At midday on May 5, Uday Prasad Gupta finally reached home in Jharkhand’s Garhwa district, completing the journey he had begun more than a month before.
Thirty nine-year-old Gupta was in Andhra Pradesh’s Visakhapatnam where he worked as a foreman in a mechanical engineering company when the Indian government announced a near-complete lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus starting the midnight of March 25 – at merely four hours’ notice.
Like millions of other migrant workers, Gupta was left stranded with very little money and resources in a place he barely knew. He had moved to Visakhapatnam less than three weeks before and was yet to receive a salary from his new employers.
On April 29, after the Union home ministry allowed movement of stranded workers more than a month into lockdown, several states sent buses to ferry workers back home. On May 1, the Centre also announced special trains on certain routes for migrants.
Gupta came home in one of the buses sent by the Jharkhand government to Orissa where he and around 50 others from the state had been stranded for the past month.
A long journey
On March 29, days after the lockdown was announced, Gupta along with co-workers from Jharkhand set out homewards – on foot. “We had no other choice: money, food, everything was starting to run out,” he said.
After walking for a couple of hours, the group hopped on an empty truck that was going northwards.
But around 12 hours and 500-odd kilometers later, the truck was intercepted at Orissa’s Sundarpur town by the police. Gupta and his co-workers were bundled into a quarantine facility.
As the mandatory 14-day quarantine period ended, someone in the group dug up a number of a Hindi daily newspaper in Ranchi. One call led to another, and soon, they could establish contact with the state machinery in Jharkhand.
Finally, three buses arrived on May 4 and the group reached Garhwa on Tuesday afternoon.
Upon arriving in Garhwa, the group was subjected to a medical check-up – a thermal screening – and served lunch.
Screening and quarantine
This is part of the protocol that most states are following, making incoming migrants report at a centralised facility in a district or a block where they are screened for symptoms. In some states, this screening is more centralised.
In Assam, for instance, five designated centres have been set up across the state. Migrants are sent to the one closest to their final destination.While asymptomatic people are asked to home quarantine for 14 days, symptomatic individuals are interned in a government facility.
In Odisha, though, everyone from rural areas, irrespective of symptoms, are put up in government quarantine facilities.
Since Gupta showed no apparent symptoms of Covid-19, he was allowed to go home.
He said he was relieved to be back home eating “proper” food finally. “I have asked my wife to cook roti-sabzi for dinner tonight,” he said over the phone.
But he was aware that the days ahead were likely to be tough for him and his family. “There will be no income for god-knows-how-many months now,” said Gupta. “Till then, we will have to make do with whatever ration the administration gives us.”
Yet, Gupta is perhaps one of the luckier ones – to have been able to travel home free of cost.
An expensive and risky ride home
Many others have had to dip into their last tranche of savings to arrange a ride back home. Take, for instance, Krishna Chandra Pradhan from Orissa’s Ganjam district.
Pradhan, 35, used to be a powerloom operator in Gujarat’s Surat when the lockdown forced the textile factory he used to work at to shut. “The last payment I had received was on March 25,” he said. “And I had to pay rent of Rs 2,500 every 15 days which my landlord refused to waive despite repeated requests.”
Thus, Pradhan said he had no choice, but to somehow get home: he paid Rs 3,500 for a seat on a bus that fellow workers in Surat hailing from Odisha had rented to get home. “That was the last bit of money I had,” he said.
The necessary permissions from the Surat administration and Odisha government were arranged by the Prabasi Odia Parivar Trust.
But apart from being expensive, the ride was also potentially risky. While one has to go through at least a basic temperature screening to get on a government-run transport, there was no such deterrent here, said Pradhan. Anyone who could pay could get on: 60 hours and over 1,500 km on a packed bus with virtually no social distancing.
The bus took off on the evening of April 27 – two days prior to the Central notification allowing movement of stranded migrants – and arrived in Orissa on late April 29 evening.
The journey was uncomfortable. Often there was no water and meals were irregular. “If we stopped at an open dhaba, they would immediately shut down on seeing us get down from the bus,” he said.
But as they entered Odisha, though, he said officials plied them with bananas and water at routine intervals.
By that time, though, Pradhan started to develop a sore throat. After reaching Ganjam, he said he was isolated and sent to a hospital where he was tested for the virus. However, the result, which came within hours, revealed it was a false alarm. “It was probably all the cold water that I drank after we reached Odisha,” he said.
Pradhan is now in a government quarantine facility – in sync with rules in Odisha where institutional quarantine is mandatory for everyone in rural areas coming in from outside the state, symptoms or not – barely 4 km from home. “I want to see my family, but I know I have to wait it out,” he said. “It’s for everyone’s good.”
Like Gupta from Jharkhan, Pradhan said he was glad to be back in his home state, but knew the future was uncertain. “Earlier my family used to depend on me, now I will be dependent on them,” he said wistfully.
A family separated
While Gupta and Pradhan have family to lean on in these times of distress, going home has resulted in the opposite for West Bengal’s Alamgir Biswas.
Biswas, a resident of North 24 Pargana district, reached home on a train on Tuesday evening from Rajasthan’s Pushkar where he sews garments at an export company for a living.
However, Biswas’s wife and his five-year-old daughter could not make it back. Biswas said he and his fellow workers in Pushkar got in touch with the local administration in Pushkar who then validated and sent their papers to Bengal.
But, the final list of passengers who could board the train that was arranged – Biswas said he paid the company he worked at the train fare – left out several people like Biswas’s wife and child. “Four hundred people still are stuck there in Pushkar,” said Biswas. “Why aren’t more trains being run from Rajasthan?”