Despite his swollen, painful legs, Prabhat Bakshi, a migrant labourer from Assam’s Baksa district, is at peace. Almost six months ago, at the Darranga check post on the Indo-Bhutan border, the 35-year-old had got himself a pass to cross over and work at a construction site in a town in Bhutan. On Sunday evening, Bakshi returned. This time, however, he avoided the checkpoint, and instead crossed rivulets and dense forests to make the journey back home — on foot.
Bakshi is among the 11 migrant labourers who crossed over from Bhutan to Assam on Sunday evening — a journey they started at the crack of dawn, and finished at sunset when they reached Kauli village in Baksa district’s Tamulpur area. With that, the group joined the list of thousands of migrant laborers who have been homeward-bound, after the nationwide lockdown was announced by PM Narendra Modi last month.
“Yes, they are our people: four from Baksa district, six from Sonitput district,” said Baksa DC Ranjan Sarma, “They are now quarantined at the Nagrijuli Model Hospital. They did not come via the designated checkpoint but used other routes.”
Although the journey Bakshi and his co-workers took is shorter compared to the month-long journeys (a man travelled the breadth of the country from Gujarat to Assam last week) reported from across the country, it is probably one of the few which have involved crossing an international border.
Assam and Bhutan share a 265.8 km long border, stretching over four districts: Saralpara (Kokrajhar), Dadgiri (Chirang), Darranga (Baksa) and Bhairabkunda (Udalguri). The Baksa-Bhutan border is about 90km long, and has been sealed since March, ever since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to figures from the Ministry of Health, Royal Government of Bhutan, the kingdom has reported seven confirmed cases (with five recoveries and no deaths) so far.
While the checkpoint has been sealed, many parts of the border are unfenced. “While the main checkpoint to cross over from Tamulpur is Darranga (on India side) and Samdrup Jongkhar (on Bhutan side), the area shares a 20-km border with Bhutan,” says Ashim Bora, who is the Officer in-charge (OC) of the Tamulpur police station. It is these porous boundaries, dotted with forests and water bodies, that the group crossed. “I don’t know how they did it — the forests are dense, there are frequent cases of animals trampling people to death,” said Bora.
However, according to Bakshi, a Kauli local, it was ‘instinct’ that got them home. The group, aged between 22 and 50, had been in Bhangtar (a rural town in Bhutan) for a few months now.
“We set out early, our bags in hand,” said Bakshi, on the phone from the Nagrijuli Model Hospital, adding that a straight route would probably be about 40-50 km.
However, the one they took was hilly, and at some points the water from rivulets reached their waists. The bags the labourers carried were thrown into the river, layers of clothing were shed. “We slipped, we fell and we hurt ourselves but we continued to walk non-stop,” said Bakshi, “It was very strenuous.”
Manohar Das of the Nagrijuli Model Hospital confirmed that the labourers have all been tested for COVID-19, and were awaiting results. “We checked them the moment we were called by the police on Sunday,” said Das.
On Sunday, when the locals spotted the bunch, they immediately alerted the nearest police station. “Since five were from here, they had managed to figure out the route,” said OC Bora, “Apparently their employer had asked to stay but they still left because they heard that the lockdown had been lifted,” said Bora, “When we found them, one escaped. But he reported himself earlier on Monday.”
Bakshi said the group had been living together for the past few months, working at a construction site. “We got a car till one point. We knew we would have been stopped at the checkpoint, so we took this other route,” he said.
According to him, they were desperate to come back because the food in Bhutan did not suit them at all. “There was just rice and dry fish, and no vegetables,” he said, adding that at many points, they were worried that they would fall sick and die. “I decided we should come home because no one wants to die in a strange, foreign place. There would be no peace in death,” he said, “If you have to die, you might as well die at home.”