GUMMIDIPOONDI: An exodus of a different kind, hundreds of guest workers dot the Chennai-Kolkata Highway here starting from Puzhal, a northern Chennai suburb, hoping to make it to their native towns and villages up north and eastern parts of the country to reunite with worried parents, concerned spouses and doting children.
With the odds stacked against them, they walk, pedal and hitchhike along the highway (National Highway-16/Chennai- Kolkata), also known as the Grand Northern Trunk Road, with the sole aim of reaching home, all the while managing with little or no money.
The entire 46-km stretch of the highway from Puzhal on the northern tip of Chennai till Ramapuram, the first village on the Andhra Pradesh side that falls under Tada mandal is teeming with hundreds of guest workers mainly belonging to Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal.
The scene of several families including women and children from Odisha who carried their belongings stuffed in big, empty paint boxes on their heads was a deeply moving sight.
Most people are unaware of the 'e-passes' to travel on road and do not know whom to approach to board special trains to reach their destinations with ease.
Some who tried to get passes claimed they could not get them.
While the scene that is unfolding on the highway is often chaotic with guest workers trying to reason out with police officials to allow them to go, some with adequate money manage to charter buses and others plead with truck drivers to take them home.
Some who do not travel in a group, seek 'lift' from two- wheeler riders too.
Not all are, however, lucky enough.
A migrant worker in his late thirties, Ram Biswas who was determined to cycle his way to Lachipeta of Malkangiri district in Odisha could not make it beyond Kavarapettai near here and he was found dead on roadside on Tuesday.
Biswas was among a group of young men who left Chennai city a couple of days ago.
"Apparently the man was exhausted," a police official said adding his body was being sent to his native place following post mortem at a government hospital.
Each one of the guest workers have agonising tales to recount.
Braving the scorching sun, Bihar-bound Ranjit Kumar Ojha though penniless and injured, was seeking "directions" with determination to go home at the Sholavaram checkpost that was abuzz with activity.
Having worked for a road construction firm till recently, Ojha was distressed that his company did not help him even after he suffered a leg injury, but said he will walk all the way till Champaran in Bihar to start life anew.
Ajay Nayak and a small bunch of his friends who were resting on the highway repeated that they wanted to reach Kandhamal in Odisha, come what may.
Nayak was "unsuccessful" in his bid to secure a pass to leave Tamil Nadu and said he was now left with no choice than to take the long walk like thousands of his ilk across the country, where a punishing lockdown has left them jobless and no money to spend.
Nayak, all of 20 years, and his friends were employed at an industrial unit near Chennai.
"We wanted to go to Odisha, but the police stopped us (here) and wanted us to get a pass what can we do? Its not easy, we have no money and it is a problem to get food," one of Nayak's friends said and added that they will resume their journey.
Bishwanath Mondal, from Malda in West Bengal, was till recently in the "construction line" at Ambattur in the city.
"Our company has not helped us in the last two months.
We want to proceed to Kolkata but don't have a penny, whatever we had was spent on food, even as we are out of work for two months," he said as his colleagues looked on.
"Our parents and others back home are worried," he added.
A white towel wrapped around his head to protect himself from the harsh summer sun, Mondal said, "we have set out by foot since we have no money."
Mondal and others reached the border point by hopping on and off empty cargo vans right from the industrial cluster of Ambattur in Chennai.
Dhananjay Chatria and five of his friends have embarked on their journey on brand new cycles, bought from whatever they could salvage after remaining jobless for two months at a city hotel.
Each member of the team is headed to a different destination in Odisha.
Asked if they can cycle all the way there, Chatria said in a mix of broken Tamil and Hindi "this is Hindustan we can go."
The cyclists have some money with them and are happy that people are lending a helping hand by way of food and water along the way.
Jetendra Gadatya and 19 other men working for a water bottling plant got e-pass from authorities and paid Rs 5,600 per head to a bus operator to reach a couple of destinations in Odisha including Balangir.
Unlike several others, though they have jobs and are paid promptly they said, "our minds are set, we want to go home as our families are worried.
" The trail for people without permission comes with the prospect of being stopped by officials.
Therefore, the workers are keen to avoid the authorities by taking the roads less taken.
However, not all of them manage to evade officials and many were stopped by police at many points.
For instance, the families from Odisha, including a number of women and children were safely housed at the Red Hills Paddy and Rice Wholesale Traders Sangam Marriage Hall.
Sadly, they had traversed about 70 km from Chengelpet on foot before they were intercepted by authorities on the highway near Padianallur.
"The registration process is now on. Arrangements are afoot to put them on a train," a police official at Red Hills said.
While civic officials insist that the state government is ensuring accommodation and food for the jobless workers, police said they do not "allow anyone to walk on the highway."
They said efforts were being made to get these stranded workers board trains to reach their native places and till then accommodate them in marriage halls and community centres.