Three migrant workers recount riding their bicycles for hundreds of kilometres to return home

Anil Kumar, Manjit Singh and Prem Kumar reached their homes safely, only to find that they had few options left to earn a living. Still, the three of them were content with being home. “If we live at home, we will be able to survive with just salt and roti too,” Anil said. Manish Swarup / AP Photo
10 May, 2020

Anil Kumar and Manjit Singh, both skilled workers from Bihar’s Bhojpur and Buxar districts respectively, began their new jobs at the same workplace on 17 March. They were working at a bottling plant which was located at the Karsua village in Uttar Pradesh’s Aligarh district. Anil, aged 28, said that they were hired on a contract basis for around Rs 18,000 per month. They were sharing a room with another colleague, Prem Kumar. Anil aimed to spend as little as he could in Aligarh and send most of his remaining salary back home, where twelve of his family members depended on his income. But his plan did not materialise. “This lockdown ruined everything,” he said.

Since 25 March, India has been under a nationwide lockdown to contain COVID-19, which left several migrant workers in the lurch. Tens of thousands of migrants made their way back home, and at least twenty two of them died in this effort. Anil, Prem and Singh were among the workers who were compelled to return to their homes.

The roommates were working till the third day of the lockdown, they told me, and required more financial support from their workplace. They realised that they would not be able to make ends meet in Aligarh and embarked on an arduous journey back home on bicycles. Anil and Singh travelled around nine hundred kilometres to their homes in Bihar. Prem, a resident of Bhopalpur village in Uttar Pradesh’s Basti district, pedalled over six hundred kilometres to his native village. They reached their homes safely, only to find that they had few options left to earn a living. Still, the three of them were content with being home. “If we live at home, we will be able to survive with just salt and roti too,” Anil said.

The three roommates told me that they were short on money when the lockdown was announced. They said they worked at a bottling plant of the Indian Oil Corporation, run by a company called Kosan SFPL Project India Limited. A contractor, Nagrajan NV, from NRV Trading and Contracting, had hired them to work there. While Anil and Singh were hired just a week before the announcement of the lockdown, Prem said he had been working at the plant for five or six months. According to Prem, Nagrajan was supposed to pay his salary, of Rs 24,000, on the twelfth day of each month, but the payment was almost always late. In fact, he did not get Rs 14,000 of his salary for February and the entire payment for March. In addition, the three roommates had visited their families for Holi, on 10 March, and spent a large proportion of their savings during the trip. “We had come here after Holi, thinking that we will earn and send money back home, payback debts, but that couldn’t happen,” Anil said.

After the commencement of the lockdown, they asked the local grocer if they could buy food items from him on credit, but he refused. Moreover, their landlord insisted that they should not go for work, lest they contracted the virus. The three of them, however, wanted to go to work, in hopes of getting their full salaries, Prem and Anil said. They tried to call Nagrajan for help, but did not get a response.

Finally, on 27 March, the roommates sought the police’s intervention. Prem told me what transpired. Six policemen arrived at their workplace and spoke to an employee called Neeraj—he was a Kosan employee, Nagrajan later told me. The policemen directed the employers to provide the workers with food rations and pay Rs 2,000 to each of them for some immediate relief. Further, the police instructed them to clear all pending salaries within 15 days, Prem said. They asked Prem and Anil for a written submission regarding the settlement. However, Prem told me that once the police left, Neeraj backtracked and said that the company could not transfer money till the lockdown was lifted.

On 9 May, I spoke to Nagrajan. He claimed that he had paid Rs 2,500 to both Anil and Singh earlier for some expenses, and sent them the salary that was due to them on 8 May. Nagrajan admitted that Prem’s salary was still pending, but told me that his hands were tied. He said he would try to pay the remaining amount by the end of June.

Since the lockdown had brought all transportation facilities around them to a halt, the three workers asked their families to arrange some money for them. On 27 March, they paid their bills and bought three cycles.

At about 5 am on 28 March, they began their journey. Prem had to go to Basti district in Uttar Pradesh itself, while the others had to go to Bihar—Singh’s home was in Buxar district’s Dumraon village and Anil’s home was around seventy kilometres away from there, in Bhojpur district’s Mahudahi village. As they were worried about their safety, Prem said, they decided to make their way via a route which would allow the three of them to be together as far as possible.

They pedalled throughout the first day—taking the briefest possible breaks—to cover almost one hundred and fifty kilometres. When they reached Mainpuri, at around 10 pm, a few locals helped them out. The locals offered them food, and allowed them to sleep on the rooftop of one of their homes.

