It is around 3 p.m. Carrying luggage on their backs and wearing black masks, seven men, visibly fatigued, are signalled to stop by a policeman who hurriedly jumps out of his vehicle at Rajiv Chowk on the Delhi-Gurugram highway. The officer makes a few inquiries before letting them off, asking them to walk in twos and threes and maintain a proper gap.
The men used to work as loaders at an automotive company in Bilaspur village in Manesar. But the nationwide lockdown to check the spread of the novel coronavirus , announced on March 24, has suddenly left them without jobs and little money to survive. Running out of money and with no means of support, the men, mostly from Shahjahanpur district in Uttar Pradesh, decided to walk close to 400 km back to their villages. When this reporter met them, they had been walking for six hours.
“ Yeh hartal abhi kaafi din chalne wali hai. Hamare pass khane ka bhi paisa nahi bacha hai (This lockdown is going to last for quite a few days. We have no money left even for food),” said Ramesh, the eldest in the group. He says seven other workers also set off on foot for Uttar Pradesh but he has lost contact with them.
Ajit, another member of the group, said they had returned to work after Holi barely a week ago, having taken home their savings for the festival.
“We make ₹500 one day but earn just ₹50 the next day. The pay is not fixed. We have been without jobs for five straight days now and have exhausted our meagre savings,” he explained. Another worker Vijay said they did not have enough cash to pay the room rent, and some of them had not had food for the past 24 hours.
Deepak said they hoped to find some work in their villages since it is the harvest season; they can tend to livestock and be with their families in these testing times, he said.
Mr. Ramesh said policemen at several barricades stopped them, but let them off after questioning. He claimed no help had come from the administration or the automotive company they worked for.
“We hope to reach in at least five-six days,” he said with a straight face when asked how long it might take them to reach home.
The youngest in the group, his hair dyed maroon, smiled as he said he was from Nepal and had no clue how long it would take him to reach home.
Manning Workers Unity Helpline, an initiative of a YouTube news channel for workers, Inqlabi Mazdoor Kendra central committee member Shyambir Shukla says that they have received dozens of calls for help within a span of few hours, with workers saying they are fast running out of cash and essentials.
“We have received calls from across Haryana and also other parts of the country. I myself witnessed around 150 workers walking from Jhajjar to Etawah in Uttar Pradesh. It is a dangerous situation,” says Mr. Shukla.