Agra/Lucknow: In the blistering afternoon heat, Tulsi and his family members sat by the footpath near an entrance to Agra on the Yamuna expressway, eating ‘poori sabzi’ wrapped in a polythene given by a passerby. That was their first meal of the day.
“We have not got any ration or money. Two minutes back, someone came and gave poori sabzi… We are going back to Madhya Pradesh. Our family is there. At least we will be assured of food,” Tulsi, 40, told ThePrint.
Tulsi and his wife, both construction workers, are headed to MP’s Sagar district, about 440 km from Agra, along with their kids aged 3 and 4. Their journey started from Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh, 200 km before Agra, but was interrupted on the way as the kids were unable to walk for long stretches with blood oozing out of their blisters. They even hitched on a truck, with help from the police.
In a tattered shirt, Tulsi said he hoped to reach his home state in about two-three weeks. But the torn slippers could delay his plans.
“Woh rote hain toh unke saath pareshan ho gaye hain. Phaphole nikal aaye hain pair me to utha kar chalna padta hai (They have developed blisters because of walking so much. I have to carry them now. Can’t leave them here, they are my kids),” said a famished looking Tulsi, adding that he waited for government transportation but had to head out when it didn’t arrive.
Tulsi was among the several migrant workers ThePrint met on the expressways from Delhi to Agra to Lucknow, on 25-26 April amid a nationwide lockdown to control the spread of Covid-19.
Trying to reach their homes in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, many were just walking on foot, while others chose to cycle, in some cases as much as 1,100 km. They complained of no transportation, and lack of food and government support.
This unprecedented reverse migration on the roads leading to these north Indian states comes despite repeated assurances from the Narendra Modi government and states.
Speaking to ThePrint about their journey, many migrant labourers on the way said they have only biscuits and water in the name of food. Some more fortunate ones had chura (flattened rice).
“We bought chura for Rs 100-200 per kg for the journey and got a cycle for Rs 4,000,” said Chandan, a 30-year-old labourer who was going to Bihar.
Asked about the state government’s plans of depositing money in the accounts of migrant labourers, Chandan said he didn’t know how to apply for the amount without a smartphone.
“We don’t even have mobile phones, forget about smartphones, so how will we operate? Our family members also called and said the government is giving Rs 1,000 but we don’t even know how to go about it,” said Chandan.
He is among the many workers who have bought cycles on loan, or with money transferred by their family members.
“All the money we had saved got exhausted so we reached out to our family members who transferred money and we bought a cycle. We were doing construction work in Haryana and are now going to Begusarai (Bihar). Now that there’s no money and clarity on lockdown, we decided not to wait and head home,” said Bablu Yadav, who is in his 20s.
The cycles are also a drag in cases of flat tyres as there is no service available on the way.
‘No government support’
Sonu Yadav, a 25-year-old home painter in Delhi, left the national capital for Uttar Pradesh on 22 April on cycle along with six others.
Late Sunday night on the Agra-Lucknow Expressway, he told ThePrint, “Won’t lie about food; we haven’t got a morsel since we left. We’ve been feeding ourselves on biscuits and water for four days now. It has rained today and now we are drenched and feeling cold.”
“Ghar UP me hai, wahin ja rahein hain. Jo namak roti milega wahan kha lenge (We’re going to our home in UP. We’ll eat whatever we get there),” he said.
Yadav, who used to earn Rs 500 per day as the only earning member of his family and support his mother, sister and brother, said he hadn’t received any government support.
“There is no disease or anything. Nobody listens to the poor. My monthly earnings are all gone. I can swear that I haven’t got any support,” said Yadav.
Some people even narrated incidents of alleged police atrocities.
Kundan, a 25-year-old who is hoping to cycle over 1,100 km to reach Patna, said, “We left Panipat for Bihar three days ago and on the expressway the police stopped us and asked, ‘Where did you get the cycle from’?”
Kundan said on being informed that they bought the cycles, the police retorted, “You have money for cycles and not for food?” He added that the police then beat them.
“Please ask the police ahead not to beat us,” added Kundan, who took three days to reach the Yamuna expressway from Panipat.
Some migrant workers in groups, trying to cross over to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, claimed that while the police had lathicharged some of them during the first phase of the lockdown (before 14 April), they were more lenient now.
“Whenever the police are stopping us, we are telling them our stories. They also understand and are telling us to go quietly from the sides,” said Yadav.
‘Won’t come back’
While the Modi government and the state governments, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, have claimed that buses are ferrying migrants, many workers told ThePrint that these buses didn’t stop for them even though they waved at them for help.
Munni Lal, a construction worker in his mid-40s who left for Sonbhadra from Greater Noida, said “We’ve come halfway through, if they (Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath) want, they can send transportation, otherwise we’ll just walk our way.”
Some also claimed that they didn’t receive any response when they called on the 112 police helpline.
“We waited four-five days after the second phase of the lockdown was announced but after we didn’t get any food and all our money got over we decided to walk to Sonbhadra. We called on 112 and asked for help but no one came. We didn’t get food, none of the officials responded so we left. We’re just happy that we’re going home,” said Vinod, who will travel over 800 km to reach his hometown.
Asked about Adityanath’s plans of arranging buses for the migrants, he said, “We didn’t get any information as we don’t even have mobile phones. We left yesterday at around 12 and if some passerby helps we will get into their trucks otherwise we will walk.”
Despite the hardship, however, Vinod, said he was happy others were getting help. “The government is doing good work and is helping others. We didn’t get it but it’s fine. It will be nice if they can do something for us.”
But others, distressed over the treatment meted out to migrant workers, said they won’t go back to the cities where they worked. “The way we are being treated we will not come back. We are poor people and won’t be able to survive,” said Lal.
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