CHENNAI: Ahead of the intensified lockdown in Chennai and neighbouring districts that begins on June 19, thousands of people were seen leaving the city along with their children, carrying huge bags for a journey lasting hundreds of kilometres.
The Vandalur checkpost in Chengalpattu, Paranur Toll plaza in Kancheepuram and Sholavaram checkpost in Tiruvallur were all clogged with thousands of vehicles since Wednesday night.
People in two-wheelers with children on petrol tanks and huge bags hung along the sides were seen heading to their home towns. While the police were allowing only those four-wheelers with e-passes to pass through, they allowed two-wheelers with children on them through on 'humanitarian' grounds.
"It looked like a massive exodus and I have never seen anything like this before. People with children were pleading to let them go as they are scared for the safety of their children while saying that living in the city with no job is proving untenable," said a senior police officer on duty at the Paranur Toll plaza.
At the Sholavaram checkpost, as vehicles waited in huge lines, the police also seized at least 100 two-wheelers - belonging to men heading to other districts to buy liquor and entering without e-pass.
Among those heading out of the city was S Kumaravel who was working as a painter in the city. He was driving a motorbike with his eight-year-old son in the front and his wife riding pillion. He had hung two big bags on either sides and his wife was carrying a table fan in her hand.
When asked why he was leaving the city, Kumaravel said, "There is nothing left for us here, only chaos. We haven't paid rent for the last three months. I have had to borrow money to ensure food on the table. With cases increasing every day it's not safe for my son and moreover we never know when this lockdown will end."
Similar scenes were seen in all the bordering districts as well.
In Tiruvallur, a senior police officer said that while police personnel were checking vehicles entering from Andhra Pradesh, they realised that the cops there had sent back the vehicles that they had allowed to pass through. "Even some vehicles with e-passes were sent back since that there were way too many people in these vehicles," said the police officer.
The police personnel posted in Vandalur said that they saw many people traveling to their home towns after vacating their rented houses in minivans.
"Since Tuesday we are witnessing people vacating their houses in Chennai and leaving for their native places. Some people even as far as Tuticorin and Ramanathapuram are traveling in minivans and trucks," said a cop on duty at Achirupakkam in Kancheepuram.
Most of the people vacating their houses are people who were left jobless due to the Covid-19 lockdown.
"I have three children and my wife is a homemaker. We were living in a rented space in Pallavaram and I was working as domestic staff in a corporate company. Now that the offices are closed I am left without of job. We survived with what was left of our savings hoping that the lockdown will get over soon. But since it hasn't, we are leaving," said F Gilbert Jabaraj from Tirunelveli.
He had to sell his wife's gold chain to get money to organise the shifting and the journey back home.
Meanwhile, people who commute to the city every day for work were infuriated when cops kept questioning them. In the checkpost at Vandalur, some men picked up an argument with the cops claiming it was harassment. A senior police officer had to intervene and order that any person with a proper identification card should be allowed to pass through.
In Chennai city, there was not as much panic as was seen ahead of the previous lockdown since people had three days to prepare.
"We have already had an experience of a lockdown and moreover all essentials are allowed from 9 am to 2 pm. Previously we were struck by panic because we did not know what was going to happen. Now we know how things work and that there is no need to panic," said a customer waiting at a supermarket in Teynampet.
The shop owners and workers in supermarkets also said that while they had expected people to throng in bigger numbers that did not prove to be the case. "Almost everyone purchased only what was needed for the time being and did over-purchase products. But everyone made sure that the shop is functioning for the next 12 days," said a member of the staff at a supermarket in T Nagar.