On the road: DTE travels 500 km with returning migrants amid COVID-19 lockdown

Unplanned shutdown led thousands of India’s migrant workers to walk in the scorching summer, often on empty stomachs, in their effort to reach home

Published: Thursday 28 May 2020

This is the first time after the partition of India and Pakistan, that the country has witnessed large-scale migration. Daily wage labourers and small wage earners have been undertaking long, cruel journeys back home due to the countrywide lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Millions of workers across the country suddenly found themselves with no income and little chance of surviving in cities after commercial and industrial activities shut when the lockdown was enforced on March 24, 2020.

Workers braved long treks — with most forced to walk hundreds of kilometres — along with hitching rides atop commercial vehicles like trucks.

These journeys back home are taken under enormous strain and under inhuman conditions. The Union and state governments offered little-to-no support for the migrants, aggravating the problem.

To document their difficult journeys, Vivek Mishra, reporter with Down to Earth, travelled with some migrants on foot, sometimes taking lifts and covering a distance of over 500 kilometres from Delhi to Uttar Pradesh’s Shahjahanpur. He left Delhi on May 16, 2020 — on the eve of the fifth lockdown — and reached Shahjahanpur after nine days.

During this journey, Mishra came across a number of heart breaking stories. He met a man named Vinod Kumar, who tried crossing the Delhi border for two days, but was stopped by the police. When he managed to cross over to UP, the state’s police sent him back to Delhi in a bus.

Mishra met migrants who spent the last of their savings to hire private commercial vehicles, only to be deboarded by police who asked the vehicles to go back to Delhi.

He came across touts and brokers selling seats in their vehicles at three to four times the regular rates to migrants who could hardly afford to spend such money.

He also witnessed unsympathetic police officials who at times, looked the other way or aggravated the situation for the migrants by either demanding they go back or forcefully sending them back.

While some officials did help migrants by arranging buses and other transport for them, a majority were left to fend for themselves.

Mishra narrated the story of a family that — after the vehicle they were travelling on was impounded — was forced to first walk and then subsequently swim across a river to reach their home in Shahjahanpur district’s Ratanpur Kunda village.

While several migrant families — like this one — do ultimately reach home, their futures remain uncertain.

While the Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Act is said to provide some economic support, some families said it will not be enough to support them.

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