New Delhi: Hiding during the day and walking over 20km every night has become a routine for Shiv Babu, 23, a textile factory worker, who like scores of migrant labourers around the country is desperately trying to reach his far-off village from the industrial towns and cities of urban India.
A skilled workman, who was employed in a textile factory producing towels in Panipat town of Haryana, Babu, now travels in a small group, which consists mainly of his colleagues, who also hail from the same village.
“We start our daily journey at 3am till 1pm and then again from 3pm till 1am, there is no time to rest. We have very limited savings and no way to reach out to our families. Sometimes an entire day gets wasted as we have to hide to avoid detection,” Babu told IANS, while his small posse of 18-25-year-olds rested in a deserted market place in south Delhi.
The small group was making its way to Delhi’s Badarpur border, while they crossed the Vasant Kunj locality of south Delhi.
“We understand that there is a reason for the lockdown to be implemented, there is a pandemic which has been spreading but our current position in Panipat had become unsustainable. Even though people over there were very understanding and helpful, it was better to move on rather than to become a burden on anyone,” he said
Desperate march home
According to him, the tactic of hiding during the day time and walking only at night is widely used by migrant workers, who are desperately marching to reach their villages.
“Some migrant workers follow the highways, others walk next to railway lines, but we have decided to move on the periphery roads as there are fewer police pickets on these lanes,” he said.
“We also avoid junctions and main roads, there are many pickets at these places and we can be stopped and apprehended anytime.”
Another member of Babu’s small group of travellers, Moti, 22, said: “We have walked over 150km during the last 3 days. We have calculated the distance that we have to walk. We need to travel another 700-1,000 km to reach our home. It is possible to do that in a week’s time.”
When asked about the accuracy of the direction they were taking to reach their village, Moti said: “There are many good people, who have helped by guiding us to short cuts. We are not criminals, we just need to get home, and we want to see our families. None of us have fever or flu-like symptoms.”
“We are also taking all kinds of safety measures like washing hands and wearing masks. We also do not interact with other migrant workers who are walking back home.”
Interestingly enough these young men have developed other survival tactics in these trying times.
“We ditch our bags, when we are resting during the day time, this way even if we are spotted; people think that we are local workers. Sometimes we lie flat next to mud piles or in parking lots, no one comes near us, as they think that either we are drunk or are sick,” Moti said.
“However, we cannot stay in one single area for too long, as the local workers do not recognise us and they won’t help, everyone tells us that we are wrong, that we bring disease, but trust me, we just want to go home.”
When asked about their future plans, Moti said: ”We will get employment in our village. We will find something to do there. I am sure this thing will be over one day. But we won’t come back for at least a year now.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown to curb its spread has impacted migrant workers the hardest. Most of them were either employed with MSMEs or the construction sector. Nearly all have lost their jobs and had no time to reach their villages before the national lockdown was announced.
Some migrants also complained that they were charged monthly rents.
“Sometime back, we heard buses and trains are running again, but there will be very few of them and many people, who would want to use them. Instead, it is better that we walk. My only concern is that my shoes are all worn out and that every time we reach near a shop to buy a pair of sandals the home guards or locals shun us away,” Babu said.
“I really wish they could understand that we mean no harm. But I do not blame them; they are just as scared as we are.”