The bright saffron bowler’s hat is pulled down low, and the mid-morning sun casts a shadow over Vinod Patil’s eyes. Two words are machine-embroidered on the front of the hat: ‘Shiv Sena’.
One of tens of thousands of Konkan residents who have lived and worked for decades in Mumbai, Patil spent nearly two months in lockdown, waiting for work to restart, until other Maharashtrian migrants began to join those from north Indian states as they began the long walk home. Now, having crossed Wadkhal Naka in Raigad, 130 km from his home at Ambivali in Kalyan, Patil says he is looking forward to returning to his native village in Mangaon, another 50-odd km away.
“We are actually Mumbaikars, but right now it’s not affordable to stay in the city,” he said.
All along National Highway 66 – the Mumbai-Goa highway currently being four-laned to give tourists’ cars an uninterrupted high-speed carriageway – groups of families, children in tow, are walking back to villages in Konkan.
From Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, Thane and Kalyan, they walk in groups of people belonging to neighbouring villages in their home districts, trying to hitch rides from passing tempos and trucks for short distances at an average Rs 100 per head for 20 to 30 km until the next police checkpoint. Near Pen, 50-year-old Sunita Dhanawade is sitting in the shade of a large banyan tree, among a group of 18, including children. They are in good spirits, the men are taking turns swinging from the aerial roots of the wizened old tree.
“We’ve got information that a tempo driver known to somebody we know is going past, we’ll get a ride till Roha,” said Sunita, who works as a domestic help in the new residential buildings around her home in Nallasopara, a distant suburb of Mumbai.
This group is headed to Murud, a popular tourist town in Raigad with sunny beaches and historic fortifications. “Most women in our group work as domestic helps, and the apartments where we work are refusing to take us into their homes now. We can’t be sure of earning a May salary. We can come back later if things open up,” said Sunita. There are school-going children in their group, and the books have been packed into their luggage.
While Maharashtrian migrants in Mumbai have always been a very large percentage of the financial capital’s total migrant population, the 2011 Census data showed additionally that intra-state migration to Mumbai has been on the rise. Between 2001 and 2011, intra-state migrants in Mumbai went up from an estimated 28.16 lakh and 43.44 lakh, an increase of 52.78 per cent. Maharashtrians in fact constitute the largest number of migrants in Mumbai – the number from all other states combined was estimated at 46.44 lakh in the 2011 Census.
Unlike some Mumbai migrants returning to Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, the groups walking along the Goa highway to villages in Raigad, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts are all accompanied by families, and have large bags of belongings.
In part on account of the sons-of-the-soil agenda of regional parties in Mumbai during the 1990s, many of these men are office boys and factory-workers on the rolls of companies as opposed to contract workers. Many are slurred employees working in shops and malls, employed as security guards, store attendants and restaurant staff among others.
On the road, however, nobody has the energy to discuss which party they support. But all of them agree that information regarding the lockdown rules has remained vague and inconsistent – Transport Minister Anil Parab said only last week that state buses would be made available for intra-state migrants but no such buses are available.
Walking with Vinod Patil is Sachin Bait, his one-year-old Sarthak perched on his shoulders and seven-year-old Shaurya walking gamely. As his wife accepts a bottle of water from a stranger, Bait said, “The office where we work paid our April salaries in full, but we can’t be certain about May.”
The Ambivali group started early Sunday and by mid-day on Monday, were at Pen after taking long breaks wherever there was some shade. They carried some food, but quickly ran out of water. They were stopped by the police once, but only half-heartedly and were allowed to proceed.
Another group carrying a swaddled baby is going from Ghatkopar, a middle-class suburb in Mumbai, to Mangaon. One of the men, a cleaner at a diamond jewellery store in Ghatkopar, said they got a few short rides, but no food or water or shelter along the way. They tried to complete large parts of the journey at night, when it’s still humid but easier on the children.
Asked if staying back in Mumbai where work may soon be available is not a safer option, Vinod Patil said, “Mumbai is home too, we can come back when things are more secure for us.”
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