Coronavirus lockdown | Weary migrant workers lug crashed hopes en route their homes

Most entering Madhya Pradesh from Maharashtra are headed to Uttar Pradesh.

Updated - May 10, 2020 12:24 am IST

Published - May 10, 2020 12:22 am IST - Barwani, Madhya Pradesh

Sad plight:  People moving to Uttar Pradesh , their home State, on Saturday.

Sad plight: People moving to Uttar Pradesh , their home State, on Saturday.

As the sun soared over the highway in Indore district, Madan Kumar Saroj had to make a tough choice. Riding a moped in the searing summer daytime without some kind of protection against the heat could prove fatal. But having run out of cash and the stock of rice fast draining, the family could take only measured halts.

Coronavirus lockdown | Three migrant workers on way to Uttar Pradesh die on Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh border

Spotting a patch of shade under a neem tree beside the Mumbai-Indore highway, the family’s 28 members who were all riding on a clutch of rickety mopeds to Kaushambi district in Uttar Pradesh, decided to make one of the rare halts to catch some respite from the afternoon sun.

“W oh bole number aayega, number aayega. Arey kab aayega (They said your number will come, it will come. But when will it come)?” said a miffed Devaki Saroj, 42, his wife. The family, after registering to return home with a panchayat in Maharashtra’s Pune district, had waited in vain for 10 days. Both patience and food eventually ran out. And they resolved to undertake the more than 1,300 km journey back home on mopeds.

With the third extension of the lockdown dashing all hope that work would resume soon, about 50,000 migrant workers have been crossing over from Maharashtra into Madhya Pradesh’s Barwani district daily since May 3 — huddled inside trucks, precariously perched atop goods lorries, on bicycles, or simply on foot, in a desperate attempt to return home.

As many as 10 lakh workers crossed the border since March 22, said Sendhwa Sub Divisional Police Officer Tarunendra Singh Baghel. While a majority were returning to U.P., many were headed towards Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Odisha.

A kulfi vendor in Pune district, Mr. Saroj made ₹15,000 a month. Barely 10 days into the yearly trip, when the summer was just picking up, his business prospects were crushed by the lockdown. And the rest of the days were spent spending the meagre savings to buy grains. “We had to work as labourers on fields to make ends meet,” he said.

Also read | Migrant workers returning to Madhya Pradesh stuck in a double bind

Once back home, they plan to await the monsoon, when agricultural labour will be required.

Crammed inside a truck bearing the ‘MH-04’ registration code of Thane, Siaram Jaiswal holds on to a rope at its rear to keep himself from falling every time the vehicle navigates a curve or a bump or brakes. “Each year, I used to send my family money. Now I had to ask them for it,” said Mr. Jaiswal, who was working as a security guard in the city. The truck is bound for Basti district in U,P,, and each of the 30 passengers have had to shell out ₹4,000 each to book a spot — space to stand for the entire 1,600 km journey.

“My village has no factories; that’s why we moved to Mumbai,” said Dharam Singh, 23, a fruit vendor, waiting for his turn to receive a portion of khichdi at the border checkpost, arranged by a local temple. “During the lockdown period, we were fed this every day, and we got bored of it. Today, this is our first meal after two days. Doesn’t it look tasty? Kya bolte? (What do you say?),” he nudged the worker standing in the queue ahead of him, with glittering eyes, who nodded.

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Sonu Rawat, a Saharia Adivasi, pushes a wheelbarrow laden with utensils, clothes and toys stacked inside, and three toddlers flopping over the heap. A tattered piece of discarded sari, tied across four bamboo sticks fastened to the cart, barely shields them from the sun.

“Only God is giving us strength,” said Mr. Rawat. The group of 32, who work at a brick kiln on Dhar Road in Indore, is headed to Lalitpur district in Uttar Pradesh. They said they expected to reach home in about 10 days.

Full coverage | Lockdown displaces lakhs of migrants

“The contractor, who lent us ₹1 lakh for my daughter’s wedding, took us to the kiln so that we could work for repaying the amount. We are left with work worth another ₹24,000. We will return after the monsoon,” he said.

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