Coronavirus | An unending journey to their homes

With no means of transport to get back to their villages, migrant labourers have been walking hundreds of kilometres

Published - March 31, 2020 03:14 am IST - PATNA

Migrant labourers seen walking along National Highway 9 in New Delhi on March 30, 2020.

Migrant labourers seen walking along National Highway 9 in New Delhi on March 30, 2020.

At 11 on Monday morning, fifteen-year-old Balmiki Kumar is sitting on a wooden bench under a tree inside the campus of the Patna High School in Gardanibagh locality. His tattered black backpack is bloated with stuff. He is unwilling to go inside the vacant rooms of the school to rest. “I want to go to my home in Sitamarhi district as soon as possible and be with my family”, he says. He wants to say more, but is exhausted after his long tiring journey of over 1,000 km from Delhi’s Noida.

Also read |Coronavirus: In Bareilly, migrants returning home sprayed with ‘disinfectant’

For the last five months, Balmiki Kumar had been in Noida (sector-12), a suburb of Delhi, where his elder brother Rakesh Kumar works as a tailor. Both the brothers were living in a room they rented for ₹2,000 a month and were earning around ₹15000 on an average.

When Balmiki Kumar, a school dropout, saw people leaving for their home States in hordes in the third week of March, he didn’t understand what was happening. “I didn’t realise the gravity of the situation even when my elder brother told me an unknown virus is killing people and everything is going to be shut soon. I chose to stay back while my brother left with the others”, he says. But when his landlord told him to vacate and it became increasingly difficult to get food, he too decided to leave. “I stuffed some clothes and packed flattened rice mixed with spices in my bag and set off on my journey on March 25 with only with ₹1,000 in my pocket”, he says. “I survived on water and the flattened rice for five days.”

But how did he find his way on the road? “Using GPS on my mobile”, he says pulling out a large screen phone from his pocket. “What option did I have?…I walked all day and through the night, only resting briefly by the roadside,” Balmiki says holding up his worn-out rubber slippers.

When he crossed the U.P. border at Kaimur and reached Danapur near Patna early on March 30, the district officials took him to the Patna High School campus at Gardanibagh — one of the four places where arrangements have been made for food and stay for migrants in the city.

Robbed on train

K Raju, 50, was not so lucky. Resting in a corner classroom on the first floor of the school, he says all his belongings, including mobile phone and Aadhar card, were stolen on the train. “Now I’m an identity-less Indian,” he says. He is from Vijaywada in Andhra Pradesh working in a hotel in Secunderabad in Telangana. “When the lockdown was declared, everyone was leaving for their homes…I too boarded a train but it took me to Danapur station, near Patna on March 28. From there, some officials dropped me here at the school and now I’ve no money, no phone, nothing at all to go anywhere or connect with anyone”, he says. Mr Raju, unmarried, has only an elder brother who too is stuck in Mumbai. Clad in a lungi and a half-sleeves shirt, his only belongings are a polythene bag and a towel.

Most of the school’s 30 rooms the district administration has taken under its control are empty. Some local social activists are helping with the food. “Now, hardly five-six people are staying here…most of them have left for their villages,” says social activist Raj Shekhar Gupta. A policeman is at hand and there is an official maintain maintaining a logbook. A large room is cluttered with cooking gas cylinders, beds and cots. Under a tent in one corner, food is being served. “Most people in the queue are poor people from nearby areas…how can we deny food to anyone in such difficult times?”, asks Mr Gupta. Bihar, so far, has had one COVID-19 death and 15 positive cases.

Almost home

Jitendra Mandal and his five friends reached Patna from Ghaziabad, near Delhi, riding on two motorcycles. They are from Goradih village in Bhagalpur, some 280 km east of Patna. “We started at 4:30 pm on March 28 and reached here today (March 30) at 11 am”, says Jitendra Mandal. “More than 50 people from our village are still stranded there… we fix marble in homes and offices there”, he says. “All our savings of the last six months have been spent on petrol”, they rue.

“It will take another seven hours,” they say as they mount their motorcycles to resume their journey. “We want to reach home before dusk.”

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