Wearing a white vest over his khakhi trousers, torn black shoes on his feet, Balram Yadav is on his way to Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh — by autorickshaw, with his wife and three children in the backseat.
They left Bhayandar on their nearly 1,500 km journey at 8 pm on Sunday. Two other families are going along, in their own autorickshaws. Yadav says since the lockdown, autorickshaw drivers have lost their livelihoods, and that is why he and the others had decided to leave. “After the first lockdown, they said we could drive the autos, but there were no passengers,” said Yadav.
The three-wheeler with a two-stroke engine is not the ideal vehicle for such a long journey, but three is company. One autorickshaw broke down near Shahapur, 80 km from where they began, but the silver lining was that one of the other two could tow it. “We will tow it till Dhule. We tried getting a bike mechanic, but he couldn’t do it,” said Yadav’s friend, who did not wish to be named.
When asked about the permit to drive his autorickshaw outside Mumbai, Yadav said, “Jahan tak ja sakte hain wahan tak jaenge (We will go as far as we can).”
Like Yadav, his family and their friends, many migrant workers eager to go back home are on the highways. Very few are walking now. Instead they have embarked on these journeys on whatever transport they could manage — autorickshaws, bicycles, and trucks, making up considerable vehicular traffic on the Mumbai-Agra highway.
Ramanand Yadav is going all the way to Bihar on his newly purchased bicycle. “We were 10 of us who wanted to leave. So through someone we knew, we ordered ten bicycles at a discounted rate of Rs 3,500,” he said.
However, as his employer refused to pay his two months’ salary, Yadav asked his elder brother back in Gaya to transfer the money into his account. After getting the bicycle, he started pedalling from Karjat at 5 am on Sunday.
“Ab koi vote mangne aaega na to main usse danda maar kar bhaga dunga (Now if anybody comes to me for votes, I will beat them up and send them back),” said Yadav, adding, “This is the time that the people’s representative should step up and help their citizens, but no one came to our rescue.”
He gets calls from his wife and three children back home every now and then, asking him about his whereabouts. They cry, and he cries with them.
Despite several train and bus services initiated by the government to help these migrant workers reach home, the workers say they no longer want to wait for their turn. “We went to the police station to fill the migrant form. They asked us to go away and suggested we fill the form online. It’s been eight days since I have submitted that form, but we have not got a call yet,” said another cycle-borne migrant worker Yogendra Yadav. He was accompanied by 18 other workers who were heading to their native Bhagalpur in Bihar.
Squeezing out the sweat from his black colour face mask, his companion Bhola Raut said, “On March 22 when the first lockdown was announced, we thought that we could start working again on April 14. My parents back home need the money. But then the lockdown was extended once again. We thought they would not extend it beyond the second time, but looking at the situation, we believe that the lockdown will not end before July. I don’t know whether we will get infected by Covid-19 but if we stay back now, we will definitely die of hunger.”
It is clear that unlike before, now the police and district administration are no longer stopping the workers from leaving. In fact, they are even helping them. Early Monday, when policemen near Igatpuri saw Yadav cycling away on the highway, they stopped him. He expected to be turned back, but to his great surprise, he was told that the Igatpuri administration would drop him and his cycle at the Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh border on a MSRTC bus.
District administrations are picking up people seen walking on the highway or borne on non-motorised vehicles, and sending them on their way to the border in these buses, as per a decision taken on Sunday.
Near Shahapur, police officials intercepted a truck in which workers were sitting on the roof. The policemen stopped the truck, asked the migrants to get off the roof, and to their surprise, told them to sit inside and allowed the vehicle to leave. An official from Igatpuri tahsildar office said, “We are checking whether the trucks are carrying more than their capacity. If they are within the limit, we are letting them go.”
If they are loaded beyond their capacity, said the official, giving an example of a truck on Sunday, “we asked the excess passengers to get off and dropped them to the Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh border in state transport buses”.
From the Igaptpuri-Nashik area, buses have picked up some 350 migrant workers travelling by bicycles or on foot. “This service was especially brought in place for the workers walking to their native places and also for the ones cycling. Their cycles are tied to the top of the bus. These buses are sanitised after every trip,” said Archana Bhakad, tahsildar, Igatpuri.