The long march home on the other side of Vindhyas

Migrant workers walking on Ballari Road in Bengaluru on Thursday.   | Photo Credit: Sudhakara Jain

Thousands of migrant workers from the city, a majority of them young men in their 20s and 30s, have begun the long march home to Uttar Pradesh and other States in North India. Though the State government on Thursday announced that it would restart the Shramik Express trains to the northern States, they have not turned back to Bengaluru.

National Highway 44 is dotted with small groups of people, their faces covered in handkerchiefs or masks, carrying luggage and bottles of water. Despite facing several challenges on the road — uncertainty over their next meal, the soaring mercury, and difficulty in crossing borders — their resolve to reach home remains firm.

Mohammed Naushad, 28, who sold readymade garments on the pavements of Majestic, began his journey home towards Bhagpat district, Uttar Pradesh, early on Thursday morning. “We have waited long enough for the lockdown to end and for a seat on a train home. We have had enough of the government, so we decided to walk home,” he said.

But is it feasible to walk home that far? “We have Googled and know that we have to cover over 2,300 km to reach home in Gorakhpur. But this is the only way. It will take a few weeks, but we will definitely get there,” said Rajesh Paswan, 31, a painter.

Most of them plan to walk early in the morning, rest in the afternoon, and resume late in the night to avoid the summer heat. Amit Kumar, 31, a carpenter walking to Sonbhadra district in U.P., said they were aware that some of them could even die on the way home. “But it is better to die on the road home than to die of hunger in this city,” he said, as he broke down.

Their hope is to reach Hyderabad, where they believe they can catch trains to Uttar Pradesh. “If not, we will continue our walk from there as well. More people will join us,” said Ram Lal, a native of Gorakhpur.

Though the State government has said economic activities will begin, the migrant workers don’t seem to care. “There has been no work for over a month now. Our contractors haven’t paid us anything. Help stopped coming by after May 3 when government announced work can begin. But there is no work. We started running out of money and, despite our best efforts, could not find a ticket on a train home. The landlord began pestering us for rent. We decided to leave before we ran out of all our money,” said Ravi Pratap Singh, a painter.

Another painter, Adarsh Rav, 19, carried with him a bucket he used to mix paint and a bag of clothes — his only belongings. He has ₹700 on him for the long journey home. Most of the people The Hindu spoke to had less than ₹1,000 with them. Many have received money deposited in their accounts through mobile payment gateways from their families back home. Wherever possible, they hitched rides on goods vehicles plying on the highway, sometimes paying for it. A group of nine workers from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, working in Mandya, walked beyond Chickballapur and hitched a ride to Anantapur in a tempo. “While some drivers ask for money, some give us free rides out of kindness. We have spent nearly ₹500 each for rides in our journey so far,” said Nouman Tyagi.

Border closure

The authorities have been trying to get the workers off the roads, but to little effect. The Karnataka police rounded up nearly 300 workers walking on NH 44 late on Wednesday night and housed them in two marriage halls at Kodigehalli, where they are being given meals.

Meanwhile, the Andhra Pradesh police have erected a check-post at Chilamathur in Anantapur district, where they are not allowing any migrant workers on foot to enter the State. T. Venkateshwarulu, sub-inspector, Chilamathur police, manning the check-post, said they were sending back the migrant workers back towards Karnataka.

However, those who seek to walk back home over 2,000 km are not to be deterred by such hurdles. “There will obviously be other routes through the villages to bypass the check-post on the highway. Will the policemen be there even at night?” asked Mr. Ram Lal.

What seems to be keeping these workers going is the small acts of kindness from strangers. Ramesh Singh, who was walking with a group of 10 or so persons, was stopped by a biker on Wednesday night. Learning of their journey home, the biker gave each of them ₹1,000 and said this was all he could do at that time.

Anji, who works with a private firm, distributed free meals to those on foot along the highway on Thursday afternoon. “I work with a company whose owner sent me on this mission to help these poor people,” he said. While thankful for these acts, what the workers eagerly look forward to is any vehicle that can offer them a lift.

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Printable version | Oct 28, 2021 3:17:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/the-long-march-home-on-the-other-side-of-vindhyas/article31529882.ece

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