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Migrant labourers: Highway to hell

Joyel K Pious and Shiba Prasad Sahu walk alongside migrants

Published: 21st May 2020 06:08 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st May 2020 11:52 AM   |  A+A-

Migrants at a shelter showing their Aadhaar cards. T

Express News Service

With his over-sized red shoes and a red hat, Lamu Lal didn’t look like a man-made for the road. Thick layers of sweat masked his face as Lamu sat under the shade of a wayside neem tree. In his late forties, this Madhya Pradesh native has had enough experiences in the last three months to make his first-ever visit to Tamil Nadu unforgettable, all for wrong reasons.

It was two days ago, Lamu and his friends -- all natives of Sarai Pathara village in Anupur district of MP -- decided to leave their temporary shelter in Tiruvallur and head home. Staying on was impossible as their landlord had asked the penniless men to vacate their rooms. Armed with bits and pieces of geography, the group of 10 stepped on to NH 16 and started walking towards Vijayawada.

They had covered hardly 50 km when we met them. The group seemed concerned about Lamu. Walking under the scorching sun had caused dehydration. Lamu had collapsed on the road the previous day. They tried their best, but could not get an ambulance. Finally, they hitched a ride to a private hospital.

Ramu was administered a course of drips, which drained his friends’ pockets a wee bit. That still did not stop them. Determined to complete the journey, the men hit the road again on Wednesday. “We moved here to Tiruvallur from Ahmedabad on March 12, in the hope of a better income. Within two weeks the lockdown was imposed,” the group said.

Stranded migrants taking rest at a shelter near Gummidipoondi

A tale of endless wait

A journey by foot, with odds stacked against them, wasn’t their first choice. Most of the workers had carefully saved a text message from the State government -- saying their application for an e-pass had been registered. The message came weeks ago. Nothing happened. Realising the futility, they took to the road. “We were charged Rs 50 per head by an internet cafe owner to register our names,” says a member in Lamu’s group. “We tried the helpline, and got little help. Without knowing the local language, we are totally helpless.” Then, why this desperation? “I’d rather die on road trying to get home, than in an unknown land.”

“Call Nitish Kumar”

Movement of migrant labourers has been massive along the Chennai-Kolkata national highway ever since the lockdown was imposed. It has been the most preferred route for those heading to northern States. They either walk or hitch a ride to Vijayawada and then towards Nagpur in Maharashtra. From Nagpur, they head to either Bhopal or Jabalpur, depending on their destination.

Sankar Chowdhary from Nawada in Bihar had made grand plans to ride cycle all the way to his home. He and four friends even started pedalling from Chennai to Andhra border before the police stopped them and sent them back to city. Finding no use for their cycles, the men eventually sold the cycles for a total sum of Rs 14,000.

“If our governments cared a little, we wouldn’t have taken to roads,” said Sankar at a temporary shelter near Gummidipoondi where over 120 migrant workers, who were walking towards the Andhra border, have been currently stationed. Many men here too showed this reporter the text message from the government website that conveyed “successful” registration of their travel application.

“We are told by our relatives in Bihar that it is the responsibility of Tamil Nadu government to make travel arrangements for us. But, when we went to a police station here to enquire about the transport, the policemen are asking us to ‘call Nitish Kumar’,” said Lalji, another man from Bihar.

Many others said that some bus operators were demanding Rs 8,000 per head for transporting them from Andhra border to Bihar. “When we were in Chennai, bus operators were asking only `7,000. Now, after we walked this much distance, they are asking extra Rs 1,000,” said another man with a smile that had equal mix of sarcasm and disappointment.

The impassable border

In the pre-lockdown era, crossing over from one State to another would have been a cakewalk for any one. However, with each State trying to keep their Covid-19 tally under control, many interstate borders have become impregnable for travellers, especially if one is not privileged enough to have a vehicle and a valid pass.

Till a few days back, the TN-Andhra border was a welcoming halt for many migrant workers heading home. The relief of completing at least one leg of the long journey would have been a big encouragement for many to stay on the road. The affairs at the border started changing when Andhra Pradesh police raised concern about large number of migrant workers walking on its highways.

They even stopped some unfortunate walkers who had managed to reach Vijayawada, almost 500km from Chennai, and sent them back in buses to the TN border. Meanwhile, the AP sleuths pressurised their TN counterparts to stop the migrants from crossing over. Subsequently, several checkpoints were set up in TN, totally preventing the walkers from even getting a glimpse of the other side.

“We are allowing only people coming in vehicles with valid passes. No people are allowed to walk on the highway,” said a security official at the Andhra side of the border. Even for people with e-passes, the AP officials are conducting thorough scrutiny of documents.

Two worlds, one road

Near a highway intersection near Ponneri sat a group of 20 youngsters. Unlike many others who are walking towards the border, these youth are walking in the opposite direction. For the last few days, these men, most of them belonging to UP, Odisha and Jharkhand, have been walking more than 40 km in both directions to try their luck at the border.

“We started walking in the morning but they stopped us near the integrated check post. We have no place to return as our rooms have been locked by the house owner. We tried to cross the border at night also, but were caught,” said a dejected Jharkhand youth who had walked all the way from Sriperumbudur to reach Ponneri.

With uncertainty looming large over their heads, the youth have found shelter under a road over bridge, waiting for some miracles to happen. The biggest irony is that the people walking towards the border are unaware that they won’t be able to reach anywhere near it. They also don’t know that they may have to walk back all the distance they covered under the midsummer sun.

The right to go home

The volunteers engaged in helping the migrant workers say that it is sheer desperation that keeps them on the road. “We have no right to ask them to stay back unless we provide them proper food and shelter. Many of them have resorted to walking because they were thrown out of their rented accommodation,” said Himanshu, a volunteer near Gummidipoondi.

Meanwhile, Lamu and his group started walking again after a brief rest. Despite being told that the border is closed, the men were determined to go ahead.“We want to go home, whatever be the cost,” said one of them as he tried to give a helping hand to Lamu, who still looked too weak to trudge along.

No more welcome at border

Till a few days back, the TN-Andhra border was a welcoming halt for many migrant workers heading home. The relief of completing at least one leg of the long journey would have been a big encouragement for many to stay on the road. The affairs at the border started changing when Andhra Pradesh police raised concern about large number of migrant workers walking on its highways

Penniless and homeless

It was two days ago, Lamu and his friends — all natives of Anupur district of MP — decided to leave their shelter in Tiruvallur and head home. Staying on was impossible as their landlord had asked the penniless men to vacate their rooms

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