The following morning, at about 4 am, they resumed their journey. They went to Kannauj, and then rode along the Lucknow Expressway. En route, they came across locals who were offering refreshments to those who had to rush to their native places due to the lockdown. The police personnel they met on the way were also empathetic, Prem said.

Around midnight, they reached the Lucknow Toll Plaza, where they saw 400–500 people boarding buses, Prem said. They mulled over boarding one of these buses to reach home sooner. But they dropped the idea as travelling for long hours in a bus would increase the chances of contracting the virus. Three of them then went along a road with several shuttered shops. They slept on a footpath in front of one such shop.

They resumed their journey around 6.30 am on 30 March, Prem said. Around twelve hours later, they reached Ayodhya. Their paths diverged from there—Singh and Anil went towards Bihar, while Prem made his way to Bhopalpur. Prem spent the night at a temple in Ayodhya and finally reached home around 4 pm the next day.

Meanwhile, Anil and Singh had a long way to go. On the night of 30 March, after crossing Ayodhya, Anil and Singh got some help from the police. The police stopped a truck on the road which was on its way to Bihar and asked them to board it with their cycles. “We covered about hundred kilometres like that,” Anil said. They reached Singh’s home in Dumraon on the night of 1 April. Anil stayed there that night and went to his village, situated around seventy kilometres away, the next day.

Throughout their journey, Anil said, they were worried that police “would catch us and beat us,” but had the opposite experience. From Aligarh till Ballia—a district which lies on the easternmost part of state, bordering Bihar—the police as well as some administration authorities had stopped them and checked their temperature about ten times. At one of the checking points, the police also impressed a stamp on their wrists which said something on the lines of “surakshit yatra”—safe trip—Anil told me. They were allowed to travel peacefully. “The police helped us a lot,” he said.

On the other hand, after they entered Bihar, no authority stopped Anil and Singh to check their temperature or even ask where they were going. Even though they had come from a different state, the administration did not send them to a quarantine facility. Meanwhile, Bhopalpur’s administration had made Prem stay in a government school, which had been repurposed as a quarantine facility, for 14 days. Prem said when he was allowed to leave the quarantine centre, the authorities had given him food ration of about fifteen to twenty kilograms with a bottle of mustard oil.

When I spoke to Prem, Anil and Singh in May, they described the difficulties of making ends meet in their villages. Singh was relatively financially stable as he lived in a joint family which had other earning members. He still has to fend for his wife, two daughters and one son. He was waiting for the lockdown to end to search for a job. “Going to Aligarh was a waste. We could not even work properly and we ended up spending money also,” he said. “It would have been better to not have gone at all.”

As one of Prem’s relatives was supposed to get married in June, his family had borrowed some money. Now, they are under debt with minimal income. “We have a small part of land in which my brother farms,” he said. “But that is not enough. This is why I left the village in the first place.” Although he was happy to be reunited with his family, he said, he was worried. “I was the only one who could go outside and earn. Being able to work outside was a support for my family.”

Anil’s family is also reeling under a major financial crunch. Most people in Anil’s family are potters and do not have a steady income. Till now, they had relied on his earnings—he had worked earlier in other cities as well—to sustain themselves. He told me he tries to work as a potter and find work as an agricultural labourer every day. “I am fully dependent on daily wages and my traditional pottery work,” he said. “Both jobs are always uncertain.”

Anil (Left) said he tries to work as a potter and find work as an agricultural labourer every day. Prem (Right) said, “I was the only one who could go outside and earn. Being able to work outside was a support for my family.” Left: Courtesy Anil kumar; Right: Courtesy prem kumar

“There is no awareness about coronavirus in village and no one is following social distancing et cetera,” he said. In fact, he said he saw no specific measures to contain the virus in the village. “Our village Mahudahi is small and still lacking in basic facilities,” Anil said. “Even for primary healthcare services, we have to travel for three–four kilometres. If we need to go to a hospital, we have to go to the nearest town, Ara, which is about fifteen kilometres away from our village. So, this is a big problem for us.” Prem had also mentioned that apart from quarantining people who came from outside, he saw no action being taken to prevent the spread of the virus in his village. There was no hospital or any primary healthcare centre nearby, he added.

Anil’s family of thirteen shares one ration card. “Sometimes, we just get rice and wheat once in two months or more,” he said. “We get a total 30 kilograms ration, which is not sufficient for our survival.” Still, Anil said he was happy to be with his family. “We will do our pottery work or work as labourers to not die of hunger,” he said. “Had we stayed in Aligarh, we would have died of hunger.”