Visualise this. A young man with a boyish moustache walks along an expressway leading out of Delhi, one arm wrapping a child barely a year old to his chest, the other clasping an oddly-rectangular jute bag. His wife, a thin, small-boned woman, walks along, gripping the hand of their other child as he tries to keep pace beside her, taking in the scenes around them blinkingly. She is holding a bag too; it contains a precious cargo of biscuits and water.
The man is a mason, fitting tiles to perfection in mansions. He has Rs 450 in his pocket. And nearly as many kilometres to cover to his destination—his village in Kanpur. Because of the lockdown in the wake of coronavirus spread, the roads to his livelihood are shut to him. His immediate savings will not last to feed four mouths for the next 20 days; he’s dimly sure of that. The one road is the road back—his village, he’s equally sure, holds the meagre promise of roti and salt.
In this bedraggled procession they are part of, there are able-bodied men, 90-year-olds, physically challenged persons, pregnant women, widows—many of them with blisters on their feet, glazed eyes and fearful minds shut to the immensity of the task ahead or the ordeals awaiting them. Some hope to find a vehicle at a later point. Some have endured police truncheons to make it this far. They make calls to update those at home of their progress, then switch the phones off. And they hopelessly signal the vehicles whizzing past for rides. It’s a numbing walk for those who walk it, and a numbing sight for those who see this exodus.
Two days later, tens of thousands throng bus stations after the UP government announces buses from Delhi to various districts in the state. The roads witness a continuous, thick stream of migrants. Inflated bus fares fail many. More cannot find a place in already-packed buses. Some cannot find buses to their home districts—they are not prominent enough to be taken into account by bus operators.
After the government reinforces the lockdown a day later, and as visuals of massive crowds evoke strong and varied reactions, shamefaced authorities tell them to stay back. So those remaining go back to their colourless, careworn, subterranean existence—in the shadows of tall buildings, behind walls, under flyovers, in nondescript slums huddled in the darkness. All that stands between them and starvation now is government food/food grains supplies. And some good samaritans. One such person who was helping them with food, and occasionally money, tells me, “When you offer them money, they are a little taken aback. They have never taken charity.”