36 HOURS, 80 KM | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 26, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 08:26 AM, March 26, 2020

36 HOURS, 80 KM

Long walk home for Indian labourers amid coronavirus lockdown

The afternoon sun is blazing in Uttar Pradesh's capital Lucknow. The city police have enforced a strict lockdown and only essential services are allowed. The police made announcements all night after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last evening ordered citizens to stay at home for 21 days, in a special televised address to the nation.

But extremely compelling and worrying circumstances have forced 20-year-old Awadhesh Kumar to abandon caution, risk police anger and be on the streets.

Awadhesh started walking from his factory in Unnao to his village in Barabanki, 80 km away, on Tuesday evening. He will reach only by early Thursday, only if he is not stopped by cops as he cuts through sealed state borders.

This nearly 36-hour journey will be almost non-stop, with few breaks. Keeping Awadhesh company are at least 20 other men, young and old, all workers at the same factory.

"I don't want to do this but I have no option," says Awadhesh, asked about Modi's appeal to migrant labourers to stay put instead of heading home, with the assurance that states will take care of their needs.

"But how could I have stayed? I work at a steel fabrication company in Unnao. I stay wherever they put us up. Last night the management asked me to vacate. They said we could not stay here. So what option do I have but head home. There is no transport. So some of us from the same village decided to walk it," Awadhesh tells NDTV.

The unprecedented shutdown to check the spread of coronavirus has left lakhs in the unorganized sector without any shelter, transport or means to earn. The government has promised that no one will go hungry, but these migrant workers have been left without even a place to stay, overnight.

Rajmal, in his 50s, is also in the group. "There is some food back at our village but my earnings are what keep my family going. I have heard of the UP government's Rs 1,000 monthly payout plan for people like me but I am not registered anywhere. No one has come to me. It looks bleak for people like us," says Rajmal.

The group trudges on, carrying a bag with clothes, water and some biscuits. Towels are wrapped around their heads as protection from the sun. There is no protection from the virus that has infected over 560 in India and left nine dead. Worldwide, coronavirus or COVID-19 has caused over 17,000 deaths.

The next three weeks could only get worse as these labourers continue on their long walk home.

India is likely to agree an economic stimulus package of more than 1.5 trillion rupees ($19.6 billion) to fight a downturn in the country, two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters. The plan has not yet been finalised. The package, which could be announced by the end of the week, will be used to put money directly into the accounts of more than 100 million poor and to support businesses hit the hardest by the lockdown, the sources said.

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