But he did not stop walking. He could not.
The 26-year-old immigrant worker was in the heart of India and was only half home.
There is no way to survive in the cities, and India’s extensive rail network is mostly closed, many of them have decided to walk their families thousands of miles extraordinarily.
Chouhan knew the risks. However, on May 12, he decided to challenge India’s tight key laws and start a 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) walk from Bengaluru’s technology center known as Bangalore to his village in the north of Uttar Pradesh.
He hoped to hitchhike along most of the road, but while police checked trucks for their fugitive passengers, drivers were demanding far beyond Chouhan’s budget. For 10 days, he would have to flee police checkpoints, get rid of tea and biscuits and walk on sore feet.
“I don’t think I can forget this journey all my life,” she says. “He will always bear memories of sadness and anxiety.”
Chouhan moved to Bengaluru last December to work as a mason on a construction site.
He earned 250 rupees ($ 3.30) a day in his own village, Tribhuvan Nagar, on the Nepalese border of India. He could double it in Bengaluru.
He and his brother, who works in another state, sent home about 14,000 rupees ($ 185) – enough to sustain 11 families, including Chouhan’s two young children and older parents, in a thatched roof house and wheat fields. His nephew Arvind Thakur joined Chouhan in the city at the age of 14, who is the legal age to work in India.
The country was closed for weeks when Chouhan decided to leave Bengaluru, his nephew and nine other immigrants from his hometown. Some rail services continued on May 3, allowing interstate travel, but were only subject to a troublesome approval process.
Normally Chouhan pays 300 rupees ($ 4) for the 48 hour home ride in the lowest transport class, but during the outbreak this price rose to 1,200 rupees ($ 15.90). State police continued to sell and order tickets at police stations filled with desperate travelers to come home.
Bengalore police said When CNN sales ended, they used to use batons to clear the crowd. Chouhan said, “We have been beaten many times. “Just because we’re poor doesn’t mean we can’t feel pain.”
After spending five days outside a police station trying to buy tickets, Chouhan and his peasants decided to walk. They did not dare tell their families.
“My father is a serious diabetes patient, and if he finds out that we are walking home for free, he will hurt him and my mom,” Chouhan said. Says. “They were crying until our return. We all decided to tell our family that we were waiting for the train.”
She packed four shirts, a towel and a sheet, along with several water bottles in her backpack. He had 170 rupees ($ 2.25) in his wallet.
At 3 am on May 12, Chouhan left the one-room tin shack he shared with 10 others and took his first step home.
To go outside
When Chouhan left, police checkpoints were set up all over the city. The authorities did not wait for the immigrants who wanted to leave, to hurry, and clarified that the record was applied only to those who were “stranded”, not for migrant workers. Unauthorized interstate travel is prohibited.
While Chouhan’s group was walking through the city, he was taken by the police and taken to the station where his bosses who never wanted them to leave would pick them up. While immigrant workers have rights under Indian law, they are often unaware of them and exploited by employers.
At noon police officers changed shifts and the group remained unattended. “We got out of there,” says Chouhan. “We ran for two kilometers until we felt we were safe.”
The group, following the railroads to avoid the cops on the way, walked with other immigrants until they entered Andhra Pradesh at 1 am.
They passed the first of the five state borders they would meet after 46 hours. They traveled only 74 miles (120 kilometers).
Hope, solidarity and hunger
Chouhan’s 11 immigrant groups had nine smartphones among them and used Google Maps to navigate their routes. They used the flashing blue dot to roughly see if they were walking in the right direction.
To save battery power, only one person would turn on their phone at a time and share GPS in turn. Along the way, there were a few places where they could charge their phones.
The first part of their journey followed National Highway 44, a long and clear road that divides India properly, from Tamil Nadu in the south to Srinagar in the north.
This road would take them to Hyderabad, the city of 10 million people, the first major milestone of their journey – and it would be possible to hitchhike the rest of their home where they heard.
While temperatures exceeded 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), Chouhan walked 5 miles (8 kilometers) per hour and took a short rest every two hours. It aimed to travel about 68 miles (110 kilometers) per day. “There was an attraction to rest or take a nap,” she says. “But we knew it was more difficult to walk every time we sit down.”
Along the way, the poor Western states that provided most of the immigrant workforce to the cities of India saw Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Bihar and other immigrant groups going to Uttar Pradesh.
On the way, Chouhan said that the traditional caste and religion sections – deeply settled fault lines in India’s rural areas have disappeared. The group of 11 people spread over various castes from the same village. There were the Brahmin and Thakurs, considered the upper caste, and the Chamars, the lowest. On a long walk home, it made no difference.
When Chouhan’s slipper broke on the second day, the group collected their money to buy him a new shoe.
But on the third day, they hadn’t had a full meal since they left Bengaluru. Each person started with 150 rupees ($ 2) and 300 rupees ($ 4). Instead, they bought 20 biscuits for 100 rupees ($ 1.32) and made them rational throughout the day. “We had to save every rupee if we needed it later during the trip,” says Chouhan.
“Our stomachs would roar. We eat a biscuit to keep it quiet. We opened it, but we had no choice. In an emergency, we had to save every Rupee.”
At around 8 am that day, they thought they would stand by National Highway 44 and rest for an hour. They slept eight people unaware of the religion of highway sounds and blaring trucks.
When they woke up at 4 in the morning, Hyderabad was 250 miles (400 kilometers) and a state border.
