New Delhi: A couple stands on the Delhi-Ghaziabad highway, handing out biscuits and water to people walking by, who look distressed and are carrying bundles with clothes and essentials.
These people have been walking for hours, and the sight of this couple handing out water and food is a huge relief. They are daily-wage earners and migrant labourers who are leaving Delhi for their hometowns on foot in the absence of inter-state vehicles due to the lockdown announced by the government of India on Tuesday. This lockdown has been announced in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Kalpana Kapadia, who is handing out bananas to people, says, “Actually, when we saw yesterday that people were migrating in huge numbers to their hometowns on foot, we thought, why don’t we do something for them? No restaurants or food shops are open. And in any case, they don’t have enough money to buy things. So we, my husband and I, came out today and offered to help. We are giving bananas, biscuits, chips and water to people.”
They are not the only ones who have offered to help these migrants by offering food and water. Taking their example, many others from the Indirapuram area have started to follow.
The Ghaziabad road going towards Lal Kuan on Friday witnessed an overwhelming number of people walking towards their villages in Uttar Pradesh. Children, women holding infants and fragile old men were all seen on the move, carrying bundles with their clothes and other essentials.
The people walking are mostly migrant labourers and daily-wage earners employed in Delhi, now with no work due to the total lockdown ordered by the government of India to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
According to locals in Indirapuram, which is on the way, they saw more than 5,000 people cross the area in a span of two hours. The total number of people who walked this route, by this estimate, would be over 20,000.
A child is with his family as they walk towards Jhansi, about 500 km away. The child smiles and says, “Hum Jhansi jaa rahe hain (We are going to Jhansi).” How will you go? “Paidal (By foot),” he says.
“Will you be able to walk the entire way? “Haan. Khane ko nahin mil raha (Yes. Right now we’re not getting food),” is his response. He smiles as he tells The Wire’s reporter this, perhaps not understanding the gravity of the matter, and the difficulty of the long walk ahead.
A man, carrying a coarse towel on his shoulder, stops for a moment for water before revealing that he is going towards Kanpur, his hometown.
Kanpur is 495 km from Delhi. He has decided to walk the whole way in the absence of public transportation across borders, which have been suspended due to the lockdown in the country. With him are his wife and five-year-old daughter. He has one bottle of water and no food, but his resolve to leave Delhi and go home is strong.
“Hum Dilli me thele pe sabziyan bechne ka kaam karte hain. Ek hafte se bhooke pyaase hain, koi paise nahin aarahe hain. Roz kama ke khane waale log hain hum. Koi paisa bacha ke rakh nahin paate, itni kam kamayi hai humari. Teen din se roti nahin khayein hain. Hum log ghar jaana chahte hain bass (I sell vegetables from a cart in Delhi. For a week we have been hungry, no money is coming in. We eat every day based on what we earn. We don’t have any savings. We haven’t eaten in three days. We just want to go home),” he said.
On asking how he will reach home, he says, “Koi saadhan mil jayega toh theek hai, warna paidal hi jaana padega. Dilli me kucch nahin rakha hai merey jaisey logon ke liye (If we find a vehicle, well and good. If not, we will go by foot. There is nothing left for people like me in Delhi right now).”
Dilbahar Ali, who lives Indirapuram, saw the migrants walking and formed a group to help them with food and water. He was seen on the road, handing out packets of biscuits and water bottles.
He says, “We are distributing biscuits and water to these people. The public is very distressed right now. They have not received any help from the government, which ordered a lockdown without thinking about what consequences it would have for daily-wage earners. They are travelling huge distances on foot, we thought we must do our bit for the country. We can’t waiting for the government to do something. They should immediately work on ways to send these people to their homes.”
Jagveer Singh, who is helping Ali, said, “Janta bahut pareshan hai. Sarkar ki taraf se koi madad nahin mil rahi hai. Mai dekh raha hoon subah se, log paidal jaa rahe hain Agra, Allahabad, Kanpur. Chote chote bachche hain unki god me. Na khana hai, na paani hai. Ek githra uthaye hue hain samaan ka, aur chal pade hain ghar ki taraf. Aisey me inhe madad ki bahut zarurat hai (The public is very worried. The government isn’t helping at all. Since morning, people have been crossing, going to Agra, Allahabad, Kanpur. They have small children with them. There’s no food or water, just their belongings. They really need help).”
Anil, another man in the group says, “The government’s help will come, definitely, but till then, we will act as their helpers.”
Once they began, a few other people from their colony came together and helped them financially.
At around 4 pm, some relief came. A few buses going towards Uttar Pradesh came to the Sai Baba Mandir near Indirapuram and took some people on board. Due to the lack of space, people even sat on the terrace of the buses out of desperation.
“The police has finally come to the rescue of people. They have got 2-3 buses, in which people are being taken till Gorakhpur. There are close to 10,000 people who are stuck here, but around 300-400 people are currently being taken by a bus to their homes,” Sanjay Singh, who lives in Indirapuram. “Will this be enough?”