Walking day and night, enduring physical pain and mental stress, a group of 35 migrant labourers from Chennai began a 1500-kilometre arduous journey on Monday through forests and across highways to reach their home state of Jharkhand.
Their only motivation to continue walking, often under the scorching sun, was to see their families again soon. “We want to reach our families soon so we are walking fast. But we have still reached only Andhra Pradesh,” says Nasim Ansari, 30, one of the labourers walking with the group.
The constant walking has left their legs tired and swollen, with veins bulging from overuse. Two people are even walking on sprained legs. “Both of them are not able to walk fast and we cannot leave them and go. So we are breaking our journey whenever they need rest. We all take painkillers while walking or else none of us can take another step,” explains Nasim.
But the physical pain is just one struggle among many that the group has faced during the lockdown. “We did not receive food or a proper place to stay. We did not even know the language so we could not understand what the police or other officials were saying. But now despite the pain, we are at least hopeful that we will reach our homes,” said Mubarak Ansari during a break at a farm in Tada.
“We faced a lot of difficulties in the last two months,” he added.
Thousands of migrant workers have taken to foot, moving across borders to reach their homes. In India, the lockdown has impacted the lives of 40 million migrant labourers, according to a report from the World Bank. More than 50,000-60,000 migrant workers have moved to rural areas from urban places within a few days, the report adds.
In Tamil Nadu, migrant labourers have either managed to cross the borders on foot or have been stopped. In some cases, the labourers have been taken to camps by the police for defying lockdown orders. This includes another group of 10 members, with two women and four children, who started walking from Tiruvallur in Tamil Nadu on Tuesday to reach Ranchi. But at the end of two laborious days of walking, the group was spotted near the TN-Andhra border by AP police, who sent that back to Tamil Nadu.
On the first day of the walk for Nasim’s group, they struggled through the hot sun that left them burnt and had to look out for police officers who would question their movements. Unable to avoid either obstacle, the group decided to take a dangerous route through the forests of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
Until two months ago, the group of labourers working in construction companies in Chennai. Now, they were crossing farmlands of rural areas and trekking through the forests of Tada, facing treacherous conditions, to reach the Andhra Pradesh border.
“We walked inside the jungle. We got frightened at some places. We know it is dangerous but we don’t have an option. My family members are angry with me. They do not understand the situation here so they say I have made the wrong decision. But mainly they’re worried whether I will reach home or not,” says Nasim.
Vijayprakash Yadav, who is part of the group walking from Tiruvallur to Ranchi but was stopped by police, said they were told to stay beneath a bridge after border security police halted their journey at the Tamil Nadu border on Thursday night.
“Now we don’t know if the Tamil Nadu government will take care of us or the Andhra Pradesh government. The TN government has not even taken us to camps. We have spent one whole night under this bridge. Even our children slept on the road last night,” says 36-year-old Vijayprakash, unaware of the details of the place he is staying.
Like many other workers, Vijayprakash, along with his wife and children, reached Tamil Nadu with hope of a better life. The labourers had been working at a construction company in Tiruvallur but the company failed to pay their Rs 3,000 salary for the month of March, he says.
“When we asked them for the salary, they said they will provide it only when the lockdown is lifted. But we don’t even have money to eat our next meal. So we decided to leave the place. I don’t think there is any point in waiting here. Our families in Jharkhand are also scared for our well being,” he says.
“All our legs have become swollen [from walking]. But now more than the pain, I am afraid that they’ll take us back to Tiruvallur. We don’t want to go back to that place,” he adds.
But the area under the bridge is unsafe and he is hoping for immediate government action so they do not have to remain there for long.
As scores of labourers attempt to move between states, feeling they have no choice but to defy lockdown orders, police officials are stopping these groups and sending them to government camps in certain cases. However, migrant labourers at the camps are worried whether trains will be cancelled or if they will even get a ticket.
Balraj Sahu and seven other migrant labourers from Jharkhand were working on an industrial estate in Kancheepuram. They were patiently waiting for the lockdown to be lifted to go back home, but the third lockdown came as a blow and they decided not to wait any longer. After a week of showing resistance against their company, the labourers started walking, but were stopped within 100 feet and sent back to police camps.
Currently, two of the seven people have received passes to take trains back home, while Balraj Sahu and others await theirs. “They are splitting our groups. Two members got passes but five others are yet to get and we are worried. What if the government suddenly stops the train service? The police officials are not allowing us to leave this place. We are just traumatised and we want to go home,” Balraj says.
“We cannot wait for the government. We have lost trust in them. Even if they open transport, we will walk to the nearest station to take a train or bus. We don’t want to wait for orders from the government. I don’t think they will do anything more,” says Nasim.
Some labourers, like Vijayaprakash, have decided they will not return to states like Tamil Nadu for work.
“I will not come back to Tamil Nadu. I have lost the trust in this government. There is no support from their side and we are fed up. We do not have COVID-19 and even if the government thinks we have, we are ready to stay in camps. But there is no response from the government’s side. The cost of living is also high in this state, hence we have decided to stay in Jharkhand itself,” he says.