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No land's men

Hungry and homesick, hundreds of labourers bound for distant villages in other states have been leaving Chennai by foot. Express catches up with them on their arduous journey...

Published: 17th May 2020 06:54 AM  |   Last Updated: 17th May 2020 06:54 AM   |  A+A-

This bunch of workers thought they could get home to AP following the railway tracks, only to be sent back to Chennai by cops, near Sri City | SHIBA PRASAD SAHU

Express News Service

CHENNAI: It was not their first choice. In fact, they had no choice. Leaving behind their homes, families, friends, and all that they could call their own, migrant labourers flocked to towns only for livelihood. They have been moving in waves, ever since the Indian economy opened up in early nineties. Soon towns became cities, and cities turned into megacities — built brick by brick by these labourers.

A lot of things changed, governments changed, but migrants remained migrants. Neither did the cities they build accept them as their own, nor did they want to give up on their hopes of returning some day to their villages. In effect, they became no land’s men and women. Then came the virus, and pushed these men and women over the edge. While the rest of India stays ensconced in the comfort of their homes, thousands of migrant labourers — who probably built those very homes — are walking towards a mirage called home.

Hungry and homesick, those stranded in Tamil Nadu walksed hundreds of kilometres, until they hit the wall at the borders of Andhra Pradesh. The neighbouring State had sealed them, preventing entry or passage for anyone or anything but ‘essential’ goods. “Even natives of Andhra Pradesh are not being allowed back home by their government,” claims contractor Ravi Kumar. Eighty people from the neighbouring State work for Ravi Kumar, and are currently stranded with him. “I have been trying for a month now, but nothing works.

An Odia woman and her child
braving the scorching
sun to walk back
home, on NH-16
| DEBADATTA MALLICK

We managed to get a vehicle pass for 10 persons, but we managed to get only till Tada. Andhra officials said we could not cross the border without permission from the government there. We have been reaching out to them but there’s no response. These workers have little children, who are on the verge of starvation. Something needs to be done. We just don’t know whom to approach anymore,” says Ravi. Around 150 labourers who managed to cross over to their home State were rounded up by the police there and sent back to Chennai. Finally, with pressure mounting, the district administration of Nellore decided to allow the labourers return home from Saturday evening.

The reason for Andhra closing its borders, officials there say, is the eruption of the Koyambedu cluster, which has spiked up cases not just in Tamil Nadu but all its neighbouring States. “We work here so that we can provide the best we can for our 12-year-old daughter who is back home. She stays with relatives, who otherwise are nice. But now with financial crunch also getting to them, we are worried they might start neglecting his needs,” says a labourer trying to go home to Srikakulam.

A little succour comes in the form of food, from humanitarians in the neighbourhood. “I see at least 1,500 labourers walk down this way every day,” says VR Ananthoo, who has been providing many of them with food. “I have seen people coming all the way from Hosur, others headed to Arunachal Pradesh by foot.” The NH-16, which connects Tamil Nadu with West Bengal, is like a pilgrimage route now. There are hundreds walking down the road, with bags in hand and family members in tow, prepared to get as far as they can.

Fellow citizens with some empathy left in them, provided food to this group en
route to Madhya Pradesh | SHIBA PRASAD SAHU

72 MIGRANTS POSITIVE
Chennai: Eighty persons tested positive for Covid-19 on Saturday in south Tamil Nadu, of which 72 are migrants from Maharashtra (66) & Gujarat (6), including 13 children. Tirunelveli recorded the highest number of coronavirus cases in a day, with 44 new patients testing positive on Saturday. These 44 migrants returned from various parts of Maharashtra

ON NH-16 TRAIL...
Hundreds of labourers have been walking along the Chennai-Kolkata highway from Ambattur to Sri City, hoping to get home to their loved ones. Very few have made it so far



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