Coronavirus Outbreak: 'No matter what it takes, I will walk the 500 km to Kanpur'; stories from the migrant exodus out of Delhi

Ismat Ara

Holding an infant in her hands, Munni wipes off beads of sweat from the uneven skin of her forehead. The infant looks innocent, and tired. In her hands rough from manual labour, she is carrying a bundle with some clothes in it, some food for her child and a water bottle, half filled.

She is going to Jhansi, a long way from Delhi, on foot. "We have to walk all the way to Jhansi," she said. Jhansi, from New Delhi is about 400 kilometers. She takes a deep breath before speaking again. "What can we do, we have no work here. It's better if we return to our hometown. My husband and I both, daily wage earners, used to work at a construction site and earn enough money to at least fill our bellies one time a day and feed our one-year-old son. But since 21 March, neither of us has gone to work. The construction work has shut down. Since we earn very little, we have no money saved. We haven't eaten a proper meal in the past six days."

Asked about coronavirus, she said, "Haan, bimari hai." Yes, it is a disease.

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Since 30 January, when the first case of coronavirus was reported in India, there have been close to 800 cases. On Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a complete lockdown of the country and advocated for people to practice "social distancing", "self isolation" and "work from home."

While most of the country has stayed indoors, for the millions of undocumented workers in India's informal economy, the lockdown has meant a long trudge home.

The child in Munni's arms begins to cry. Munni's husband, also a daily wage earner, interrupts, "Dekhiye, ye bacche ro rahe hain. Hum kya karein. Ye das rupiye ki cheez bhi dugne me bech rahe hain. Humare paas jitne paise the, wo do teen din me kharch ho jaayengey. Iss liye hum paidal gaun jaa rahe hain€¦" Ghaziabad Highway, an artery that leads out of the National Capital region into Uttar Pradesh, is their route out of shanties, back to their villages and towns.

A man, limping while walking, stops for water, set up by the locals of Indirapuram to help those walking home. A couple from Indirapuram stands on the Ghaziabad highway, handing out water, biscuits and chips to these migrants. "We have been standing here for only two to three hours, and we have seen at least 5,000 people pass by so far," she said, handing out a bottle of water to the limping man, whose name is Pankaj Yadav.

Yadav, a young man from Agra, is among those walking home. "We are having a lot of trouble here. Firstly, we don't have enough money. Secondly, with whatever money we have, if we go out to buy groceries, the police beat us." He has been walking on foot for four hours, resulting in a wounded left foot.

"There is no vehicle to take us home. I don't know how I will walk home like this€¦" he said. He works as a manual labour and receives wages as per his everyday work. Due to the lockdown, his work has completely stopped. "We don't have fixed salaries. So for the past 5 to 6 days, I have earned no money. What is the point of sitting idle here, it's better to go home," he added. After a few minutes, looking at his state, a bike stops and offers him a lift. He waves bye and sits on the bike. "Dekhiye, abb kahan tak chodhte hain ye bike pe, phir toh paidal hi chalna hai."

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Ishub Khan, a man in his early 40s is leaving Delhi, along with his wife Nisara Begum, and walking towards Etah district in Uttar Pradesh, about 200 km away. Begum said, "People like us are walking till places like Jhansi. Our destination is still only 200 km, we can do it if we keep on walking."

As March draws to a close, her rent for the month is due. She lives in a one room house in Delhi's Maharajpur. "Kamre waale kamre ka kiraya maang rahe hain, par kaam toh sabb ruka hua hai. Kaisey dein kiraya? 2,500 rupiye hai kiraya."

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Ishub Khan, the earning member of the family, said he worked at a book factory, but it has shut down. "Even though my salary at the factory was fixed, because the work has stopped, the factory owner said he will not be able to give us our salaries for this month." Their two daughters, both wearing colourful frocks, ask them to open the packet of biscuits they have received from the locals of Indirapuram. "Ye khila deti hoon bachchon ko, poore din kucch nahin khaya hai, pareshan hain," Begum said.

"21 tareekh se, jab se sabb kucch bandh (lockdown) hua hai, na khane ko kucch hai, na peene ko. Police bhaga rahi hai. Bahar niklo, khane peene ka intazam karne biwi bachchon ke liye, toh police maarti hai," a man walking towards Bahraich, about 500 km from Delhi said. "Dihadi karta hoon. Magar pichle 5-6 dino se kucch kaam nahin mil raha."

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Anil Kashyap, a middle-aged man is carrying his three-yr-old daughter on his shoulder and walking towards Kanpur, 600 km from Delhi. The daughter sleeps while he walks. "Hum pichle teen din se yahan phase hue hain. Kaam band ho gaya hai, jo paisey the humare paas wo khatm ho gaye hain. Na kucch khane ko hai, na peene ko, aaj ye soch ke nikle hain ki kucch bhi ho jaye, chahe kitna bhi paidal chalna pade, Kanpur pahunch k rahengey."

He is a daily wage earner in Delhi who used to work in a cloth factory which has now closed now. He now doesn't have work, nor money. "Humare boss ne humko boldiya hai ki abb ghar chale jao, kucch pata nahin kab factory dobara khulegi. Ghar pe kam se kam paani toh peene ko milega," he said further, still holding his sleeping daughter on his shoulders.

At 4 pm, some relief arrives. A few buses going towards Uttar Pradesh stop at the Sai Baba Mandir near Indirapuram and take some people onboard. Due to the lack of space, people perch on the vehicles' roofs out of desperation.

Asking whether providing a few buses will be enough for the thousands of people stranded on the roads, Sanjay Singh, a local of Indirapuram said, "The police has finally come to the rescue of people. They have got two or three buses, in which people are being taken till Gorakhpur. There are close to 10,000 people who are stuck here, but around 300-400 people are currently being taken by a bus to their homes,"

The Uttar Pradesh government has arranged for 1,000 buses to take the migrant workers to their respective hometowns amid coronavirus lockdown as the total number of COVID-19 cases soared to 873. "Transportation officers, bus drivers and conductors were called by chief minister Yogi Adityanath last night to make all the arrangements," said the government of Uttar Pradesh.

"Khana kharcha mil nahin raha hai, bhooke marr rahe hain. Dekhiye, paidal kab tak pahunchte hain," said a woman going  towards Hardoi in Uttar Pradesh with her husband and two daughters. On asking whether they have enough food to sustain them along the way, she said, "Humara chodhiye, bachchon ka sochiye. Kucch nahin hai khane ko€¦"€‹

Also See: In Ladakh, vulnerable migrant workers face increasingly uncertain future as coronavirus outbreak unfolds

Coronavirus lockdown: Migrant labourers set out on long journey home; over 300 seen crammed in container trucks in Maharashtra

UPSRTC urges all DMs, SPs not to obstruct movement of 200 special buses carrying migrant labourers from Delhi to Uttar Pradesh

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