The lockdown immediately rendered jobless workers like us who work in the construction sector and are based in Navi Mumbai, Panvel and Badlapur, adjoining Mumbai in Maharashtra. Many people working on the aluminium windows in the buildings of construction projects stay in Badlapur and Panvel. As the lockwon-2 was drawing to a close we realised that it would be extended and we had no alternative but to decide to return to our villages. As this is the season for reaping the harvest, we workers had already emptied our pockets by sending money home. Lockdown-1 and then 2 had already broken our backs. Even so we borrowed money from our friends and relatives and took up the challenge thrown to us by circumstances and set off on this huge journey on motorcycles.
On the night of April 28 at nine o’clock, about 80 of us mounted our motorcycles and headed towards our districts and villages in UP. It took us five days to reach our destinations on May 3 after traveling for about 1500 km. This 5-day ordeal is filled with quite a few heartrending episodes which I want to share with you in order to expose the cruel nature of this state.
Right in the beginning of our journey we realised that it is not going to be an easy one at all, because twenty riders were brutally beaten up by the administration. However they were undaunted and took an alternate route. In this big struggle we were not alone; thousands like us had taken to the roads in groups. A few of them had set off alone to reach their near and dear ones. In Shahpur they were chased for about a kilometre and made to turn back, but they set off again after waiting for a couple of hours. In Kasara and Nashik we saw thousands on foot or riding bicycles, motorcycles or in cars. Workers were beaten and attempts were made to destroy their vehicles. Those on foot or bicycles were beaten and released, but motorcycles and cars were ignored and allowed to go since many of them carry cameras. In Dhule a number of workers were threatened, taken back in jeeps for about ten km and abandoned.
We were determined to continue on our journey home. We were told to come back later because bade sahib was on duty and that it would be better if we came one by one instead of all together. By the time we reached MP we had seen lakhs of faces withering in the sun. They were made to wait for ten hours before their thermal scanning was done and they were allowed to pass. In Bhopal we did see some doctors and police taking stock of people’s condition and asking about their needs and health. Our problem was petrol. There was no permission to give petrol to vehicles from outside the state. We helped each other by sharing petrol and went on. Further on a local resident helped us in getting petrol.
In towns like Devas and Sagar we had to take alternate roads. After crossing the jungles of Sagar the police allowed us to go on, but neither did we have any food with us, nor were there any dhabas serving food.
In Katni we saw that the police was not allowing people to go on foot but were making them sit on the top of one vehicle or another and sending them on. It was continuously being announced that people should go ahead and stop in some tent. Because we were from other cities, a few villagers refused to give us water due to the fear of corona. Near Satna a policeman helped us to get free food in a dhaba and made arrangements for us to sleep. After we had filled petrol in our motorbikes, he told us the way ahead. We had travelled for 84 hours and had yet to face the difficulties awaiting us in the future.
By the time we reached Allahabad we had realised that while the rich get everything at the snap of a finger, the hordes of poor are left to die on the roads. The only role they have for us in this system is to clap hands and beat thalis.
When we reached the boundary of Phoolpur district villagers there thought we were enemies and came to beat us. The way the media has sensationalised corona, people are bound to believe that those like us have come to spread the disease and that they should move ahead at the earliest. Each of us headed to our respective places to get checked in government hospitals and then be quarantined.
The quarantine centres in villages need to be discussed. The primary schools in villages have been converted to quarantine centres. These schools have brick walls and thatched roofs. Each individual has to make his own arrangements for food and bedding. Our families used to provide us with food in the mornings and nights. In this terrible heat we had to spend the nights without electricity and fans. In a few places the gram pradhan has arranged for provisions and gas stoves and people have to cook their own food. Some villagers looked at us with hatred; we did not see any sign of fraternity in their eyes. It is as though they have assumed that we are corona patients and they are scared of us. News channels as well as all social media like Whatsapp and so on have filled their minds with this dreadful propaganda and it is very difficult to overcome it.
We were forced to return to our villages by the difficult conditions prevailing in the city. Neither were the government supplies reaching us, nor did we have any money to pay the rent for our lodgings. There was no hope of the lockdown being lifted. For how many more months could we have paid the house rent? The June rains were drawing near. Business anyway comes to a standstill then. For how much longer could we wait helplessly for government aid to reach us? We had no choice but to undertake this terrible motorcycle journey (3 travellers had their children with them) and the 14 day quarantine after that.
It is necessary to understand the class nature of this. The poor are being tortured to death due to lack of health services and money, while on the other hand big aid packages are being given to big capitalists. This pandemic has very clearly brought out the social inequalities.