The Long Walk Home: Migrant Labourers and their Heartbreaking Fight to Survive


The Long Walk Home: Migrant Labourers and their Heartbreaking Fight to Survive

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a complete lockdown in the country for 21 days starting midnight of March 24 to fight the coronavirus pandemic. He made a repeated plea, asking people to “stay home”. But what about the lakhs of migrant and daily wage workers stranded across the country?

The cities where they’ve come in search for work have come to a standstill – shops have downed shutters, construction work has halted. They have no income coming in. How do they feed themselves, leave alone pay rent. And home is far far away. With railways shut, buses stopped, and state borders closed, they have no choice but to walk back home, which is hundreds of kilometres away.

A 20-year-old labourer has started walking from Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao to Barbanki, a distance of 80 kilometers, as the factory where he works has shut and he has no place to stay. He used to sleep in the factory but now the owners have asked them to leave.

Another daily wage labourer from Delhi, Bunty, was walking back to his village in Uttar Pradesh, carrying his son on his back. His wife is trudging along with luggage in tow. It will take this family at least two days to get home – the village is 180 kilometers from Delhi.

“No one helps you in Delhi, the way they do in the village,” he told NDTV.

Bunty is accompanied by other labourers, somehow trying to make it to their hometowns in Aligarh, Amroha, Bulandshahr. Some are seen tugging their luggage, their handkerchiefs doubling up as masks and a bottle of water in hand as they try to beat the hot afternoon sun along with the pandemic.

Some from Bihar are cycling back to their village – it might take them at least four days to get to their destination. But the journey is riddled with bigger hurdles. Many have to face harassment by the police who have not been going easy on those spotted on the roads.

With no place to stay, loss of earnings, and no food to eat, the situation is grim. “I have not eaten anything, I don’t even have money for tea,” an out-of-work labourer wept as he spoke to India Today.

No roof over their heads, some have been sleeping at bus stands. They are unsure how they will get their next meal or when will they find a bus to ferry them back to their village in Madhya Pradesh 

Just days before the nationwide lockdown, train stations in Mumbai and Pune were packed with migrant labourers hoping to get back home. Those who got onto the trains should probably consider themselves lucky, the others now find themselves stranded with nowhere to go.

The 21-day lockdown to flatten the curve has hit the marginalised sections of society the hardest. India did everything it could to rescue the thousands stranded overseas but those in the country – the poorest of the poor – are left to fend for themselves. After days of distress, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has finally announced a relief package of ₹1,70,000 crore for the poor via cash transfer and food subsidy. Let’s hope this is the start and there’s more to come for India’s most needy.