50.50

With little food or money, we tried to get home after India’s lockdown

I knew I had to get my pregnant wife back to our village, but the journey was over 1,000 kilometres and we had to walk some of the way in 45°C heat. #HumansofCOVID19

Aaqib Athar
18 June 2020
Pushplata and Pavrita Uikey back home in Silgi
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Pavrita Uikey.

I am Pavitra Uikey, a 35-year-old migrant worker working in Bangalore, India’s financial hub. When the coronavirus scare engulfed our country in the middle of March, we had a foreboding that people like us, who work in the informal sector, would be worst hit.

I’m a carpenter in a furniture workshop. In early March, my employer said that the government might announce a lockdown soon. A stone’s throw from the workshop is the giant Mysore factory that employs hundreds of migrants. Every day, I watched dozens of them leaving to go home to their villages.

That was the wise thing to do. A lockdown would deprive us of our wages, and with little or no savings, we would be stranded without food or the means to get home. Our landlord might forcibly evict us if we failed to pay the rent.

I decided that my wife, Pushplata, who is expecting our first baby, and I should return to our village, Silgi, in Mandla district in Madhya Pradesh province.

I booked train tickets for 29 March. The plan was to travel by train to Nagpur in Maharashtra province, then by bus to Silgi. Even in normal times, the journey is arduous. There are no direct buses. From Nagpur, you travel four hours to Seoni district and then change buses to reach Mandla, a bumpy ride of another four hours. Little did I know that the journey back to our village would be a grievous test of our endurance.

The government sealed the country at midnight on 24 March and suspended public transport, and our fears started to come true!

As the weeks passed, our savings dried up. I fretted as my wife’s delivery date inched nearer. How could I pay the hospital costs in an expensive city like Bangalore?

Our plight was the same as that of 100 million other migrants in urban hubs left without work in the lockdown. By mid-April, many were starving and they set out for their homes on foot. These journeys were often more than 1,000 kilometres long.

This sorry spectacle flooded television screens as people perished on their way home. By 18 May, over 130 migrants had died on the road. Many had fallen asleep on road dividers or train tracks, exhausted, and were run over by vehicles or trains.

When the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, announced that he would transfer 1,000 rupees (about £10.45) to every migrant worker’s bank account, I kept checking my bank balance repeatedly. That gives you an idea of our circumstances.

My wife was gasping for breath and leaning on me for support. Then we learnt to our horror that the bus was actually leaving from Prabhat Chouraha, at least 20 kilometres away.

From 1 May, special shramik [labourer] trains started to take migrants home. The government was unwilling to waive the fares. When the opposition made a hue and cry, the government said it would bear 85% of the cost and the remaining would be covered by the provincial governments. But many passengers paid the whole fare themselves.

I kept calling the helpline numbers of every state, district and village. After four days of incessant calling, an operator said my wife and I were registered for a shramik train and we would be notified of the details by SMS. But that SMS did not come.

On 13 May, with help from my employer, I booked train tickets on my own and we set off for home. At 10pm the next day, we reached Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh.

But our village was still more than 400 kilometres away and there was a strict lockdown. We had very little food and almost no money. The Modi government claims it has launched dozens of ‘pro-poor’ schemes and is providing more assistance to the poor than any government has done previously.

But that largesse didn’t reach us. None of the staff at the railway station in Bhopal listened to our problems. After a mandatory thermal screening, they told us to find a rain basera (government-built night shelter for the homeless).

By the time we reached the nearest rain basera, we found it had been closed down the very day that that lockdown was announced.

We found the nearest police station, in Talaiya. Despite the fact that my wife was visibly pregnant – the child is due in August – the police did not make any arrangements for us, although a constable offered us some food.

We spent the night on the stairs of a temple to the goddess, Kali. Every time my worn-out wife moaned, my soul cried. Would we perish on our way home? I kept frantically dialling the government helpline number for women’s assistance. Either the number was engaged or the staff brusquely made excuses.

When the dawn skies woke us, I tried getting an Ola cab. Maybe some cab driver would agree to take us home for a reduced fare if they saw our plight, and we could pay on arrival.

But they wanted a whopping 15,000 rupees (£157). That’s more than I earn in a month, so we decided to walk. We were now a part of the spectacle seen on TV: the train of humans walking under a scorching sun in temperatures of 45°C, and hungry.

I have been waiting for the much-hyped financial relief that the government claims to have handed out.

This was under the watch of a prime minister who, every election, retells his once-upon-a-time poverty story to shore up his support base.

Some migrants said a government bus would be available from a square called 11-meel chouraha. Police vans prowled the streets, but none took pity on us. No one arranged a vehicle. Some migrants who protested or asked for food were beaten black and blue.

After walking for five hours, we reached 11-meel chouraha. My wife was gasping for breath and leaning on me for support. Then we learnt to our horror that the bus was actually leaving from Prabhat Chouraha, at least 20 kilometres away. But at last a ‘Good Samaritan’ arrived. A woman called Neetu gave us food and water, and offered us rest in a makeshift shelter she’d put up for travellers like us.

Neetu arranged a car to take us to Prabhat Chouraha. She had spoken to some local officials, who, when we reached there, put us on a bus. The bus dropped us in Seoni, 120 kilometres from our village. We got lifts from cars and lorries, or walked. Finally, late in the night, we were home.

I have been waiting for the much-hyped financial relief that the government claims to have handed out. Someone from the gram panchayat (village council) asked me to fill in some forms and registered my bank account details. But I have no hopes. I am dumbfounded how the rich treat the poor, even in this day and age.

[As told to Aaqib Athar

On 24 March, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi gave his nation of 1.3 billion four hours’ notice of the COVID-19 lockdown and declared that no one would be allowed to leave their homes for 21 days. All public transport was stopped and markets were closed. The plight of migrant workers trying to return to their villages on foot has been described by author Arundhati Roy.

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