Chouhan walked through the night with the sights of Hyderabad. However, when his group reached the town of Kurnool at 10:00 on the fourth day, a police checkpoint closed the bridge they had to cross to reach the city.
After a winding path along the river, Chouhan saw a stream of immigrants and followed them. About 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) away, hundreds of people were crossing the river on foot.
Chouhan and the others hesitated – they didn’t know how to swim. “Men, women, children, old people were crossing the river,” he says. “(We thought) if they can, why can’t we?”
After a long, hot summer, the river was only 1 meter deep. Chouhan held his bag over his head, and one of the tallest men in their group carried his 14-year-old niece.
“We were so scared that we were going to wash. But we continued to tell ourselves that this was the only way. This 100-meter stretch was perhaps the most feared thing we’ve had on this journey,” says Chouhan.
Back on the highway, truckers asked them to take 2,500 rupees per person ($ 33) to Uttar Pradesh. “They told us that if the police caught them, they would have to pay huge penalties. Chouhan did not want to take the risk without paying for money. We had no choice but to walk.” Says Chouhan.
Others, however, were more benevolent. An old man presented his first full meal in four days. A truck driver hurt his fluffy feet and offered them an elevator. The rice was transported across the border and they slept amongst artillery sacks as they roamed them on the outskirts of Hyderabad.
After crossing the Telangana-Maharashtra border, they had another chance – a peasant took them to a school where NGOs provided food and water to migrant workers.
When the police arrived, more than 300 immigrants were eating.
“They started abusing us,” says Chouhan. “They said we didn’t follow the social distance and we had to sit 10 meters to each other. They tried to disperse the crowd and told the organizers to stop giving food.”
However, immigrants remained more than the police. “We started screaming back. Some immigrant workers have even started pushing the police and pulled into the police jeeps. ” “We were angry. They (the police) never help us – they don’t help people help us.”
Outbreak and road death
Little data is available on how migration of urban workers affects the spread of the coronavirus in India. Returning immigrants tested positive for disease in many states, but it is not known whether they contracted Covid-19 in the city or received it along the way.
On the fifth day of their journey, the group experienced a fear of health as the center approached the Indian city of Nagpur.
Rajesh’s nephew Arvind Thakur had a fever. “I’m scared,” says Thakur. “I don’t understand anything about coronavirus. But adults told me that it couldn’t be coronavirus since it came first as a cold and cough. They just had a fever. They gave me tablets and I felt better.”
On the highway, the pandemic had a low priority – more urgent health concerns: hunger, thirst, exhaustion and pain.
667 deaths were recorded by 24 May; 244 of them were migrant workers who died while walking at home: starvation, exhaustion, or railway and traffic accidents.
“I was afraid of this disease in Bengaluru,” says Chouhan. “Now all we wanted to do was go home. If we got sick during this trip, we just didn’t have it.
“As soon as we left Bengaluru, we left our fate to the gods.”
Escaping from home
It crossed the Chouhan Maharasthra-Madhya Pradesh border under the thick canopies of the black night sky and the forested areas of Central India, which once inspired Rudyard Kipling to write the “Book of Forest”. It was the sixth day.
Tractors, buses and trucks helped the group in Madhya Pradesh throughout the day, and the villagers on the slope provided them with a tanker for food and even bathe.
Two days later, their hometown reached the border of Uttar Pradesh. The house is only 350 kilometers away. Chouhan said, “We have forgotten our pain. “I felt like we were already at home.”
When the rivers crossed the Praugraj, where the Ganges, Yamuna and Sarasvati converged, Chouhan gave himself a rare moment of joy.
When he joined thousands of Hindus, he plunged into cool waters and prayed for the group to arrive home early.
A day later, the ninth march reached the state capital of Lucknow.
The house was only 128 kilometers away. Chouhan bought a meal for the first time since the start of his journey and called his family. “We told them that we came to Uttar Pradesh by train. We will be at home in one day. ”
The closer they come to home, the more Chouhan says they feel tired.
On the 10th day, in Gonda, 30 kilometers from their village, Thakur’s body gave up. He first faced asphalt. The group poured water on his face and revived him.
Then they ran to the police, just 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from the house. Too weak to run, they allowed officers to quarantine.
They were finally at home.
Home and injured
Scars of walking in the backbone of India damaged their bodies.
Chouhan lost 10 pounds (22 pounds) throughout the journey. He says his feet are so swollen, that there is a struggle to walk to the toilet in the school, which should be quarantined for 14 days.
However, quarantine is poorly implemented in Uttar Pradesh.
On May 24, Chouhan said his family was allowed to visit him in quarantine.
His children flocked to him. When they hold tight, Chouhan says he forgot his pain. He was allowed to visit his family at home and go to the pharmacy to purchase the medicine he used to pay for.
When he sees his thatched roof house where his big family sleeps, he reminds him of how his work in Bengaluru continued his family.
However, on May 25, tragedy occurred. Thirty-year-old Salman of 11 people walking from Bengaluru was bitten by a snake just days after coming home and leaving the quarantine.
He died on the way to the hospital.
Chouhan mourns the tragedy. Yet she realizes that poverty in her village means her family’s hunger and debts from her medical treatments must eventually return to the city to work.
“When I left Bengaluru, I decided never to come back,” she says. “The best thing I can do is wait a few weeks to see if it is comfortable to lock up before going out for work again.”
Design and graphics by Jason Kwok. Created by Jenni Marsh and Hilary Whiteman.
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