A six-day-old baby who will never see his father, a mother who has lost the means to repay a loan she took for a gallstones operation, and a sister who was supposed to be wed after the lifting of the lockdown — there is a void in several families in Gopalpur panchayat of Chas block in Jharkhand’s Bokaro district.
Of the 26 people who were killed on the highway in Uttar Pradesh’s Auraiya early on Saturday, 11 were migrant labourers headed back to their village. Their bodies reached their homes on Monday evening — travelling the 800 km in some 30 hours.
All the 11 men worked in a marble factory in Rajasthan, and had left for home after a dispute over their wages during the lockdown.
All through Monday, the families waited. Aarti Devi, barely 18, lay on a cot in a one-room brick dwelling, her six-day-old son by her side. “He was supposed to come with our baby’s clothes,” Aarti said of her husband, Rahul Sahis. “My son will never see his father.”
Rahul, 19, was killed in the accident at Auraiya. Rahul’s father, Vibhuti Sahis, a marginal farmer, said his son had been looking forward to seeing his child. “He was very happy, and he wanted to return home. The lockdown forced him to take the road route from Rajasthan.”
Sudhir Goswami said he had started to frantically call his 22-year-old son Raja as soon as he heard news of the accident. He tried several times, and unable to reach his son, prayed for his safety.
“Suddenly, a man who identified himself as a policeman answered the phone. He said that my son was dead, and asked me to come to UP to take his body. In those 10 seconds, everything changed,” Sudhir said.
Sudhir’s wife Munni Devi recently had surgery to remove gallstones. “We took loan for the operation, which cost us Rs 80,000. Days before Holi, Raja left to work in Rajasthan, hoping to be able to save enough to repay our loans. I should never have allowed him to go,” sobbed Munni Devi.
Also crying was Taroni Devi, who had hoped to have a “decent wedding” for her daughter. Taroni’s son Uttam Goswami, 22, had been working to save for his sister’s wedding. “When the lockdown happened, he wanted to come back home. We advised him not to move, but he switched off his phone and left,” Taroni said.
Next to Taroni in her kuchcha house sat her daughter. Hearing the news of Uttam’s death, her prospective groom had come to meet the family. Taroni and her husband are very poor – they have got a gas cylinder under the government’s Ujjwala scheme, but they don’t have a stove, so they use firewood to cook. As she spoke, Taroni broke into loud wails.
The mothers of Somnath Goswami, Ranjan Kalindi, and Arvind Mahato sobbed while talking of their sons, all of whom were killed in the accident.
“Kamane ke liye baahar kyon bheja (Why did I send him away from home to earn),” said Arvind’s mother Latika Devi. In her arms she carried his grandchild; Arvind’s wife lay on the ground, crying incessantly.
Two kilometres away in Kheerabadi in the same panchayat, Ranjan’s mother said: “My two sons said they were coming home on a trailer truck. Hum to trailer ka matlab bhi nahi jaante the, nahi to manaa kar dete, ek ko le gaya upar wala (I did not even know what a trailer truck was, else I would have told them not to get on to it; now God has taken away one of my sons).”
Most of the labourers had no income left after the lockdown was announced; many had used the Rs 1,000-4,000 that their families had managed to somehow put together, to pay for the journey home.
Among the dead was 55-year-old Kanilal Mahato. His son Mukesh said Kanilal had asked for Rs 1,000. “That was all the money we had; it was money that he had sent home earlier. We sent him that money so he could return.” The family lives in a two-room kuchcha house, and has a small piece of land. They have so far not received any benefits under the PM-KISAN scheme, Mukesh said.
Villagers expressed anger that the bodies had been dumped in a truck and sent to Jharkhand. The injured who came in the same vehicle had very little food for the journey. Saalbo Kalindi, brother of Govardhan Kalindi, said: “Even the dead deserve dignity. So what if we are poor?”
When the truck reached Allahabad, the bodies were shifted to an ambulance which reached the Jharkhand border on Monday morning. After preliminary treatment was provided to the injured, the bodies were sent to Gopalpur panchayat in 11 different ambulances.
Bokaro Deputy Commissioner Mukesh Kumar said: “After we saw the picture of the way the bodies were being ferried, we intervened and told officers in UP not to disregard the dignity of the deceased. The injured were left to lie beside the dead. Later, near Allahabad, the UP authorities arranged for a different vehicle.”