They had no food or money. All they were carrying was hope.
For a month, as I have stood at the Rampur-Moradabad border that divides two of the most densely populated districts in Uttar Pradesh, I have listened to the stories of migrant workers walking home from cities in which work and wages disappeared overnight. They were perhaps the group that had been hit hardest by the imposition of the nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
There was Kaliash Bhuian, who was walking 1,010 km from Moradabad to Jharkhand. There was ten-year-old Pallavi, who was cycling 234 km from Hardwar to Bareilly. There was Amid Husain, travelling 437 km from Meerut to Lucknow on a cycle rickshaw.
I was on National Highway 24 with my friend Nadir Khan, who had started a campaign to help the migrants. Working with the police and district administration, our objective is simple: to get the migrants home.
We stood by the roadside and stopped those who were walking or cycling home. We recorded their details, fed them and provided them with cash to fund the rest of their journey home. With the help of the police, we stopped trucks on the same routes as the migrants and convinced the drivers to drop them home.
Everyone we spoke to had been fired from their job and swore that they would not return to their old employer: we’d rather go hungry than work for those who abandoned us when we needed them most., they told us.
By June 3, we had managed to help 1,097 travellers.
Here are some of their stories.
Travelling from Hardwar to Bareilly, 234 km on cycle.
Total expected journey: two days.
As a daily wage earner in Hardwar, Pallavi’s father, Ram Prasad had no money left. His employer had shut shop, leaving his family with nowhere to go. Ten-year-old Pallavi and her father started off from Hardwar for Bareilly on an old bicycle.
Along the way, they sought help from whoever listened. Riding pillion, Pallavi was exhausted when we met her. All she wanted was to go back home to her mother.
Travelling from Meerut to Lucknow, 437 km by rickshaw.
Total expected journey: four days.
Amid Husain, a daily wage labourer, did not know how his life was going to change on May 10. He was living in an informal settlement in Meerut. The route to his house was along a narrow road, wide enough for just one person to cross. There was a wall on one side and a steep fall off the path on the other.
It seemed like an ordinary day, but there was unseasonably stormy weather. As he was walking home with his wife Anura, and two children, Amiran and Aminu, a portion of the wall collapsed. It fell on Anura. She died instantly.
Husain was left with two children aged 3 and 4, and a brother who was handicapped, missing legs and an arm.
Unsure how he would cope, especially since he had no work, he asked his father for help. But his father, burdened with debt, was in no position to offer assistance. Husain decided to set out for his sister’s house in Lucknow on his pedal rickshaw. His children would have to undertake a four-day journey before they could grieve their mother’s death in quiet.
Kailash Kumar Bhuian
Travelling from Moradabad to Jharkhand, 1,010 km on foot.
Total expected journey: uncertain.
Kaliash Bhuian was fired from his job as a labourer, leaving him with no money to pay rent. His landlord threw him out. He looked for ways to get home. Hearing that trains were ferrying migrants, he rushed to the Moradabad station to get a ticket. He was issued a ticket, but only for a train a month away.
He left all his belongings behind and started to walk the unthinkable 1,000-plus-km journey home.
When we asked how he would reach Jharkhand, he said he’d rather try to walk home than be ridiculed by his employer and sleep on the streets in a city he no longer considers home.
Delhi to Malda, West Bengal, 1,530 kms by rickshaw.
Total expected journey: at least 12 days.
Uttam Mandal and his brother Chetan had started their journey from Karol Bagh in Delhi six days before on his lorry-cycle – a pedal cart used to transport goods. They were accompanied by their wives Lalita and Shubha. They had packed a hasty assortment of clothes and household items, bidding goodbye to the city that had promised them new life as brick layers and carriers in the booming construction sector.
Within four months, their lives had turned upside down. As they headed home, the pedal cart that had helped them earn a living became a burden. No buses or trains would accommodate it. They were unable to sell it and unwilling to abandon it.
A month after we started the project, the stream of migrants continues. As we return each night, I wonder about the brave travellers we have met. Did Amid Husain make it home? Did the truck driver deboard them midway? Has Pallavi stopped crying?
The writer has an MBA from the University of Oxford. He runs a startup in London and lives in Moradabad. Members of the project can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.