
It’s not just the labourers who have exited the cities that are bearing the brunt of the lack of medical assistance to non-Covid-19 patients.
Prakash Singh, a rickshaw-puller, said outside Aminabad market in Lucknow on 31 March: “I met with an accident in Hazratganj four months ago, which damaged the left side of my face badly, but I can’t get tablets and ointments now as the government hospitals won’t let us in. I have to ration on medicines, because I have to purchase them now from private shops.”
He added: “I even have an asthma condition, so I can’t work anymore because the inhalers from private medical shops are expensive and government hospitals won’t give us any.”
Response from the government
ThePrint spoke to Uttar Pradesh health minister Jai Pratap Singh on 31 March on the plight of the migrant workers and the various allegations they made.
Singh said the troubles faced by the migrant workers were because around two lakh people started returning all of a sudden, and the administration struggled to catch up with the influx in the early days.
“All arrangements have been made to facilitate food and medical check-ups in every district. There was a large influx in the initial days, so orders weren’t implemented on every checkpoint,” Singh said.
“But things are under control now. We are tracking and checking every migrant labourer who has returned,” he said.