In despair after PM’s Tuesday speech, UP migrants begin 1,200-km walk home

With a lockdown extension on the horizon, and govt belying its promise to provide them transportation, at least 100 migrants have started on foot from Loni area near Ghaziabad to their homes in Ballia

100 people set out on foot on Wednesday morning
100 people set out on foot on Wednesday morning

Ashlin Mathew

At least 100 migrants have packed all their belongings of more than five years into single bags and have started on foot on a 1,200 km journey from Uttar Pradesh’s Loni area near Ghaziabad to their homes in Ballia, the eastern most district of the state. At least another 250 are still living in their rented accommodations, also waiting to start the long walk.

The migrants didn’t head out during the first lockdown from March 24 to April 14 because they believed it would not last long. They also believed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s words that physical distancing was important to ensure they didn’t get the COVID-19 infection.

But then the second lockdown was announced,and their meagre savings of less than Rs 6,000 began to deplete, and hunger became a constant companion. When the government announced that trains and buses would be taking them home, they believed it, only to be let down again.

After they heard the PM’s speech on Tuesday evening, they realised that they weren’t going to get any assistance from the state. They have no faith that either the Centre or the state government will ever address their problem. This reinforced their resolve to begin walking home as the local authorities hadn’t arranged buses for them, even though it was promised.

They are the third batch of migrants who have set out from Loni. A few of them were able to get on a bus from Lucknow. Some others were able to get on a bus from Ghaziabad at 4 a.m. on Wednesday morning, but several were not. It will take them at least 12 days on foot to reach Ballia.

“We were asked to register at the Sub-Divisional Magistrate’s office to be able to get on a bus. All of us complied with it. We waited for six days for a call. A few days ago, some of us got a callfrom the nodal officer, but immediately the official called back to say the bus was not for us. We went to every official they asked us to. We are poor people, so they send us from one office to another,” said Ram, who was one of the 100 people who set out on foot on Wednesday morning.

He said he had no choice but to set out on foot. Staying at the rented accommodation would not provide any solace. “Our money was running out. There was no food, no water. Thankfully, we were not asked to pay rent. What else could we have done? At least back home I will not starve. Here I work as a daily wage labourer; I’ll do the same back home. I will work on someone’s farm. I did not think we will be treated so badly,” Ram said.

All of them had called on the helpline number, but the authorities washed their hands of them. “When we called the SDM, he said that the matter of arranging transport was not in his hands. When we called the DM’s office, they said they will look into the matter. We also called the Lucknow helpline number that we were given, but they didn’t even answer the call,” said a forlorn Ram.

Almost all of them were working at ChandniChowk as daily wage labourers and were staying at Loni. “I was working on a construction site at Chandni Chowk. I would earn around Rs 400 a day. I had less than Rs 5,000 when the lockdown began. I had sent home the rest of the money. Now, I have Rs 200 with me. I should be able to reach home before the money gets over. We have water with us. We have packed some food. Let’s see what will happen on the way. Maybe we will find a bus to take us home,” added Ram, who was staying with 19 other men in his rented accommodation.

Ram is not alone. He is walking with around 40 men. There were younger children too when they started, but they have fallen behind. “They will reach us in some time,” added Mahesh, who was staying with Ram at Loni.

Gautam and Umesh were luckier than Ram. They set out on foot on Tuesday before the Prime Minister’s speech and they were able to get on a bus headed to Ballia. “We have reached Lucknow. We had no money. When the lockdown began, we were able to eat three meals because we had some money. The government was not giving us ration or food. If we were getting all that, why would we complain? We would get ‘khichidi’ once a day. How can we survive on that? At least at home, I will not starve; I will have three meals,” insisted Gautam, who owns 2 bigha land in his village. He hopes he will be able to farm and eat from what is produced on his land.

“We should have got out when the lockdown was announced. At least we would have saved some money. We did not want to get hit by the police. We saw that they were detaining people. We also wanted to listen to PM Modi, who said that it was important that we all stay at home,” pointed out 35-year-old Gautam, who has four young children. Two of them are in school.

“Now, I don’t want to say anything about the PM or our Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. The police is theirs, the system is theirs. You have seen what is happening to people who open their mouth against them. We don’t want any trouble. We are poor people. We thought the PM would talk about farmers or people like us, but he didn’t. No one even thinks about us,” said Gautam.

He was headed to Ballia with his friend Umesh, who also owns a piece of land. “I will not come back. There is dignity to life. Even if we starve, it will be at home with my family. I will not be in an unknown land as one of the invisibles. I cannot go through what I went through these 50 days. It was horrific. Even the media doesn’t show our plight. Who cares about us?” asked Umesh, who has three children back home.

Ram had covered around 15 km by 7 p.m. in the evening and had reached Noor Nagar in Ghaziabad district. “We were told that people were giving food at a public park, so we went there. While we were waiting for our food, we heard that we might be taken on trucks. What are we – humans or animals? Can you imagine going in a truck for 1,000 km? Why are you asking all these questions? No one will do anything. We will start walking again tomorrow if we don’t find a bus tonight. We have to reach home,” Ram said.

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Published: 13 May 2020, 9:52 PM