Hemlata Nihal Singh’s life ended at 30. She had two children and a husband she had been married to for 13 years. In her short life, she made a long journey from the place of her birth in Madhya Pradesh’s Morena district to Ahmedabad in Gujarat, about 1,200 km away. The journey back killed her.
“I took permission from the collector before leaving Gujarat for my village in my auto,” her husband, Nihal Singh, was particular to say. Singh drove an auto rickshaw in Ahmedabad, earning between Rs 100 and 300 a day. When transport was banned because of the nationwide lockdown imposed on March 24 to contain the coronavirus, Singh was out of work. “I was sitting at home for a month and a half,” he said. “We had no money left to eat, our landlord was asking us for rent. It was better to die in our village than starve to death in the city. If I died alone in the city, my parents would worry.”
So they decided to make the journey back to his village, Parasar ki Garhi in Madhya Pradesh’s Morena district. Eight people – the couple and their two children, aged nine and three, as well as Singh’s two brothers and their wives – set out in his auto. By the night of May 6, they had reached Kolaras in Madhya Pradesh’s Shivpuri district. Around 10 pm, tragedy struck. A truck hit the auto, overturning it. All the passengers were hurt but Hemlata had serious injuries. According to her husband, she had broken her collarbone.
“We had gone to a hospital in Shivpuri,” said Nihal Singh. “But she was more serious so they referred her to a hospital in Gwalior.” There were no arrangements for an ambulance. “I spent Rs 2,400 for a private car to Gwalior,” he said.
They spent four days at the Gwalior hospital. In all this time, they tested his wife for Covid-19, Singh said, but gave her no other treatment. “She was in pain all the time,” he recalled. “She kept saying, ask them to give me some medicine, I’ll feel better.”
By May 10, they were discharged and headed back to their village. Hemlata died on the way.
Women who walked
In India, migration for work has historically been dominated by men,economist Chinmay Tumbe points out, turning urban centres into “male towns”. So when workers began streaming back home after a nationwide lockdown was announced on March 24, images of the mass migration mostly featured men – riding on cycles, bearing weary loads as they walked down highways, or washed up on the banks of the Yamuna waiting for food.
But women made perilous journeys too. Some had moved to the cities to be with their husbands and raise families. Others had joined the workforce.
Take Safeena Khatun, who worked at a kiln in Madhopur, Jharkhand, along with her husband, earning Rs 250-Rs 300 a day. After the lockdown was extended on May 4, the couple set out on foot for their home in Uttar Pradesh’s Moradabad district.
“I lost my child long ago so it was just the two of us on the journey,” said Safeena, in a matter of fact voice. By the time they reached Lucknow on May 15, which is when she spoke to Scroll.in, they had already been walking for four to five days. They slept on the road at night, with her husband staying up to keep guard.
“I am tired,” she said. They did not know what they were going to do once they got home. “We have family in our village, nothing else.”
Or take Sakka Bhuria, who has reached her home in Madhya Pradesh’s Jhabua district. Her husband and she, both daily wage labourers in Ahmedabad, had set out in a group from the city. For water, they had a can they had filled in Ahmedabad. For food, they had a few packets of biscuits. They also had three bags and a seven-year-old in tow.
The group had walked a few hours when they found a tempo willing to give them a ride. It dropped them off at Dahod, about 50 kilometres from Bhuria’s village. This last lap had to be covered on foot. At one point, they had to wade across a river.
“When I got home, we just rested for eight to 10 days,” she said.
The couple have two sons. While her husband works in Ahmedabad all year round, Bhuria went to the city for a month and a half to put her children through school. Fees for the English-medium school they attend amount to Rs 40,000. Mostly working on construction sites, the couple earn Rs 500-600 a day each.
For the rest of the year, Bhuria works on the small plot of land they own in Jhabua, growing maize and wheat. Back in the village, they have fallen back on these meagre resources. They also got some rice and flour as rations, although they had to buy their own oil and pulses, Bhuria said.
