Workers returning to Bihar caught between poverty of their villages and starvation in cities

‘Hope is a dangerous thing’

Updated - May 19, 2020 10:36 pm IST

Published - May 19, 2020 08:14 pm IST - Patna (Zero Mile)

Hari Kishore Kumar Rai

Hari Kishore Kumar Rai

The streets and inter-State highways in Patna are empty with few vehicles plying on the by-pass road near the Zero Mile area of the city as the summer sun, blazes overhead.

But the silence is broken by the honking of trucks and open pick-up vans that drive by carrying groups of emaciated and weathered worn migrant workers, as the area is a transit point for the desperate inter-State travellers.

Under an overbridge, 24-year old Hari Kishore Kumar Rai is sitting on the pavement, taking a break while mulling over the next stage of his journey home like hundreds of others. He looks starved, exhausted, and desperate. From Pune’s Pimpri-Chinchwad to Patna en route to Fullidumra in Banka district, he has trudged hundreds of kilometres.

“I don’t even remember the date when I had left Pune…I reached here walking on the road, riding on auto-rickshaws, on trucks, tractors, buses and trains as well…still I’ve to cover over 200 kms,” he says, requesting a policemen to flag down a vehicle to drop him nearer home.

Also read: Coronavirus India lockdown Day 56 live updates

Mr Rai has spent all his savings of ₹6,000 to pay truck drivers and on food. “But the Uttar Pradesh government provided us food and water... even policemen there treated us well and were helpful,” he added.

Mr. Rai had been working as a halwai (sweet maker) in a sweet shop in Pimpri-Chinchwad for last three months. Earlier, he was working with a sweet maker in Ghatkopar in Mumbai, earning ₹10,000 a month.

Also read: Home is still a long walk away

“In Pune they offered me ₹12,000 a month so I shifted there…what to do…I’ve a family of eight members in my village and I’m the lone bread winner,” he says, his eyes glazed with fatigue.

The next moment his head droops.

Also read: Image of a weeping Rampukar Pandit becomes symbol of India’s migrant worker tragedy

“Will I reach my village? How will I get some work here in Bihar to feed my family? Why doesnt the Bihar government do something for poor people like us,” the stream of desperate questions trickle off into silence.

When Rajesh Kumar, a local social worker, brings him some packets of biscuits and mineral water, he takes them gratefully. “We’re alive only because of people like him…otherwise who cares for us, for poor people,” he says.

Sitting by Mr Rai is Athyush Kumar, 19. Driven by desperation and abandoned by his employer and the authorities, ‘like several thousand others, he set off from Rajasthan to Gopikandar in Dumka district of Jharkhand.

Defying the lockdown and braving police batons, he walked to Delhi, then hitched lifts in a medley of vehicles — buses, trucks, trolleys and pickup vans — to reach Patna via Uttar Pradesh. He echoes Mr. Rai and says, “U.P. govt. was kind to us.”

He too has exhausted all his savings of ₹5,000 on the long journey has nothing left to buy food or for the next leg of his journey to reach his village.

Also read: Truck ditches ill man on road, friend stays back till his death

“My four brothers, one sister and parents are waiting for me for long…I’ve lost contact with them for last several days…they even don’t know whether I’m alive or not,” he said taking rapid, shallow breaths. He was working as a carton packer in a medicine factory in Rajasthan.

But the long journey home in the heat has taken a toll. He looks dehydrated, his face drawn, lips stretched and eyes vacant. He was not crying, he says — there are no tears left. “It all has dried up,” he says as he hefts his heavy backpack.

Grabbing the food and water bottles from Mr Rajesh Kumar, he gulps down a whole bottle in a one go. “I don’t want to die now…I’ve much responsibility on my shoulders,” he says while sprinkling water on his face from another bottle.

Asked how he plans to reach Dumka, he says, “If I’ve reached here from Rajasthan, hopefully I will reach Dumka too one day.”

After a long pause, he turns philosophical. “You know, hope is a dangerous thing — bada khatarnak cheez hai!

Asked why, he says: “Because it has the ability to attract those who have lost everything... Let’s see, what and how future unfolds,” looking hopefully at passing trucks, which however, speed by deterred by the policemen on duty.

Everyday thousands of such migrants return to Bihar from different parts of the country hoping against hope that all will be well at the villages they left in search of a better life.

Over five lakh workers have returned and another eight lakh will be returning till May 27.

According to a study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit working for the safety and security of migrants, there are an estimated four to five million workers from Bihar in other parts of the country. At least one person had migrated for work in 60% of households across seven districts in Bihar, said the study.

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