India lockdown: 12 walk 200 km, down hills and past forests, on biscuits, one meal

Lalmani Verma
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Labourers walking to their villages take a nap along the Lucknow-Faizabad highway on Thursday.

In four days and 200 km of walking, Pravin Kumar, 46, was stopped at every checkpoint. Police checked whether he and 11 others with him had their Aadhaar cards and then waved them on, with an instruction to maintain “social distancing”.

So, for their only proper meal in 65 hours, offered by a voluntary organisation, the 12 sat one metre apart in Dehradun on Thursday afternoon.

Kumar, employed like the others at the Char Dham Road Project’s Hanuman Chatti site in Uttarkashi, says he knows the value of hygiene in the time of coronavirus. So, every time he found a source of water along the route, he ensured he washed his feet at least. That also gave some relief from the footsores he developed from the long walk, with 60 km more to go, to home in Kutubpur village of Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh.

Between the 12 of them, only one had a mask.

For the past four months, Kumar and the others have been building a retaining wall using boulders for the Char Dham Road Project, earning around Rs 500 a day each. Now, Rs 500 is the maximum any one of them has, as they head home.

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Back in his village, Pravin Kumar, a father of three, said, he can make a maximum of Rs 150 a day, with a meal thrown in, working as a farm labourer.

In Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh, district authorities came to the aid of a group of 19 who had walked two days for over 450 km from Delhi, and arranged transport for them to Bahraich, a further 135 km away.

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The lockdown announcement caught them by surprise, Pravin Kumar said. On Janata Curfew day, March 22, the 12 had taken it easy, relaxing in the makeshift tents they stayed in, watching movies on their mobile phones. When the restrictions were tightened to a lockdown by the state the same evening, Kumar said, they rushed to their contractor. “He said he cannot provide food to us without work for so many days. We were uncertain as to how long the work would remain stopped.”

Kumar said they asked the contractor for a week’s worth of pay so that they could go home. “However, he said he had no money. With no transport available, we decided to walk back.”

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They left early morning on March 23, and made their way to Dehradun on Thursday via Chamba, Kaddukhal and Raipur.

Having carried food barely for one day, they could not eat anything after Monday night as everything along the way was shut. On Thursday afternoon, as they rested under trees at Banjarawala on the Haridwar bypass highway, a security guard at a nearby marble shop, Mohammad Akhtar, spotted them and rushed over with water. A few minutes later, four volunteers of a social organisation came with a packet of pooris, a bucket of sabji and disposable plates.

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A Delhi constable provides hand sanitiser to a child at a slum area in Rangpuri on Thursday. (Express photo/Amit Mehra)

Pritam Kumar, a resident of Kaasampur village in Saharanpur, said that in the plains of Raipur near Dehradun Thursday morning, a family offered them tea and biscuits. However, as Deepak Saini, who is from Manjhipur village in Saharanpur, said, such instances were rare. “We found several people outside their homes, but we could not understand their accent and they could not get what we were saying.” The only breadwinner of his family, including his parents, wife and two children, Saini said he was getting constant calls from home checking where he had reached and if he was safe.

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Zakir of Tanda village in Saharanpur, returning home with younger brother Usman, said that because they crossed forested areas during their walk, they slept hardly two hours at night and that too in shifts. “We feared attacks by wild animals or criminals.”

Usman said they came across many in a similar situation as them, headed home on foot. “Before implementing the lockdown, the government should have made arrangements for workers like us to get home,” Zakir said.

The brothers are also worried about returning without any earnings. The family has a farm where they grow foodgrains. Zakir pointed out that in the forests of Kaddukhal area, they had to leave behind their blankets and quilts as well, as the load got too heavy.

The labourers said they also faced problems finding their way, as they had earlier always used public transport to get home. “We approached police for directions. But that was the only help they provided. Otherwise, they checked our ID proof (Aadhaar) at every check-post and barricade,” said Pritam Kumar.

In Dehradun, as they ate, police arrived in a jeep and questioned them. Before leaving, the officials told them, “Why are you seated so closely? Keep a distance of at least 1 metre, including when you walk.”

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A self-run site with almost 200 migrant construction workers from UP, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, accommodating men, women and children in several hutments in Delhi's Uttam Nagar. (Express photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

Additional District Magistrate, Lakhimpur Kheri, Arun Kumar Singh said they spotted 19 migrant labourers in Mohammadi area. “They told us they were coming from Delhi, where they were employed with a construction firm, and were headed for Nanpara in Bahraich. With dhabas and hotels on highways closed, they hadn’t eaten in three days. We provided them food and arranged a bus to take them,” the ADM said.

Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath intervened to help around 80 people, including a pregnant woman, travelling in a bus from Mumbai to Sant Kabir Nagar and Basti districts who had been stopped by police between Teekamgarh and Chhatarpur.

In Dehradun, with home nearer, Deepak Saini clung to one silver living. “My contractor gave me Rs 500 for travel. I saved that because I could not find transport.”

— with MANISH SAHU, Lucknow