Five months after he was promised lakhs in support by Bihar’s politicians, Rampukar Pandit, a 45-year-old migrant worker, remains in dire poverty. In May, an image of Rampukar breaking into tears on the Nizamuddin bridge in Delhi went viral. For a brief moment, his image spoke of the tens of thousands of migrant labourers who were stuck, hungry, poor and homeless in the country’s metropolises as the prime minister Narendra Modi’s government announced one of the harshest lockdowns following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. After the photo went viral, politicians from Rampukar’s home state were quick to assure him that he and his family would be cared for. Tejashwi Yadav, the former deputy chief minister and scion of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, promised him a job and monetary aid, while the ruling alliance of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Janata Dal (United) released various schemes assuring that returning migrants would gain employment. But Rampukar has seen none of these supposed benefits and lives a squalid life.
Rampukar told me that he had gone to Delhi in search of work around Holi, in early March. He had been unable to find any formal employment in his native village of Bariarpur Purvi, in Bihar’s Begusarai district. Begusarai is represented by Giriraj Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Lok Sabha, who was the minister of state for micro, small and medium enterprises. Rampukar was landless and unable to continue his father’s trade of pottery because he had severely fractured his leg in his childhood. “A lot of pottery work is done with your legs,” he told me. “You have to prepare soil and manage the wheel with your foot. The fracture was so severe that it still pains when the easterly winds blow.” Rampukar had previously migrated for work to Bengaluru. Uttam Pandit, his father, had also migrated for work. In early March, Rampukar found work at a construction site in Najafgarh on the outskirts of Delhi, which paid Rs 250 a day.
In May, Bimal Devi, Rampukar’s wife, told him over the phone that his one-year-old son had fallen ill. On 11 May, he was unable to find transport back to Bihar because of severe lockdown restrictions and he decided to begin walking back to his village, a distance of more than a thousand kilometres. “I left the construction site in Delhi at 5 am and reached Nizamuddin bridge at noon,” Rampukar told me. “When I tried to cross Nizamuddin bridge the police stopped and abused us. While I was nearing the bridge, my wife called me and told me that she was helpless in getting our son any medical treatment. She told me that he would die, whether I returned or not.”
Rampukar told me he was heartbroken and began to cry where he stood. He told his wife that he was on his way back. At the same time, Atul Yadav, a photojournalist for the Press Trust of India, took a photo of Rampukar. In the photo, Rampukar is seen holding a phone to his ear with a black mask stuck to his chin. His hair is dishevelled and veins are visible across his forehead. The picture was shared widely across social media. He symbolised the 23.6 lakh migrants who were trying desperately returning to Bihar.
In an interview with Rediff News, Atul said, “I was distracted after seeing the naked pain in his face. I felt that I should not move forward just by taking a picture. I asked Rampukar, ‘where?’ He pointed to the road leading to the bridge and said, ‘there.’” Rampukar told me that Atul had given him some biscuits and water after clicking the photo and helped him cross the Nizamuddin bridge.