A FEW packets of biscuits, namkeen and Rs 500 in his pocket is all Ved Prakash had when he began a nearly 1,000 km journey on foot from Jalgaon in north Maharashtra to his home in Rewa district of Madhya Pradesh on April 15. Fifteen days later, Prakash’s journey, punctuated by hostility from some villagers en route and kindness from strangers, including policemen, ended with him reaching his village, Khamaria.
Currently, in quarantine at a space on the outskirts of the village for two weeks, Prakash tells The Indian Express on the phone, “Sab se bohot haath pair jod ke pohoche. Bohot dushvyavhaar hua, bohot takleef hui, par ghar pohoch gaye. (We had to plead for help before a lot of people, many mistreated us. We went through a lot of difficulty, but at least we are finally home).”
Working in a unit that makes mats, 38-year-old Prakash, has been going to Jalgaon for work for the past 18 years. With the unit shutting down because of the lockdown, Prakash and others with him did not have any access to food or ration. “We survived for a few weeks with whatever savings we had, hoping that the transport will start. Others we knew also had left for their homes and reached in seven days by taking lifts from people. So, with almost no money left, we also decided to leave,” Prakash says.
Lalji Geruhai, another resident of Madhya Pradesh, who was stranded in Jalgaon, had begun a journey to his hometown, also in Rewa district, on April 11. “Bohot darr tha beemari ka. (We were very scared of the pandemic). We had been hearing that the cases are increasing in Mumbai and Indore. Though there were no cases in the area where we were living in Jalgaon, we wanted to come home to our family in these difficult times,” 42-year-old Geruhai, who also works in a mat-making unit in Jalgaon, says.
He adds that he had read how the situation had deteriorated in Italy and Iran, and feared the worst. “Ration mil raha tha, par apne parivaar se dur koi kyun rehna chahega aise waqt par. (We were getting ration, but why would anyone want to stay away from one’s family at such times)?” he asks.
Geruhai undertook the journey with 14 others, including his younger brother, walking throughout the night and resting at noon when the sun was too harsh. He carried puri-sabzi and a few biscuits and was fed by many policemen on the way, he says. He was more fortunate as he got frequent lifts and was able to complete the journey in seven days.
Prakash, who left on April 15, said after being helped by policemen and others for the first three days of the journey till Khandwa, he and the group had to walk home, over 800 km away. “At one naka, policemen advised us to walk on the railway tracks to avoid highways. We would walk on tracks and if that became difficult, we took the highway. We rested for two hours during the day and two hours during the night,” he says.
With the peak summer heat and no food, Prakash said walking became even more strenuous. “There were times I felt that I cannot reach home alive. In most villages we crossed, the people were hostile towards us. There is so much fear about coronavirus that they did not want to help a human being in trouble. If we asked for water, some shut their borewells. We crossed one village to another with the hope that the next one will be kind to us, but for kilometres nobody gave us water or food,” he says.
He adds, however, that many strangers, especially policemen, were kind. “They must have seen many like us desperate to get home. They helped us in some places, arranging transport for short distances. One policeman gave us one kilogramme of grapes to eat,” Prakash recalls.
Once he reached his village, however, the local sarpanch asked him to leave and threatened to put him in jail. “We had not done anything wrong. We were ready to remain in quarantine or undergo tests,” he said. Subsequently, Prakash contacted other representatives and was finally allowed to stay.
Now waiting for the two-week quarantine period to end, Prakash says even when he enters his house, other worries will remain. “We have a small farm and a big family, of over 20 people. Without my salary, we do not know how my family will survive if the lockdown continues for many months,” he says.
Many others, including a group of 10 from Uttar Pradesh, stranded at Tilak Nagar, pooled in Rs 3,500, after a lorry driver promised to drop them home. “We were stopped near Powai and sent back. We had borrowed the money from home for the journey,” says Mohammed Israr, who works with the group.
Another group of five from Kurla bought cycles and began their journey for Jharkhand last week. “We are not able to contact them as their phones may have run out of battery. I spoke to them last two days ago, they said that they were surviving on food served at some dhabas, but going hungry for the most part of the day,” says Triveni Yadav, a resident of Jharkhand, stranded in Dharavi. “We had decided to undertake the same journey if the lockdown was extended again. Now, we hope that the arrangement of transport to take us home is done soon,” he said.
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