Want to know the distance from India to Bharat? Ask Shekhar.
Actually, don’t. Because he would not know either. Shekhar can tell you the distance only in terms of days. Having trekked for three days now from Hyderabad, where he works as a mason, he is somewhere near the Telangana border, heading towards his home in Chhattisgarh.
How long does he expect to take?
“I don’t know. We walk for 5-6 km, rest a while and then walk again. After 6 pm, we walk without a break for quite long,” he replies. He is carrying his little daughter in his arms, her head covered with a scarf. She looks on innocently unable to understand why she is on this padyatra, the harsh sun beating down, scorching her skin. Shekhar’s wife follows a few steps behind, big sack on her head and a bag in hand, clearly exhausted in the torrid heat.
The first few days of the lockdown the family had continued to stay on in Hyderabad, hoping the ordeal will end. But with the extensions, diminishing savings forced them to survive at the mercy of political VIPs and others handing out goodies, trampling on their sense of dignity with mobile cameras on the prowl. The other option was to embark on such a long journey. For the past many days, thousands of Indians have chosen the second option.
On another stretch on another highway, is a group of nine travellers, marching from Hyderabad to Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh. These are not fitbit-inspired marathons, these are walkathons compelled by pangs of hunger and lack of work. It is the march of the unknown Indian, India neither understands nor cares enough for.
“Modi ji suddenly locked down the country. How many days can we stay in Hyderabad without work,” asks one man in the group, his head bearing the weight of a heavy bundle, tied up with strings. The Telangana government estimates there are close to 15 lakh migrant workers in Hyderabad.
But wasn’t food being taken care of?
“Rice, rice and only rice,” a woman Jamini says. With no vehicles being allowed, the group decided to walk back home. “I don’t know how far our state is but I think it will take 8 days to get home.”
Over the past month, there have been many like these who have decided to check out India by foot. Like Logesh who worked in Nagpur and along with others, was forced by the landlord to vacate the house where they lived. The 23-year-old along with his friends decided to walk back home to Namakkal in Tamil Nadu, completing the first stretch of the journey to reach Hyderabad, a distance of 500 km from Nagpur. They spent the night at a community hall in the city but Logesh did not live to see another day. He died after he suffered a heart attack, the exhaustion clearly getting the better of him. He travelled again to Namakkal, a distance of over 800 km, as a body in an ambulance arranged by the authorities.
There are many like Logesh. Hari Prasad, a daily wage earner walked 270 km from Bengaluru to his home in Chittoor district in Andhra Pradesh because he could not find any work in India’s Silicon Valley to feed himself. He died of exhaustion, a day after he reached home. But worse was to follow. Villagers refused to allow his cremation in Mittapalle, suspecting he had died of Covid-19. His body was left at the mercy of the elements, waiting for doctors to confirm otherwise. (pic below)
The highways in India do not see much vehicular traffic. What they are however, witnessing is a sea of Indians – clubbed under the generic tag of migrants – their lives dramatically changed, left with little choice but to move back to their villages. Many of them are paying the heaviest toll tax ever collected on this highways – with their life.
Post-Script : Indian Railways finally woke up to run a special train at 430 am on Friday from Lingampalli, a station on the outskirts of Hyderabad to Jharkhand, to transport 1200 migrant workers. The train left Lingampalli at that unearthly hour because the operation was a secret one to prevent rush at the station. These were labour at the IIT Hyderabad campus at Kandi, who just a day before had grown restless and assaulted the contract company and even the police because they had not been paid wages since March and therefore wanted to go home.