The pains of return
For some women, home brought little respite at the end of a long journey. Vibha Devi, who is expecting a baby this month, found she was not welcome in her village, Pansaur, in Bihar’s Samastipur district. As freshly returned migrants from Delhi, which is a Covid-19 hotspot, they are suspected of being carriers of the virus.
Till a few weeks ago, Vibha and her family lived in Faridabad, where her husband was a construction worker. The couple already have two children, aged four and seven.
When Shramik train services for migrant workers were announced five weeks into the lockdown, the couple decided to try their luck. It took them two days to walk from Faridabad to New Delhi railway station. They waited five days at the station for a train that never arrived – nobody had told them Shramik trains were not leaving from the New Delhi railway station. “Bahut dikkat aa gaya,” Vibha said. We had terrible difficulties.
After a news report in Scroll.in flagged their ordeal, a representative of Bihar government picked them up and took them to Anand Vihar station, from where trains for Bihar were leaving. They were screened for fever before being allowed to board the train. Back in Bihar, Vibha said, they were checked again at Khanpur block in Samastipur district. “I told the doctor I am going to have a baby this month and he told me to go home,” she said.
While Bihar plans to accommodate all returning migrants at block or village level quarantine centres, the state has been overwhelmed by the number of people flooding in.
Cleared by the doctor, Vibha went to stay at her in-laws’ house in the village. “But now the village people are saying you can’t stay here, go to the school [the local quarantine centre],” said Vibha.
In response, Vibha and her husband show them the “parchhi”, paper slip, given to them by the doctor allowing them to go home. But it does not seem to count. “People are coming here to say the police will come and catch us,” she said.
Meanwhile, the family must live on less and less. In Faridabad, Vibha’s husband had earned Rs 350 a day. Now, he earns Rs 120, working on other people’s fields. The couple have no land of their own and have received no rations from the government, Vibha said.
‘I want to go home’
For 19-year-old Jasoda Debbarma, travelling to Tamil Nadu from her home in Tripura had been an adventure. Debburma grew up in Panisagar, hours away from Tripura’s capital, Agartala. After she failed her Class 10 examinations, she decided to move. “All my friends were moving to an Agartala hostel so I also went,” she said. “My parents told me to stay there and not go outside Tripura.”
But when the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Grameen Kaushalya Yojana, a government employment programme, found work for them in Tamil Nadu’s garment workshops, she could not resist: “My friends were going, I really wanted to go”. She left Tripura without telling her parents. By the time her father called her, she was already at the Guwahati station, bound for a workshop near Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu’s garment hub. That was in November last year.
The spirit of adventure died early. Debbarma spent her first day in the Tamil Nadu hostel crying. “I missed my mother and father a lot,” she explained. Work starts at 8 am and goes on till 7.30pm. Every minute is strictly monitored. “They don’t let us go to the washroom, we have to eat fast,” said Debbarma. For these reasons and more, she wanted to go back home.
Six months later, Debbarma is among the hundreds of garment workers, mostly women, trapped in hostels in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. When restrictions were eased on May 4, many of the garment workshops opened for business once more but the women they employed did not want to go back to work. Most women have not been paid wages for months, others are forced back to work by their employers.
Debbarma said she had not been paid since February, although she was allowed to stay and eat in the hostel. Her monthly wage, after lodging and food charges are deducted, was about Rs 7,000. She sent Rs 5,000 back home to her family. It is money that is badly needed – her mother is a jhum cultivator of land that is cleared by setting fire to forests, her father is a casual labourer who does not always have work.
Debbarma and the 50 other girls who had travelled with her from Tripura are now desperate to go back home. When they heard trains had started again, they registered themselves online for the Shramik special trains. Debbarma had even got an SMS confirming her journey home on May 22. Having resolved to go home, she and the group she was travelling with had stopped going to work from May 16.
“Then they [the management] called us up and started abusing us,” Debbarma said on May 20, “so from yesterday [May 19] we started going to work again. My parents are yelling at me. My uncle told me he would come and get me.”
But the management also told them there were no trains on May 22, Debbarma said. A week later, her turn to board the train has come and gone, and she is still at the work shop, doing twelve and a half hour days, Debbarma says. “I keep saying I want to go home until tears come to my eyes,” she said.