Antresh Kumar started walking at 3 am on Wednesday. After thinking about what a 21-day lockdown would mean for him and his fellow daily-wagers, the 21-year-old decided that heading home to Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh would be his best option. Even if it means walking 175 kilometres, a journey likely to take at least two days and convincing police to let them keep walking.
Since Delhi announced a lockdown on Monday, followed by a nationwide lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday, hundreds of migrant labourers have— in the absence of public transport and with borders sealed— decided to walk home to escape hunger, insecurity and, in Antresh’s case, his landlord.
“We have no income anymore. We would earn Rs 200-250 daily. Since the gradual shutting down of the city, work has come to a standstill. I was not earning but the landlord kept asking for rent,” he said. With no food, water or money, the group left. At Anand Vihar, they drank from a canal. “All shops are closed. We can’t even buy water if we want,” he said.
Like pilgrims, the men bundled up their clothes and walked through deserted roads to their villages in Uttar Pradesh.
With clothes in his small bag and a few rotis with salt as sustenance, 25-year-old Aram Singh, a labourer, started from Preet Vihar in East Delhi for Badaun in Uttar Pradesh. He, along with a few others who live in Preet Vihar as well, said they had no option but to cover the 215-kilometre distance on foot.
“Our families are at home, they are fine. But since there is no food to eat here, we are heading back. We will sleep wherever we find space, eat and drink whatever we can find, but we have to go home.” He said that the police, so far, had been cooperative.
The Delhi government has started giving food to those in need at night shelters twice a day. While the number of people eating there has increased, those who left the city said they did not know about the option.
For Umesh Kumar, 28, the journey is somewhat shorter. He and a handful of men have to cover a distance of 55 kilometres to Ghaziabad’s Lal Kuan. He lives alone in Delhi, and the lack of cooked food and water made him long for his family. “All places to eat are shut,” he said.
Some men took loans of a few hundred rupees before heading East. Virender Singh Yadav, 23, left Laxmi Nagar for Lal Kuan after having a meal. “There was a dhabha open in the lanes, and we had been eating there for the past few days. Now everything is shutting and we have no work either,” he said. He and three others have a total of Rs 500 among themselves: “We will walk and rest when we can. Since there is no food available and no bus, there is nothing else we can do.”
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