Clothes and utensils packed in a tattered school bag, packets of puffed rice in hand and a traditional towel around the neck, Kamaleshri Mandal, an auto-rickshaw driver in Nagaland, is all set to return home to Bihar.
Out of work and money, Mandal is among 70 Bihari auto-rickshaw drivers who have decided to travel back home in around 30 auto-rickshaws as part of different groups.
“During the lockdown, we were not running our auto-rickshaws. There was nothing to eat. So what could have we done?” asked Mandal (50), who has made a living in Dimapur for the last four years.
Tito Yepthomi, president of the Dimapur District Auto Drivers Union, said, “Around 70 drivers from Bihar, some of them with their wives and children, have left Dimapur over the last two days. But thousands of migrant drivers, a vast majority of them from Bihar, are still in Dimapur and we are helping them in whatever way we can.”
“They were hapless,” Yepthomi said, adding that the union had requested the leaving drivers to stay back but they were finding it difficult to make ends meet. The union also gave Rs 500 to the drivers who left.
The distance from Dimapur to Bhagalpur or Purnia, where many of the drivers are from, is around 1,000km. The drivers estimate it will take them at least five days to reach their destination, if all goes well.
But on Monday morning, one auto part of Mandal’s group broke down on the Saraighat bridge over the Brahmaputra in Guwahati, and they struggled to find a mechanic.
“We have never travelled this way,” said Ranjit Kumar (25), who came from Purnia to Dimapur around three years ago. “Dhaba owners don’t want us to eat at their place fearing that we might be carrying the virus,” he said.
Kumar said they have not been able to cook and pack much, while another driver Chattu Singh pointed out they were relying mostly on moori (puffed rice).
“We are constrained financially. But some relatives sent some money from home and with that, we hope to fund the travel,” Kumar said.
Will they come back to Dimapur ever to earn a living? Kumar doesn’t know. “Let’s see what the coming days hold. Will this virus ever go away? I don’t know.”
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