As visuals of migrants walking on highways streamed in, Bollywood actor Sonu Sood began organising transport for them. He talks to Lachmi Deb Roy about how he helped 12,000 people reach home and is making arrangements for another 45,000. Excerpts:
How did this initiative come about?
I saw the visuals of millions of migrants walking down highways with their families… the elderly could hardly walk, some of them were carried on shoulders. The images haunted me. The moment I closed my eyes, I could see just them. How can we be so ungrateful to the people who build our homes, our roads…in fact, they run the country, they are its heartbeat. How can we ignore this crisis thinking that if it’s not affecting us, why should we bother? So, I spoke to a few migrant labourers and told them to give me one or two days to get permissions. I assured them that I would make their journey home as comfortable as possible.
How did you arrange for their return?
The first step was to get in touch with government officials. It was an even bigger task for me to win the trust of the workers. I told them to not lose their faith in the system. I asked them to wait, made arrangements for them to stay and told them not to walk on highways in the scorching heat. Now, they trust me so much, they are willing to wait for me to make arrangements for them. They know there is a way for them to reach home.
However, this is just the beginning of the journey—millions of migrants are still stuck. I will continue to do help until the last migrant reaches home. It is my duty, my job, my responsibility and I have to make it happen.
How many workers have you helped?
Initially, I managed to send 350 migrants to Karnataka. When I was seeing them off, I was moved by the smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes. Then, I started connecting with government offices in UP, Bihar and Jharkhand. I have helped 12,000 people reach their homes and have made arrangements for another 45,000. I think I was blessed by the almighty to carry out this hard task.
Who helped you in your mission?
I started on my own and slowly others joined. My close childhood friend, Neeti Goel, supported me in this Ghar Bhejo (send them home) campaign. We both single-handedly liaised with government officials and arranged buses, food stay etc.
What is the arrangement you made for their food?
We are making boxes of fruits, dry snacks and water so that they don’t feel hungry or thirsty on their journey home. We feed 45,000 people almost every day so that their wait to go back home is less painful.
Do the migrants try to get in touch with you once they reach their home?
They call and make me speak to their families. They send lots of messages and voice notes. I feel happy to see the pictures they send after reaching home.
How has the experience been?
Initially, I used to get sleepless nights on seeing them desperate to reunite with their families. Now, throughout the day—for about 20-21 hours—I talk to them and make arrangements. This is my only job. I try to respond to every call for help I get. This mission is very close to my heart—I am emotionally connected to every single migrant who gets in touch. I won’t let them lose their trust in humanity and the system. The best part is that it helps me sleep well, even if it is for a few hours. There are sleepless nights too because I have to get up to check my Twitter and email to see if anybody needs help. I keep telling myself, there are many more still waiting on the roads. I guess I will be able to complete my quota of sleep only once I send all migrants back home! I started helping migrants the very day the lockdown started and I will not end until the last one reaches home.