A walk with migrant workers: Why these heartbroken people are leaving TN

That the ordinary people of India do not trust the political class is evident from the crowds of people that are on our highways walking, cycling, hitch-hiking home.
Abandoned slippers of migrant workers on Tamil Nadu highway
Abandoned slippers of migrant workers on Tamil Nadu highway

It is two days since Prime Minister Modi made yet another meaningless speech at 8 pm about self-reliance. I was somewhere near Gummidipoondi on the Chennai-Kolkata Highway. Hundreds of migrant workers who had been stranded in Tamil Nadu, were literally walking the self-reliance talk. Tired of waiting for the governments to deliver on their promise of trains to their hometowns, Chennai’s migrant population was emptying out in tens and twenties and headed to West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and even Arunachal Pradesh.

They were on foot and on bicycles purchased with the last of their savings, returning home with empty pockets and heavy hearts. The journey to Kolkata from Gummidipoondi is 1678 km, and to Arunachal -- nearly 3000 km.

I joined a group of 17 youngsters -- the oldest was 26 years old. Nine were headed to Bisahar and the others to Modi's constituency Varanasi. For all their grandstanding, great leaders like Modiji, Yogiji and Edappadiji could not find the money for taking these boys home to their parents with dignity and some cash in their pockets. I was angry. Lal Bahadur was not. “Why would they help us now? Do you think we would have come this far if there was help back home?” he said. What I mistook for stoicism was actually a resigned indifference born out of very low expectations of our “leaders.”

That the ordinary people of India do not trust the political class is evident from the crowds of people that are on our highways walking, cycling, hitch-hiking home. I'm part of a voluntary helpline for migrant workers in distress in Tamil Nadu. In the last 50 odd days, we have received calls from nearly a 1000 unique clusters of workers numbering at least 20,000. Tamil Nadu, a place they came to for a livelihood, is now a trap. “Hum Tamil Nadu mein phasen hain,” or “We are trapped in Tamil Nadu” has replaced “Hello” as a greeting in the distress calls we receive.

There is no government support, certainly not commensurate to the magnitude of the need. Things are different when there is a sensitive and able person in-charge in some district or office. But that good news is the exception, not the norm. To the migrant worker on the move, the government – represented by a lathi-happy police constable – is something to be avoided and feared.

It is not all bad news, though. While the big politicians, with their deep pockets and thundering voices do nothing to alleviate the misery, it is the abundant goodness of ordinary Indians that keeps the wheels of the country turning. The boys I walked with hadn't eaten since the previous day. It was already 9 am. We stopped at a small roadside dhaba on the Chennai-Kolkata Highway. The breakfast -- 13 people ate -- cost Rs. 300. The dhabavala woman took Rs. 260. "The remainder is my contribution. Seeing them walking in this searing kathiri heat. My heart just can't accept it. Cha!" she said.

A few kilometres down, we saw a flex banner loudly declaring in Tamil that Annadanam (free food) was in progress. This was at the entrance to the Panchetti Panchayat. The president, vice president and all ward members had pooled in cash to provide 300 plates of breakfast and 200 plates at dinner. A tree with a sprawling canopy provided shade. At the far end were some taps with running water. A clutch of workers stood around while others washed themselves. The north-bound migrant workers flocked to the Annadanam like ants to honey. The Tamil sign notwithstanding, the frangrance of the brinji rice drew in the target audience. No words were exchanged. The eaters and the feeders had no spoken language in common.

A family of three stood nearby – a man, a woman and a young boy with a dog – named Kasturi - on leash. My friends were carrying slippers to distribute among walkers, and the father was picking out a pair for himself. He introduced himself as a Boomboom Mattukar, a migrant tribe whose members are fortune-tellers and entertainers and who usually travel with a decorated bull. The man and his young son both held magnifent roosters suspended on a cloth sling and tucked under their left arms. “They are aggressive and will attack strangers,” the father said to no one in particular. He abruptly turned and set off on the rapidly heating highway to Guntur – 15 days of brisk walk away. His family followed.

