A group of around 150 people — comprising migrant labourers and their families, staying in and around Katraj area of Pune and natives of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, started their journey home, about 1,000 km away, on foot. Their journey was, however, cut short by the police even before they could cross the city limits Wednesday morning. They had walked for two hours carrying just the bare minimum needed for the journey, when, around 3.30 am, the police stopped them and gave them two options: either go back to their rented houses in Katraj, or stay in a government shelter for migrants.
There are 60-70 families of migrant daily wagers from Damoh and Jabalpur districts in MP and Balodabazar in Chhattisgarh who stay in tin-houses in Babaji Nagar, Anjali Nagar, Sachhai Mata Mandir, Sund Mata Mandir localities of Pune near Katraj and Wadgaon Budruk areas.
Most of the daily wagers had arrived in Pune two-three months prior to the announcement of the nationwide lockdown owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. They said whatever money or saving they had was exhausted. They said they were largely dependent on food packets being distributed by social workers in the area and that no help has been offered to them from the government.
“The food packets distributed are not enough for us. They give one small packet each for adults and kids. We couldn’t go on like that and hence decided that since the 21-day lockdown was to close on April 14, we will leave that evening to go home on foot as we didn’t have money for fare,” said Chhote Lal, a labourer in his 40s. They said they were not aware that the lockdown has been extended till May 3.
Guddu Pal, another daily wager, said that after the police intercepted them they had no option but to return. “They had taken us to a school in Kondhwa where there was no space. They asked us to stay in the open. We decided to return here,” says Pal. According to him, the police had promised them that they would be provided food twice a day and would be given no reason to complain.
“We didn’t leave for fun. We prepared ourselves and our kids to walk 1,000 km because we are suffering. If we don’t get enough food, we will leave again,” said Pal, patting his belly, adding, “Even if that means getting beaten up by the police.”
One of the women brought out a food packet she had saved to eat later to show the size of the helping. “This is how much we get per person. Is this enough for even a small child?” she asked.
The younger labourers said they were aware that the lockdown is on but felt they couldn’t continue to stay on in Pune as they were facing trouble getting food and there was no end to the lockdown in sight. “Can you tell for sure that lockdown will end on May 3?” asked Bhagchandra Pal, who hails from Damoh, MP. “We left our homes to earn some money. We can’t work now and don’t have enough to eat and don’t know when things will normalise. So what’s the point of continuing to live here like this!” Pal said they had estimated that they will reach home in 15 days if they walked only during the nights (to escape heat).
Police Inspector Vinayak Gaikwad, in-charge of Kondhwa police station, detailed how the police spotted the group. “When they had reached Khadi Machine Chowk, our team stopped them around 3.30 am, about two hours after they had started from Katraj. We convinced them that there was no way they could be allowed to head for their native places and that arrangements for their food and shelter will be made by the government. They were taken to Darekar School in Kondhwa, which is a designated shelter camp. But they said they will prefer to go back to their homes in Pune.”
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