KASARGOD: "Sir, please send me home. I can’t sit and sleep on the chair for one more night," pleaded 22-year-old Biju M Joseph, a native of Kattappana in Idukki. From Akola in Maharashtra, Biju walked and hitchhiked to cover 1,150 km and reach Thalappady on the Karnataka-Kerala border in Kasaragod district on Monday night.
At Thalappady, the Kerala government has set up a round-the-clock reception centre with 60 helpdesks managed by 600 staff to receive Keralites from other states. But the government had plans only for those with own vehicles. "Will you go home in a taxi, can we call one?" an official asked Biju earnest to help.
"A taxi to Kattappana!" the young hardware engineer was shocked he was asked such a question. "All I have is Rs 500 with me," he said. His father is a driver and now out of work. He cannot foot the bill for a 500 km taxi ride, either. "In that case, why don't you go into quarantine here," the official gave him the second option.
Biju started from Akola with four other friends -- Vasudevan, Sreejith, Gokul, and Cyril -- from Kattappana. The five friends completed diploma in hardware engineering and were looking for a job when a recruiting agency called them to Akola.
Only after reaching Akola in late January, they realised the job was in network marketing to sell beauty products and not in network engineering. "We felt duped and were looking for another job when corona hit us," he said. During their journey to Kerala, the five friends got separated. "Sometimes trucks had space for only one or two persons," he said.
Biju was the first to reach Thalappady The other fours are walking. "They have reached the outskirts of Mangaluru but their phones have died," he said. When an official asked how long have they been walking, Biju replied: "What day is today? I have no idea which day is today". They started from Akola on May 1.
Non-Resident Keralites (NRKs) planning to return to the state should first register with the website of NORKA, which will give them an ID. The ID should be used to register with covid19jagratha.kerala.nic.in, the government's one-stop platform for real-time surveillance, care, and support. The website will send the information of the NRKs to the panchayat concerned so that the local body is prepared to quarantine them when they reach home.
But the catch is, the COVID-19 Jagratha website will approve the onward journey from the check-post only if a vehicle number is provided.
‘Had I stayed back, I would have died’
Anish Kumar (42), a farm labourer and native of Kodencheri in Kozhikode, realised it only after reaching Thalappady on Tuesday morning. He walked 90 km in two days from Somanthadka in Belthangady taluk of Dakshina Kannada district to reach Kerala. No truck gave him a lift and he slept on the riverbanks before reaching Thalappady. He said that he was staying alone at a place infested by mosquitoes and wild animals. "If I had stayed one more day there, I would have died," said Anish.
But when Anish reached Kerala, the officials at the helpdesk faced three problems. "First, he did not register and seek approval before arriving here. Second, he does not have a smartphone to register online even after coming here; and third, he has no vehicle for the onward journey," said deputy collector AK Ramendran, in-charge of the reception centre.
Anish had no job for the past two months and survived because his family credited Rs 2,000 in his account.
‘We say we’re a model, but our people are stuck here’
Siju Ramakrishnan (29), a native of Villakupara near Punalur, has a similar story. He was working in a network marketing firm at Baramati in Maharashtra -- 750km away.
"I walked for the first 40km and then a policeman helped me get a truck to Solapur," said Siju. The truck driver charged him Rs 1,500. From there, he got another truck to Bangaluru, for which he paid Rs 2,500. "Thankfully, the Karnataka government ran buses from Bengaluru to Mangaluru, free of cost," he said. The buses had only 30 passengers, each.
On reaching Mangaluru, he took a cab to Talapady. "I thought the Kerala government will be running buses for us. But I am stuck here in Kasaragod," said Siju. Manjeshwar block panchayat president AKM Ashraf said he has faxed to the chief minister to urgently run buses to take the Keralites home. "We say we are a model for the rest of the country. But our people are stuck here. The government should show some sympathy," he said.