By Vijay Phanshikar :
Certain desperation drives them -- hundreds of them, thousands of them, and may be lakhs of them. They pick up their bags and baggage and kids and start walking back to their homes hundreds of kilometers away -- through the terrible summer days, through dusty terrains, through uncertain times. Of course, the Government assures them that there are special ‘Shramik’ trains to take them home. But in countless cases, that information does not reach them. For, they read no newspapers or watch no television. In the past two months, they have seen life’s worst facet -- of having been stranded at places faraway from their homes. For a few painfully long weeks, many of them did converge at railways stations and bus terminuses to head for home. But in those days, they were turned back. For, at the height and heat of the lockdown, the authorities did not run trains or buses, for the thousand of migrant workers who were caught between the devil and the deep sea.
Of course, many of them tried to sneak through State borders in different transports, but almost always got caught. With that bitter experience causing immense anguish and anxiety, the migrant workers find themselves in no mood to listen calmly to any Government information about possible transit facilities. All they know is that if they start walking, someday, they would reach home -- hundreds of kilometers away. At that point, their desperation becomes their hope -- driving their tired and dusty bodies hard, loaded down with their baggage and their little ones on heads and backs and shoulders. In fact, they must stay put wherever they are, the Government says, assuring them that some arrangement would be made to transport them back to their homes wherever those might be. Many listen to the announcement with calm minds, but many others just care a damn.
For, in the tough process of life, they have confidence in themselves -- that they can undertake any tough task and complete it. So, walking back to their homes hundreds of kilometers away is not much of a task. After all, the destination is their home, sweet home. That may be a ramshackle hut or a cluster of mud-plastered shanties in some rural corner of the vast expanse of land. But that is home! And that is all they know and are interested in keeping in mind! Look deep into their eyes as they walk in groups bonded by hope and an innate togetherness, and you will sense beautiful stark images of their homes -- propelling them on and on! All of them are poor -- migrant workers who live on daily wages. On many occasions, they also go without a meal.
But again, look into their eyes, and you realise an innate sense of self-worth shining from those tired eyes. Yes, they toil so much only to make two ends meet. Yes, they travel great distances away from their homes to work on various projects that get over within 2-3 years. One project over, these migrant workers start looking for another opportunity. Labour contractors herd them and give them jobs of whatever worth. That has been their life. No matter that, most of these migrant workers are proud, self-respecting people who rely on their brawn to make two ends meet.
They are almost always on the move, maintaining families, even occasionally sending the kids to whatever schools the area of their temporary employment might offer. In fact, withdraw this workforce, and the country’s commerce will get hit negatively. But the lock-down caught all these lakhs of people on the wrong foot suddenly. That is where and when their troubles began. Now unsure of what may or may not happen, these countless lakhs people are now heading home -- on special trains or buses or trucks or whatever vehicle they can procure, or even on foot. The Government has taken a note of how they walk on the roads or along the railway tracks. Eventually, arrangement will be made to ensure that all of them are back home at some point of time. No matter all that, the image of these people walking terrible distances to reach their homes -- fuelled by tenuous hope and tenacity -- will endure in sensitive minds for long.