Five migrant workers set off on foot from Bangalore on Thursday evening — for their native villages in Rajasthan nearly 1,800km away, unable to hold out any longer without work or money in the wake of the Covid-19 lockdown.
The five are among the thousands who have already set out for what many feel would be the biggest exodus since the time around the Partition, when hundreds of thousands fled communal mayhem either side of the border.
“We packed some bread and light eats and just started walking,” Praveen Kumar, a native of Rajasthan’s Jalore district, told The Telegraph on Saturday over phone from Chitradurga, some 200km from Bangalore.
Praveen and the others, all men, work as fabricators in Bangalore but have been without work — and income — as the impact of the 21-day lockdown Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Tuesday kicked in.
They reached Tumkur, about 70km from Bangalore, before hopping on to a truck carrying gas cylinders.
“We paid Rs 100 per head and the driver dropped us at Chitradurga and said he couldn’t go any further. Now we are neither here nor there,” Praveen said.
He made no attempt to hide his frustration of leaving his temporary home in Bangalore, only to get stranded in Chitradurga.
“We came here (Bangalore) to work and earn our livelihood, not to die in the middle of nowhere,” said the 28-year-old whose wife is in his native village in Jalore, around 1,800km from Bangalore.
Sahi Ram, a welder who works with Praveen, voiced the same concern.
“We left Bangalore hoping to get some vehicles on the way and walk some distance so that we can reach home in about a week. Now it appears we are left stranded,” he said.
Ram, who also appeared to be in his twenties, has to travel 70km more than Praveen. His village is in Barmer, 1,870km from Bangalore.
“It’s depressing to walk on highways that look deserted. But we keep chatting,” he said.
It’s not known where the other three in the group are from but Praveen said they all came from areas near Jalore or Barmer.
The five had reached Chitradurga on Friday night and sought the help of a Harayanvi owner of a dhaba on the highway. “He gave us space to sleep and use the toilet. But the bigger problem is transport,” Praveen said.
“We are trying to hitch rides on trucks since walking is very difficult due to the police presence. They don’t allow us to walk together and ask us to maintain a distance,” Praveen said, citing the social-distancing protocol the police have been trying to enforce in Karnataka.
As Praveen spoke to this newspaper, a truck drove up to where he stood.
“Maharashtra border, Maharashtra border…,” Praveen called out to the driver.
“Oh! He’s gone,” he sighed the next moment. The driver had driven past without picking them up.
Did he have enough money to last him till he reaches Jalore?
“When we left Bangalore we had very little money. So we called a helpline in Rajasthan and they wired some money,” Praveen said.
Aajeevika Bureau, an NGO that helps workers in distress, confirmed it had sent Rs 5,000 to the group of five.
Rajender Sharma, a social worker with the Udaipur-based Aajeevika Bureau, said he was in touch with the group.
“We get hundreds of calls from people like them (Praveen and his group) who are trying to return to Rajasthan. Yesterday we sent Rs 5,000 to Praveen when he said they were running out of whatever little they had,” Sharma said.
The group had no idea that the governments in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh had started bus services to ferry migrant workers walking home to their villages.
“My thanks to anyone who transports workers from anywhere in the country. A big thank you,” Praveen said when told about buses ferrying stranded passengers in Delhi and the heartland state.
“I just hope we get some vehicle to cross the Maharashtra border,” he said.
The group plans to travel to Maharashtra and then Gujarat before entering Rajasthan by walking, hitchhiking or even paying truck drivers.
The group has another worry. With the lone power bank they have showing 30 per cent charge, Praveen knows that losing phone connection would be the worst thing to happen.
“I am just hoping that someone would allow us to charge up the phones. Losing charge would mean losing connection with home,” Praveen said.