The highway is part of the famed Golden Quadrilateral -- an 8-lane, 100 metre strip of asphalt with not a tree standing on either side. This is the infrastructure of modern India. If you feel faint and in need of shade, you are out of luck. This was a tree-lined 4-laned road on level with the surrounding countryside not too long ago, with sturdy tamarind trees on either side. Now the highway rises like a well-fed python straightened across the flat landscape. Here and there, wherever there was even a 3 metre high stunted neem tree or prosopis bush, we were sure to find a group of four or five walkers huddled under its shade.

India's march to development involved the construction of these infrastructures of big commerce. The trees on either side of erstwhile highways were "sacrificed" to accommodate freight trucks and fast moving vehicles. Roads were the quintessential Poromboke (commons). They were conduits for mobility; roadsides were rest spots for the weary and stations for vendors. The avenue trees were productive, and offered fruit and shade to weary travellers. In earlier years, kings and queens would set up elaborate chathrams or rest houses with wells or ponds for drinking water on the sides of the roads.

We walked two kilometres before we came to a place where the underside of an under-construction flyover offered the only shade in that stretch. About a hundred migrant workers sat together but alone in clusters under the flyover. I too rested, thankful for the shade. The temperature -- adding the radiated heat from the asphalt -- must have been 40 degree celsius with a punishing humidity. Perspiration was of no use. There was more humidity in the air than on your skin. One had to sit absolutely still, still as the breezeless air, and even then it took a long time to cool down.

As I gathered my breath and will to restart the journey, four men rode in on two mopeds, each carrying a water can in the front. Curious eyes roved as some realised this was a water refill offer. One moped drove away murmuring that more cans would be required for the mass of people gathered there. A young man with a yellow 5-litre can began emptying the contents of his container, prompting the moped man to exclaim in Tamil – “Hey. What the hell are you doing? That’s good water man.”

The north Indian worker understood the body language. “Water’s too hot to be of any use,” he said. It’s true. Water inside a bottle heats up to a point where it is less effective as a thirst quencher. If roads had been designed by walkers instead of highway engineers, it would have plenty of shade trees, clay pots with cool water at frequent intervals and a pond every 10-15 kilometres to take a dip in.

We walked two more kilometres down towards Andhra. My companion was Santosh Kumar, a 26-year old from Bisahar, Uttar Pradesh. He had an ungainly gait, with the right foot making an uncomfortable sideways arc. My eyes were drawn to the arrhythmic gait. I realised that his legs were healthy. His slipper was not. His flipflops were old and worn out. The right one had been patched up, I think. It would be a miracle if it lasted even 10 kilometres on this hot tarmac.

If you speak to Santosh, you will learn that people don’t migrate to distant cities to bring glory to India, to build India or make the lives of middle-class Indians better. “I have three younger sisters. The oldest is 19, ready to get married. We had identified a groom for her. I came to earn money for her wedding, but barely a month into my work, the lockdown happened. I have exhausted all my earnings,” he said. “My family does not know I’m walking. None of us told our families. Amma will get emotional and cry; then I’ll get emotional. So I just haven’t called her,” Santosh added.

The border checkpost was in sight. My companions were nervous. "Will the policewallah trouble us?" one youngster asked me. "I don't think so," I said. Another shook his head cynically. He had been rapped badly by a lathi at the last checkpost. Some other walkers told us to avoid the main road. Get off the main road and walk through the fields till you cross into Andhra, and then turn back onto the road a few kilometres down, we were told. So about 500 metres ahead of the Toll Gate at the edge of Elavur, we climbed off the highway and headed east skirting a long and large crescent shaped pool of water. Once again, there was not a tree in sight.

To the west of us rose an 8-foot bund that separated the waterbody from the shrimp aquaculture farms. Thankfully, there were two overgrown prosopis shrubs. Both were occupied by gatherings of 30 people or so. Some were brewing tea. We walked on tentatively, not knowing if there was a path to climb back to the highway the way we were going.

I walked about 1.5 km before being called back by my friends from Gummidipoondi. On this route, I would have to walk at least 10 kilometres before hitting the road again, they said. My water was close to empty. My brain was beginning to feel like a hard-boiled egg. I decided to walk back. "Khuda-hafiz" I said to my companions. Some murmured Khudu-hafiz, and a few others said "Ram ram bhaiyya."

We turned our backs to each other and walked our ways -- I towards my waiting car a few kilometres away, and they towards home, their loved ones and security a few 1000 kilometres away.

Nityanand is a Chennai-based writer and social activist. 

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